Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Pull Akin off House science committee

By Margaret Martonosi, Special to CNN
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Thu August 23, 2012
Rep. Todd Akin's
Rep. Todd Akin's "magical" theories about pregnancy and rape ignore scientific fact, says Margaret Martonosi.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Missouri Rep. Todd Akin sits on the House Committee for Science, Space and Technology
  • Margaret Martonosi: A petition to remove him from the committee is starting to gain momentum
  • Akin and his cohort cannot be allowed to substitute folklore for science, she says
  • Martonosi: How can the U.S. allow itself to be governed by those who ignore scientific fact?

Editor's note: Margaret Martonosi is the Hugh Trumbull Adams '35 Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University.

(CNN) -- Controversy continues to swirl around the comments made by Todd Akin, Missouri Representative and Senate candidate, that "legitimate rape" would only rarely lead to pregnancy. Initially, the media focused on the fallout of his remarks concerning issues of abortion, sexual violence and the effect on women voters. While Akin has vigorously recanted his remarks, and both Mitt Romney and President Obama have lambasted his statements, only more recently has attention been paid to the fact that Akin sits on the House Committee for Science, Space and Technology.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's petition for Speaker of the House John Boehner to remove Akin, a Republican, from the House science committee is just starting to gain momentum, and well it should.

The House science committee has oversight on congressional science and technology policy and thereby helps shape the course of billions of dollars of related funding. In other words, Akin -- who is now best known for his folkloric views on reproduction -- has a strong say in determining the long-term scientific progress of our country.

News: Akin imbroglio is bad news for Republicans

Margaret Martonosi
Margaret Martonosi

How can a science and technology leader like the United States allow itself to be governed by people who try to ignore scientific fact? Given Akin's "magical" theories regarding rape, abortion and pregnancy, I would not want him having a say in the long-term plans of a single middle-school science class, much less our nation as a whole.

How do we let him get away with this? And make no mistake: We are likely to let him get away with this. Akin's apologize-and-move-on method is quite effective in politics today. In politics, the woeful reality is that folklore often trumps real science.

Opinion: Rape can make you pregnant. Period.

The situation with Akin is not an isolated one. The dynamics of politics over science (and emotions over data) are widespread in our government today.

For much of the past year, political forces in Congress have pushed to "overturn science" by seeking to overturn the EPA Endangerment finding. In that case, the EPA had used what it deemed to be the best-available scientific data to conclude that greenhouse gases were a pollutant and a danger to public health, and in response (following standing government policies) it issued an emissions rule for cars and some trucks, only to encounter political hurdles questioning the data.

Defiant Akin staying in race
Friedman: Akin's comments 'despicable'
Could abortion talk sink GOP in Nov.?
Akin's claims called "utter hogwash"

If you want to have an argument over how government policy should or shouldn't be applied to climate change issues, that is fair. If you want to fund further data collection (by reputable entities) to add to our understanding of climate phenomena, that too is reasonable. What is not reasonable is to discredit years of scientific data without any scientific basis for doing so and to ask for a do-over. Such data takes years to collect after all, and should not be used as a stalling tactic.

News: 'Legitimate rape' reaction goes global

The recurring theme in these stories is that when data goes against a politician's belief or hope, they try to refute the data and the science -- sometimes supplying their own folklore as stand-ins for real data -- rather than taking on the higher-level and more complex policy issues regarding how to respond to the data. Further examples are also easy to find, including Michele Bachmann's pseudo-scientific statement regarding vaccine side effects.

As experimental scientists, my colleagues and I are often faced with situations where we hoped our experiments would yield data that neatly agree with our hypothesis, but when we actually run the experiment, we see the data indicates something either subtly or dramatically different.

What do we do? Rerunning the experiment is, of course, a natural step. But eventually, if substantial data points to a hypothesis different than ours, we need to adjust our thinking, adjust our hypotheses, and accept what the data is showing us.

News: Akin takes on 'party bosses,' insists he 'can win this race'

Where does this leave us regarding Akin and the House science committee?

One of my key roles as a thesis research adviser is to help guide undergraduate and graduate students to accept the realities of experimental science, and to think hard about what their gathered data is telling us, rather than to wish for different data.

Increasingly, I see that one of my key roles as a U.S. citizen is to guide our politicians along a similar path: Rep. Akin and his cohort cannot be allowed to substitute folklore for science, and it is our responsibility to stop them. Most notably, those who choose not to distinguish between folklore and science should not be on the House science committee.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Margaret Martonosi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT