About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Does Jon Stewart Influence Public Opinion? | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Shifting Sands of PA Politics Endangered Specter »

Obama the Sophist

This is from the President's remarks at the National Academy of Science:

At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. That support for research is somehow a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been.

Who the hell is saying we cannot afford to invest in science? Isn't the real argument about whether we can spend so much more (fully 3% of GDP) on science, and revitalize the economy, and save the banks, and save the Big Three, and spend more on education, and reform health care, and revolutionize the energy sector all at the same time?

I have heard "there are those who say..." from this President quite a bit in the last three months. I think it's time he start naming names. Who are these people who hold such backward-looking, unacceptable positions? If they are elected members of the government, shouldn't the President tell us who they are so we can vote them out? If they are unelected, how is it they have such power?

Or maybe there are no such people, at least not of such relevance they deserve specific mention by the President. Maybe this is just a rhetorical trick designed to make Mr. Obama's position seem like the only one allowed by common sense.

Also, the following seems a bit demagogic, doesn't it?

And if there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it's today.

We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States. This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it is not a cause for alarm... But one thing is clear - our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community. And this is one more example of why we cannot allow our nation to fall behind.

The swine flu outbreak is a reason to amp up funding for the sciences? This is playing on public fears to advance a political agenda that's only tangentially related to said fears.

And, of course, no presidential address would be complete without a gratuitous shot at his predecessor. Even a speech on science.

And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas.

We know that our country is better than this....

On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation - and our values as a nation - are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.

He doesn't come right out and say it - but he is talking about stem cell research here. Personally, I'm pretty ambivalent on the issue of stem cell research. I view it as a minor skirmish in the broader war on abortion. However, I think this is a gross mischaracterization of the position of those who are opposed to federal funding of stem cell research. Given that this is coming from a President who, as a candidate, campaigned on ending the pattern of gross mischaracterizations in Washington, D.C. - I find this really aggravating.

What is especially annoying to me is that - to win what amounts to a few quick, short-term political points - the President is really hitting below the belt. Those who are opposed to federal funding of stem cell research are somehow un-American: they are against "free and open inquiry," and are willing to undermine "scientific integrity" and "our democracy." Why? In service to "a pre-determined ideological agenda."

Science cannot be separated from "ideology." In fact, the idea that science must be free of ideology is itself an ideological position. That's just simply a matter of definitions. "Ideology," as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary:

The science of ideas; that department of philosophy or psychology which deals with the origin and nature of ideas.

Additionally, science is inseparable from politics or political ideology. Science is often a tool of politics - for instance, when the government directs money to certain scientific endeavors over others for political purposes. Why is it that "we can put a man on the moon, but we can't..."? Ultimately, one reason is that the federal government in the 1960s set about putting a man on the moon for Cold War purposes. What is funded and what is not funded is frequently political. Additionally, science inevitably challenges the core, shared values of a society. When that happens - it becomes a political question of what to do next. See for instance, human cloning. Simply because science can make it happen does not mean that it should. Instead, the political process has intervened to outlaw the development of that line of scientific research. Why? It conflicts with our values.

Like any political question, the role of science in society is complicated, and ironically does not admit of any straightforward, scientific answers. Most all of us oppose human cloning - but there will be other issues (like stem cell research) where the lines are not drawn so lopsidedly. In those instances, it becomes a political issue - and it is very unfortunate that the President has once again chosen to promote his own, valid opinion by arguing that the opinions of those who disagree are somehow invalid.

One reason that I was so interested in candidate Obama in 2007 was that he seemed to have the same broad orientation to politics as I do. The world is a harsh, complicated place in which to live. Ultimately, we're going to have different views on what to do. But politics isn't like math, where there is some unequivocal answer waiting at the bottom of a proof. It's hazy and uncertain. Our policy proposals are more like stabs in the dark than geometric theorems. So ultimately, we should accept as fact that others will disagree - and we should respect those who disagree with us, above all assuming that they're acting in good faith.

In 2007, I thought this is how the President thought about things, too. It has become increasingly clear to me, however, that either he doesn't, or his inner circle doesn't. This speech - as well as many before it - is simply inconsistent with that view of the world.

Consistent with my view on matters: I respect that now is the time for the Democrats to implement policy. I do not share many of their policy preferences - and were I given a vote on them, I would vote no more often than yes. However, they have decisively won two elections, they are honest in their intentions, and they might ultimately be proven to be correct. So, I wish them well.

Yet I am sick and tired of the President's rhetorical sophistry - and if Frank Newport called me up today, I would say that I disapprove of the job he is doing. If Scott Rasmussen's computer called me, I'd say that I strongly disapprove. A President should not be mischaracterizing, and working actively to alienate, as much as 40% of his constituency - especially after he promised he wouldn't.

-Jay Cost