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Congress needs more science expertise — so ask candidates questions!

gmo protest
I hear very little accurate talk about GMOs from either “side” of the debate.

It is time for the midterm elections. Full disclosure, I’m actively recruiting a candidate for Minnesota’s Third Congressional District, and you can look me up on the Internet if you want to know more about that. But I’m also doing something else (and related): Asking people to get involved in this year’s election cycle with one specific objective in mind: Bringing science to Congress.

Greg Laden

Many MinnPost readers are aware of the work by Shawn Lawrence Otto and may have read his book where he notes that the number of scientists (or even almost-scientists) that can be found in the U.S. Congress can be counted on one or two hands in any given year, yet many, perhaps most, of the truly important issues we face as a nation are very closely linked to science. So Congress is full of people who don’t know what they are doing, which I suspect you already knew. 

Three examples of science-related policy that come to mind right away are climate change (global warming, if you prefer), copper mining in Northeast Minnesota, GMOs (a perennial topic) and, coming to a radar screen near you, nuclear power.

Climate change is real, and there need be no discussion of that (and Bigfoot is not real; we can leave that discussion out as well). But there are important and difficult policy-related decisions that have to be made. We must keep the carbon in the ground. How do we advance “green” alternatives to make that happen? How do we link up the interests of unions and environmentalists, as well as utilities and home or business owners, so that we can actually move forward on papering our state with solar panels, decorating it with windmills, installing efficient heating and cooling systems, and getting everyone their own electric car? I’m serious. The infrastructure has to change and it will not change by itself.

Mining on the Range

Copper mining in the Iron Range (now the Copper and Iron Range?) will be a big issue in this election cycle at the state and national level. This is a science-based issue. Do we have to mine it at all? If so, and presumably that is to create jobs and not just get more pennies, how do we do it without harming the environment? How do we demand an excellent non-biased and helpful environmental review of copper mining generally and of specific mining efforts in particular? Mining in Minnesota was central to the birth of the modern environmental movement. Let’s please do this right. 

GMOs are my favorite nuanced issue in politics, perhaps, especially when it comes to labeling. GMO supporters see no need to label anything. Do they not realize they look like they are hiding something when they say that? I’m personally interested in seeing GMOs advance as a way of saving the planet. But everybody hates Big Ag in it’s corporate glory, right? And isn’t more information always better than less? A label that says “contains GMO’s” is utterly useless, but how does a label contain the more detailed information we crave, without the label being bigger than the product? Well, we have technology for that, I would think. And what, exactly, are those GMOs for, anyway?  I hear very little accurate talk about that subject from either “side” of the debate.

Nuclear power is a longer-term issue. We may need to build more nuclear power plants to reduce carbon emissions. Or maybe not. Whatever your opinion on that is, I promise you it is invalid (sorry) because this is one of those things we simply do not know at this time. I’m a rare breed in this area, perhaps: I don’t like the idea of nuclear power at all and historically I’ve agitated against it, yet I think we might have to build some plants. But I’d strongly prefer the nuclear power industry to not be involved in that process, thank you. It’s a trust issue. Maybe the Navy. It seems seem to have a good record on nuclear power. As far as we know …

We can’t demand that our candidates be scientists, but we can demand that they are able to intelligently address science-related issues. Try asking a candidate about a science-related issue and see how that goes. Report back, we all want to know!

Greg Laden is a science communicator and teacher who has studied the relationship between human evolution and ecology, climate change during the Holocene, and African and North American prehistory. He blogs at Scienceblogs.com.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/07/2014 - 08:26 am.

    You don’t want scientists

    You want people with a particular point of view on technical issues that are in the political arena. That’s different.

    One of the many things I learned in the Navy is that you can spend months of your life 200 feet from a nuclear reactor and suffer no ill effects. In the self-sufficient world of nuclear submarines, I also learned how you can make potable water from sea water and then separate it into hydrogen and oxygen, a process with myriad applications in places other than submarines.

    Opposition to nuclear power in general as well as a refusal to consider applying technology developed for the military, are just two examples of how the real anti-science people in this society are on the Left.

    • Submitted by Richard Callahan on 02/07/2014 - 09:25 am.

      You’re half right

      I agree with you that the far left is anti-science, but so is the far-right. Both extremes tend to equally ignore the facts.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/07/2014 - 10:03 am.

      It’s not a matter of right, left or center

      in my view. It’s simple ignorance and there’s plenty of it to go around. Scientists or not, we do need people in elected positions who can recognize the difference between real data and magical thinking. Unfortunately, there is no lobby for reason or objectivity.

      Incidentally, there is a difference between cost-is-no-object military techology and large scale civilian applications of that technology. Desalinization and electrolysis are two examples. If and when the cost of fresh water and hydrogen is less than the cost of the electrical energy needed to produce them, we’ll see them used and no sooner, except in limited circumstances such as naval vessels on long voyages.

  2. Submitted by Jon Lord on 02/07/2014 - 10:09 am.

    wow

    walk around 200 feet from the reactor in a nuclear facility here without protection for a few months. Or one month at 50-100 feet. Stand at the edge of the pool for a week. (you really don’t want to do any of those things) It’s a different animal than a sub. Talk to a business that wants to build a nuclear reactor building and see if they are willing to adapt the kind of shielding in a sub to that building. A submarine doesn’t keep it’s spent-fuel on board. A nuclear plant does. Visit the ones here, then go visit a few in other states. They could be shielded much better for certain but like minimum wage, companies only want to spend as little as possible on the infrastructure.

    Nuclear power is great when the technology is.

    We really do need accredited scientists in our politics that aren’t compromised. We need people that do understand the hazards involved in all areas in terms of human cost versus business cost. Right now, with our food and drugs, we in the public are the beta-testers and that shouldn’t be an option.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/07/2014 - 10:20 am.

    The GMO labeling issue

    is not a scientific issue. It has become a matter of religious belief that goes beyond science and has been conflated with anti-corporate fervor. The Neo-Luddites are alive and well and living throughout the Earth.

    Whether a GMO is a health hazard, whether a manufacturer should be entitled to prevent the use of seeds harvested from crops grown with proprietary seed, and whether the prevalence of a single GMO crop creates a risk of a dangerous monoculture are three entirely different matters. Yet, these questions frequently are linked as one.

    We do not all need to be scientists. We do, however, need to be able to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of information. That requires an understanding of and a certain level of trust in the scientific method and some sense of the difference between correlation and causation. That may require upwards of an hour’s time, if one’s mind is open to the process.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 02/07/2014 - 12:45 pm.

      Labeling is backwards in this country.

      Unfortunately, we have to label Organic items in order to prove they are Organic. It really should be the opposite, no? Anything that isn’t grown or produced by a natural process (organically) should be labeled so. Period. Done. I mean, if we’re truly interested in people and people’s lives, that is.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/07/2014 - 03:01 pm.

      GMO

      Unfortunately all three GMO issues you cite produce an atmosphere of distrust when it comes to big corporate ag businesses. So when a new issue pops up concerning that realm, people automatically don’t trust them until proven otherwise. That’s not really a science vs unscientific issue, but more a matter of hiding information, poorly planned execution, and rigging the system to favor the corporation. It’s not a surprise then that people don’t trust the ADMs of the world given that track record.

  4. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/07/2014 - 12:18 pm.

    Politicians

    We don’t’ necessarily need scientists as politicians, assuming we can get politicians who listen to scientists. The problem we’re running up against though is that our political leaders don’t value sound reasoned scientific input. Instead they look to see where their future jobs lies once they get out of the legislature . As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    Overcome that idiocy and the rest will be easy.

  5. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 02/07/2014 - 02:27 pm.

    A new bit of research in the GMO debate

    A fairly recent study in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability shows that conventional breeding outperforms GMO crops both in yield and insecticide use. This turns conventional belief on its head. Does creating a sustainable agricultural system mean getting rid of the Monsanto model?

    http://www.alternet.org/food/why-monsanto-wrong-about-gm-crop-promises

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/08/2014 - 07:50 am.

      So Let’s Think About This

      You are okay with plant breeding and not okay with GMO?

      The reality from watching my farming friends is that their costs are down and their yields are up. The costs are down mostly because no own needs to cultivate, pull weeds anymore or spray with high cost chemicals. Monsanto’s biggest gift to farmers was making the crops immune to being sprayed with Round up, a chemical that can kill pretty much any plant.

      My “fond” memories of endlessly walking the soybean fields chopping out milkweed and thistles is a thing of the past. As are the days and days of cultivating and accidentally cutting down the crop on side hills or when I got distracted. When is the last time you saw migrant crews out walking the fields or kids riding the “bean bar”?

  6. Submitted by Greg Laden on 02/08/2014 - 12:10 pm.

    Great comments

    Thanks for all the great comments.

    It is not important, necessarily, that Congress have more actual working scientists. At the moment, the plurality of members are lawyers, and that makes sense because Congress makes laws.

    The problem is that the science related conversations that happen in congress, at hearing, during campaigns by incumbents or challengers, and on the floor of both houses, are generally abysmal. If members of congress said things about the law that were as far off as the things they often say about science, they would be criticized heavily. But a member of Congress can stand up in the House or Senate and say things that would get them fired from third grade science class. Given that science is so desperately important today in policy making, this is a very bad situation. I think everyone agrees with that.

    Adding actual scientists to the mix, not just one or two but somewhere in the low two digits, would make it much more difficult for members to recite utterly ridiculous things about science. So I would like to see more actual scientists.

    But being an actual scientist may, for some, interfere with being a good member of Congress. The qualifications that make one a good scientists do not automatically make one a good science policy maker, a good science communicator, or a good advocate for science.

    There are members of Congress who are respectful of science, understand it well enough to keep up, who recognize science as critical to policy making, and who are generally very smart. I would count Senator Franken in that group, easily. There are others. What we need is a lot more of them, and they need to serve as exemplars and through their rhetoric bring the Congressional conversation to a new level.

    Regarding GMO’s… it is very much a science issue, even if parts of it are not. Any useful labeling would require attention to the appropriate details, and that will include reference to science.

    Personally I think the labeling issue has to be revisited from a much higher altitude. Yes, some people want to see a GMO label simply because they don’t like Big Ag and don’t trust GMO producing companies. A GMO label is thus a way to avoid buying products from such companies. But in truth, there is nothing inherent wrong with a crop being a GMO. At the moment there isn’t any credible evidence that there is anything unhealthy about GMOs. Having said that, there are some ways in which GMO use is just more of the same probably dangerous and unsustainable agricultural policy. But the things that make that policy bad are not GMOs per se, but a number of different issues. In this sense, labeling a product as containing GMOs is useless, because it does not address those issues.

    It is also true, as pointed out, that the average person who is either against GMOs or pro GMO tends to say things about GMO crops that is not accurate. “They increase yields” … well, no. They don’t. But for some plants, actually, they might increase yields. Depends. They allow the use of chemicals that we may think of as icky. But they also allow us to avoid the use of chemicals that we may think of as icky. But perhaps they do that by including the chemical in the physiology of the plant, so that’s bad, right? Well, maybe not, because there’s a big difference between a plant-produced small quantity of some anti-pathogen chemical and dusting the landscape with tons of it. And so on and so forth.

    I favor labeling in general, and that would include GMO status and everything else about the plant. But a GMO:yes vs. GMO:no label would be useless, for the most part. The point is the GMO issue is not about one thing, but rather, about a lot of things, it is complicated, nuanced, and almost everybody is at least partly wrong in what they are thinking, and thus, the point is often missed.

    I’m not sure the legislative process is capable of mandating labeling in a way that would be useful. But if there was more science savvy in Congress, maybe it could.

  7. Submitted by Jon Abrahamson on 03/19/2014 - 12:09 pm.

    GMO’s

    I’ve been researching GMO’s extensively for about 5 years now. To say it’s scarey is quite an understatement.

    Genetically Modified Organisms and the deterioration of health in the United States
    N.L. Swanson, 4/24/2013

    http://people.csail.mit.edu/seneff/glyphosate/NancySwanson.pdf

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