Folmsbee: Congress should vote on science more often


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Last week on Jan. 21, the U.S. Senate voted on science. This was not a vote on the federal funding of scientific research, not on some new environmental policy based on science and not a new law regarding any federal scientific institution. Rather, during the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, the 100 elected representatives of the U.S. Senate voted on an amendment to the Keystone bill asserting “climate change is real and is not a hoax,” and then voted on a second measure whether human activity has “significantly” contributed to it. This political sideshow of voting on scientific facts was remarkably juvenile, was a catalyst for partisan bickering and stands as an embarrassing metaphor for the collective inaction of congress. But after seeing its results, it is painfully clear that voting on science needs to happen more often.

Naturally, science is never something that should be established by a vote. Science is a cruelly straightforward process, a harsh and unforgiving meritocracy where the truth is slowly whittled away by the painstaking efforts of meticulous research, refined experiments and collaboration of data among experts. Scientific fact-finding is a marathon, not a beauty contest.

Politics, though, is something else entirely. Although it has the poor reputation of a tenuous relationship with facts, the truth is that the best governing needs science. In its most basic form, one could make the argument that politics is simply making the best decisions based on a synthesis of science and ethics. Therefore, politicians should make their decisions with the best information possible.

And what better way of measuring our senators’ facts than forcing them to vote on it? Although the climate change “not a hoax” amendment passed at an overwhelming 98-1, a vote on whether humanity “significantly contributed” failed to surpass the 60-vote threshold. In this absurdity of voting on global warming, there emerged a rare and honest glimpse into the perspectives of the senators. Although most of the votes followed a classic interpretation of partisan policy stances, with the Democrats accepting humanity’s role in changing the global climate and the Republicans denying it, the trends in the vote weaved a more complex, enlightening picture.

Take U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), for instance. In the past, his views on climate change have been muddled at best. In 2009, he supported enforcing carbon dioxide limits, but in 2011 voted to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. But with this seemingly pointless vote on human-driven climate change in the Senate, he was forced to form an official stance. To his credit, he was one of only five Republicans willing to break ranks, accept the scientific evidence, and vote that human activities have contributed to climate change. While this may make him a target for climate-change deniers, he has undoubtedly earned himself some respect from the scientific community.

There are other scientific questions our elected representatives should answer to make their political stances more transparent. Is the Earth 4.5 billion years old? Did life on Earth develop through evolution and natural selection? And importantly, we need to question them on medical science.

The prime example of politics and scientific illiteracy colliding is the continued existence of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), formerly the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). This agency, which funds research into so-called alternative medicine, has had a budget of over $120 million per year over the past decade, making the federal government a billion-dollar investor into pseudoscientific medicine. The kinds of non-scientific “research” funded by NCCIH ranges from implausible to ludicrous, including using aromas to heal wounds, prayer to treat AIDS and acupuncture, which has been thoroughly debunked by rigorous scientific investigation. 

By dedicating an entire national center to medical modalities inherently outside of a science-based medical paradigm, the NCCIH represents an affront to the foundation of scientific inquiry. This is an instance where our politicians’ scientific knowledge, or more appropriately its absence, has siphoned research funds away from deserving scientists.

So, here is a scientific resolution for congress to ponder: Should science-based medicine be our paradigm for health care? By forcing individual representatives to take the time to build an official stance on the issue, the importance of scientific literacy can be better brought to the forefront of American politics. And future voters need only look to the record to see if their representative understands the facts of reality, from the world’s changing climate to non-evidence-based medical practices.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].