Bill Nye, famous educator and creator of dorky, science-inspired pop songs, has endorsed President Obama's re-election campaign. Nye says this election is the most important of his life, and has appeared at several campaign sponsored events to tout the president's support for scientific innovation through education funding.
The Obama campaign wasted no time letting everybody know about the endorsement, just in case we were wondering how much the president likes science. But while Nye gives impassioned speeches about the president's support for education, I can't help but wonder why an advocate for science literacy like Nye would endorse a candidate and a party who have been so incredibly mediocre when it comes to science. If he wants to promote science literacy, Nye should be doing everything he can to disassociate it from both political parties, because neither deserves to be associated with science.
Republicans are often ridiculed by political pundits and science writers for their rejection of mainstream science, like evolution. But a sizable 30% of Democrats are just as skeptical of Darwin's theory. And while President Bush was lambasted for his anti-science stance on stem cell research, President Obama took a strikingly similar position on the issue once in office. He's not much better on vaccinations either, telling supporters in 2008 that "The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it." That's unequivocally false if you ask the experts what they think about the vaccine-autism link, by the way. The list of issues Democrats take anti-science positions on, nuclear power, genetically modified food, animal research, alternative energy, to name some examples, is embarrassingly extensive.
This point is even more striking if we look at the issue Nye appears to care the most about: science funding. While the right is often attacked for wanting to eliminate public funding for science, which absolutely should happen, President Bush actually committed to increasing federal funding for the National Institutes of Health, one of the few promises he made good on throughout his two terms. Our current president hasn't quite kept pace with his predecessor, so the question remains: why is Nye throwing his weight behind him in the election?
Both political parties like to claim they support science. But what the above examples make clear is that science, like anything else, is just a tool that politicians find useful when they're vote hustling. Or as RealClearScience Editor Alex Berezow put in our recent interview, "Holding anti-science beliefs is truly a bipartisan phenomenon." There's no anti-science conspiracy in Washington of course, and I doubt any of our leaders truly hate science. But they'll happily throw it under the bus when doing so is politically convenient, and well meaning people like Nye are contributing to that misuse of science when they endorse politicians.
There's another consequence that goes with this politicization of science, though. Research shows that when science gets too partisan, whether to the left or right, voters on the opposite end of the political spectrum start to get skeptical. We saw this shift occur among Republicans in the last 40 years, and it happened because the scientific community gradually became more liberal and vocal about it.
Bill Nye's goal to get more kids pursuing careers in science is admirable. And I think just about everybody agrees that more people knowing more about science is desirable. But endorsing politicians is no way to get more Americans interested in science.