I admit that I judge politicians on their science credibility. And I’m rather black and white about it – politicians don’t get to pick and choose what science they “believe” or not. How Bernie Sanders views biotechnology seems irresponsible. And that it’s aligned with Republican anti-science viewpoints is unacceptable.
I’ve written previously about Sanders’ nascent anti-science views, especially with complementary and alternative medicine, which isn’t medicine. Although I haven’t written about it specifically, Sanders is in favor of GMO labelling, which is part of the pseudoscience surrounding GMOs. Let’s be clear, the overwhelming scientific consensus about GMOs is that they are safe for human consumption and the environment. To real science, denying GMO safety (and it’s related labeling laws) is no different than denying climate change.
For me, the litmus tests for science in our politicians are evolution, climate change, GMOs, vaccines, and cloning/stem cell research. There are a few other science policy issues that are abeyond the scope of this website – fracking (limited science available at this time) and nuclear power. I haven’t the time or the desire to review the consensus on either, but for many people they are also litmus tests for science credibility of politicians – and not in the way you think it would be.
Recently, a journalist took a look at how Bernie Sanders views biotechnology – especially in comparison to Hillary Clinton. And Sanders comes up short in this key area of science. In fact, he has previously aligned himself with right wing Republicans on some scientific issues, something that should cause any pro-science progressive some pause.
Science and progressivism
I’ve given up on Republicans with respect to science. They deny evolution, despite the overwhelming evidence support the Fact of Evolution. They try to force schools to teach evolution denial, what some call creationism, which is nothing more than religious nonsense. I hope a real pro-science President and a pro-science Supreme Court will stop this idiocy sometime soon.
The right wing (across the world, generally) deny anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, again, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on it. (Note: if you’re going to waste my time denying what constitutes a scientific consensus, at least spend a few minutes trying to understand the whole concept.)
The left’s version of climate change are GMOs, and biotechnology, more generally. Using almost the same exact methods, climate change deniers and anti-GMO activists employ cherry picking, inventing conspiracies, rejecting the scientific consensus, and advancing pseudoscientific concepts to meet their political views rather than real science.
It makes me laugh ironically when I see a liberal mock a climate change denier who claims that Al Gore has bribed 97% of climate scientists to support anthropogenic climate change. Then, that same liberal, without any sense of critical thinking or irony, invent some Monsanto-based conspiracy which leads him to reject the fact that 97% of biomedical researchers accept that GMOs are safe. I wonder if the right wing and left wing science deniers are birds of a feather.
Even vaccination has evolved into a story of strange bedfellows. Some right wingers, like Donald Trump and Rand Paul deny the scientific consensus on vaccines, that they are relatively safe and effective. On the other side, anti-vaccine sentiment circulates in rather liberal areas of the country. Tropes like “personal choice,” “Big Pharma conspiracy,” and “vaccines cause autism” circulate freely in both the conservative and progressive anti-vaccination crowds.
Like I said, I gave up on Republicans decades ago. They’re useless with respect to science, ever since Ronald Reagan famously stated, “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”
I am a progressive (very left wing on social and environmental issues), but with all views firmly grounded on science. I am disappointed and annoyed by liberal Democrats who have core anti-science belief.s Like Bernie Sanders. Let’s take a close look at what bothers me now.
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How Bernie Sanders views biotechnology
To be clear, Sanders has supported stem cell research in the Senate. However, there are some issues with his voting record that would bother anyone who thinks that stem cell research is critical to biomedical research. In the early 2000s, while Sanders was in the House of Representatives, he repeatedly supported a ban on all forms of human cloning, including the important one called “therapeutic cloning,” a form of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which may be important to regenerative medicine, that is, producing new organs and tissue for humans.
Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who headed the National Institutes of Health, has stated:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]We were looking for signs that he is going to be a supporter of what science and technology can do and I think everyone in the country ought to be worried about that. I am quite concerned about his (Sanders) stance on these issues. This is a litmus test. It was 10 years ago — it’s still a test that he failed in the view of many of us.[/infobox]
To be fair, Sanders’ campaign policy director, Warren Gunnels, released a statement that said Sanders “strongly supports stem cell research, including research on embryonic stem cells. He understands that stem cell research holds the possibility of remarkable discoveries, even cures, for many illnesses — from Parkinson’s and diabetes to Alzheimer’s and arthritis.”
But once again, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do. While in the House, Sanders voted to ban therapeutic cloning in 2001, 2003 and 2005, effectively supporting George W Bush’s and Republican’s anti-science beliefs about biotechnology.
Furthermore, Sanders “co-sponsored bans in 2003 and 2005 that included criminal penalties for conducting the research and opposed alternatives that would have allowed the cloning of embryos solely for medical research.” I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but was he a Republican?
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the Democratic primaries, “co-sponsored legislation in 2001 and 2002 in the Senate that would have expanded stem cell research and co-sponsored a bill in 2005 that would have banned human cloning while protecting the right of scientists to conduct stem cell research.” That’s the strategy that almost every scientist would support, and Clinton is on board.
So why was Sanders so anti-biotechnology? Sanders was quoted saying, after the 2001 vote, that he had “very serious concerns about the long-term goals of an increasingly powerful and profit-motivated biotechnology industry.”
The ridiculousness of that statement is right at the level of climate change and GMO deniers. Most biotechnology is done at the level of startups – the very type of business that builds the economy in many areas of the country. They are taking great capital risks to find new technology to treat all kinds of diseases. And given the level of investment, profit-goals are important.
Is Sanders actually complaining that these companies, to maintain long-term success, employ thousands of people in high paying jobs, and to make our country competitive with everyone else investing in biotechnology, may actually make money off of their research?
Sanders also claimed that these biotechnology firms are “primarily interested in how much money they can make rather than the betterment of society.” That’s a false dichotomy, because it’s possible to do both. But I guess pandering to Vermont liberals (one of the centers of the anti-vaccine universe), means that everyone in biotechnology is an unethical monster. That’s not supported by reality.
Robert Klein, former chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a publicly funded research center (using a US$5 billion fund which was passed in a public vote of California residents) for stem cells and other biotechnology, stated that:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Sanders and (then Republican House Majority Leader Tom) DeLay — some unlikely group — were just unyielding and they were part of the religious right’s attempt to shut down this whole critical new frontier of therapy for chronic disease. It’s fine to say you’re for stem cell research but you vote against it and you vote against all therapeutic application, it doesn’t mean anything to say you’re for it,. Fine, he votes for it years later when it’s more popular and the pressure is off. We needed leadership then.[/infobox]
Sure, Sanders supports it now. And maybe taken at face value, we can accept that he has. But the problem remains is that his voting record is decidedly mixed, and when it mattered, he was supporting the Republican anti-science efforts. All because he “believes” in a conspiracy theory about the motives of biotechnology research.
Of course, his competitor, Hillary Clinton has a much more consistent record in supporting and funding biomedical research. And since I’m all about the evidence, at best, on this scientific matter, they’re tied currently. But history doesn’t support this tie, Sanders was, and based on some of his nonsense about alternative medicine, still is fairly anti-science.
Does his anti-biotechnology view matter?
Sanders stated that he was on the same side of the whole biotechnology issues as social conservatives because of his suspicions that the industry may have had more of a profit motive than a true benevolent intention for human health. Even if his false dichotomy were true (no evidence), why would someone who promotes a belief in better and more effective healthcare dismiss, without evidence, one of the most effective technologies that we have in improving the human condition?
Sanders claims he’s going to be a leader. Yet when we needed leadership to overturn Bush’s idiotic ban on most types of stem cell research, Sanders wasn’t there.
In fact, in May 2005, the US House of Representatives voted 238-194 to loosen the limitations on federally funded embryonic stem-cell research — by allowing government-funded research on surplus frozen embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics to be used for stem cell research with the permission of donors — despite Bush’s promise to veto if passed.
But Sanders didn’t introduce the bill. He didn’t even co-sponsor it, even though 200 House members (both Democrats and Republicans) did. This drives me crazy – his scientific leadership is so lacking that he couldn’t spend a few seconds signing onto a bill that would have overturned Bush’s anti-science legacy.
In an article in the Genetic Literacy Project, David Warmflash, an astrobiologist, physician and science writer (wow, that’s a combination), reviewed why Sanders’ biotechnology views matter:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]That’s the current environment of biomedicine and it beckons for leadership in Washington that can advance medicine into the future — not only by improving the distribution of healthcare that’s state-of-the-art today, but also by acting as a catalyst for bringing about completely new treatments.
And so, Senator Sanders, rather than continuing to demand a political revolution that only a segment of the voting public desires, we urge you to start doing more than merely saying that you support stem cell research.
Since the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), being a progressive has always meant being for economic equality but also for progress in technology. Therefore, show some political courage and do something in the interest of the people, even when doing so may align you with the biotech industry. Start working for a different kind of revolution — a revolution in biomedicine, a revolution in genetics, a revolution in the technology of living things that will be welcomed by everybody and take the state of healthcare on a voyage to the 22nd century.[/infobox]
That’s the thing. Sanders claims he’s a progressive. But he lacks the courage or critical thinking skills to be a progressive in science, generally, and biotechnology, specifically. Who wants that in a leader, unless you’re a Republican?
One more thing. If a politicians denies one part of science, can he or she be trusted on any other part? I don’t think so, because one shouldn’t pick or choose what science they accept for political expediency or to support their own beliefs or conclusions. And Senator Sanders is picking and choosing his science just like Republicans do.