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