Election Day, Beyond Politics

This morning as I was about to board a plane, my phone rang. A reporter with Scientific American wanted to ask me about my father’s campaign for the US Senate. She wanted to talk to me, a science writer, about my father’s experience with science as a Congressman from New Jersey and as a Senate candidate.

As a journalist, I’ve never written about my dad. For the most part, I think it’s a bad idea for science writers to dispense political opinions anywhere except over a beer. We’re entitled to our views like anyone else, but we should not blur the line between our views and the science we write about. If I am writing about DNA, I do not have to know the party of the geneticist I’m interviewing. Science is not Democratic or Republican. If science writers split their time between political commentary and straight science, readers may come to doubt their accuracy. That’s not to say that science writers shouldn’t demolish non-science disinformation when they see it, even if it comes from a politician. I don’t mind if people think I’m biased in favor of continental drift. But I do mind if they think I report things only because they fit my personal ideology.

I’ve tried to be particularly scrupulous when it comes to my father’s work as a politician. So when the reporter today asked to talk, I said I didn’t think it would be appropriate. Here’s what came of that exchange. It’s one of the stranger news hooks I’ve ever come across, but I was glad that the story revisits some of my father’s experiences with science. Yet I have to say that when I read my no-comment at the end, I seemed like a bit of a prude.

So, let me just note here that my father, the erstwhile chemistry student, helped me become fascinated by science. My father, the AP stringer, made me a better writer by showing me how any writing can always be made better. My father the candidate continues to show me how to conduct oneself with dignity and wit, to be fearless when there is reason to fear. That is my comment.

0 thoughts on “Election Day, Beyond Politics

  1. Meh. I don’t get the irrational and in my opinion counterproductive idea that discussing politics should be avoided in these kinds of issues. Politics matters, and it matters a LOT. It matters for a lot of things, including science. How people can pretend like it doesn’t is beyond me.

    Some candidates are clearly better than others when it comes to science policy. If you’re called biased for pointing out the obvious, so be it, but not pointing out the obvious leads to laypeople getting the idea that there is no clear choice. If the science people aren’t going to talk about science and politics, who will? politicians?

    That’s partly why the world is so screwed up. People are so scared to look biased and to give people a hard splash of reality that issues as important as these don’t get discussed, and people then lack the facts to make informed decisions.

  2. If you were to express your opinion with the same skill you use in you science writing, then I think there is little risk of the line being blurred. I can understand your position though, so I guess if I want your opinion then I’ll have to buy you a beer.

  3. Please excuse my tangential comment, however I believe Science can best be served at the present time if we effectively vet RFK Jr. given his name leaking as the possible Cabinet appointee to either Interior or EPA. Any nominee to a science-centric political position should both understand, support, and communicate the benefit of proper scientific methods and insure their employment.

    Below is what I submitted to the Obama on-line suggestion box, which is currently the most discussed item on scienceblogs.com. I would hope Mr. Zimmer would give it his fair consideration and if he agrees with the scientists blogging over there as well as me, use his leverage with the media to insure RFK Jr. gets a proper public and private vetting prior to nomination. Here was my statement:

    I believe nominating RFK Jr. for any science-centric position is a huge mistake. RFK can be an effective polemicist, but he does not understand and respect scientific methodology.

    RFK promotes the notion that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism though there is no evidence of such. He extends his disrespect for proper scientific methodology by promoting conspiracy theories of such which have already been discredited. He claimed in public that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina.

    After 14 years of the GOP attacking both scientific methodology and its findings; President Obama needs science-centric political positions filled with people that not only have the executive skills to administrate the duties of their cabinet, but to also provide leadership to America by educating the public on what good science actually is.

    See here for evidence of RFK’s scientific incompetence; raw data of RFK himself speaking to these issues is embedded in the below link: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/11/say_it_aint_so_barack_say_you_aint_serio.php

  4. Carl and group,

    I think Carl is playing it right. I’m a politicized democrat, and worked for local and national democrats in my home in NJ (Dick Zimmer’s state; my local candidate, Linda Stender, lost).

    There is a bit of a parallel to my professional life. I teach at a medical school. I don’t wear buttons at work or do anything partisan. (It may be illegal; I didn’t check). I simply felt that in my professional life it was inappropriate for me to bring my partisan beliefs forward. If asked, I would be perfectly willing to talk about particular policies or ideas, but I felt it was both inappropriate and pragmatically bad for me to put my beliefs forward.

    There is an interesting parallel with Barak Obama. I greatly enjoyed a series of articles that came out this summer on Barak Obama’s style as a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. Apparently, as a teacher, he never stated his belief. Rather, he laid ideas on the table, filled in facts and precedents, and played devil’s advocate. He was also considered a great teacher. It was not that Obama played it down the middle. It was fairly clear, generally what his personal beliefs were, he did not state them. Importantly, by playing it this way, he gave students the freedom to present their own beliefs, and not to try to please the teacher. While this does not directly parallel Carl’s role as a science writer, I think its relevant.

    Finally, there is the family bond. I don’t think Carl owes his reading public an examination of his relationship with his father. Some things are personal. I am fascinated by his father being a smart, eastern-educated moderate republican. I don’t personally know anyone of this breed, and I’d love to know what’s going on in their minds. But this is personal.

  5. Admirable restraint, and better than me… Though I’m with JohnK on appropriate classroom demeanor, in class on Wed I did slip and say “now that we have change, let’s try to start on time”.

  6. I would hope that Mr. Zimmer, as one of the top science writers in the world, would comment about the rumored appointment of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as administrator of EPA or interior secretary. As Mr. Heath points out, Mr. Kennedy has become intimately involved with the mercury militia in erroneously claiming that thimerosal in vaccines is a cause of autism, a claim that numerous studies have falsified. In addition, Mr. Kennedy has also become involved with Jenny McCarthy in the anti-vax movement. This movement is one of the most dangerous pseudoscientific outfits which, if it succeeded, would lead to epidemics of polio, measles, mumps, etc. Appointment of Mr. Kennedy to any government agency with a responsibility in science would send the wrong message and would be in contradiction to Senator Obamas’ expressed support for high quality appointments and high quality science.

    In addition, apparently Mr. Kennedy became addicted to heroin at age 30 and spent time in rehabilitation, hardly a youthful indiscretion. What kind of message does that send?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *