Letters to the Editor

Katz Pulls ‘Straw Man’ in Letter

I loved Katz’s mastery of the straw man technique in his piece on Governor Sarah Palin (“Palin’s Anti-Science Rhetoric,” Oct. 28). Palin hates fruit flies, therefore Palin hates science.  However, is it possible that Palin hates earmarks, therefore she hates fruit flies? This is highly likely as McCain has been campaigning on a promise to ban those pesky things.

During a speech, Palin appealed to her audience by highlighting the ridiculousness of certain earmarks. For example, the study of fruit flies in the olive growing regions of France was commissioned to save some olive trees in California. France? A country full of pansies. Fruit flies? Gross and insignificant. Olive trees in California? Doesn’t reflect the needs of the entire nation.

Regardless of any ulterior motives, Palin clearly tried to make an emotional appeal for her case to ban the use of federal spending on states’ pet projects. Emotion wins more voters than logic does, so I say we let her slide this time.

Could Palin still be against scientific research? Sure, you can cite that she believes in creationism; therefore, she must be anti-science. According to the Gallup poll — not some horrible right wing propaganda machine like Fox News — 80 percent of the American population believes in either creationism or intelligent design. Does that mean 4 out 5 Americans are against science? I highly doubt that.

It’s easy to vilify Palin as clueless and divisive and McCain as hostile and senile. Or even to make generalization about the entire Republican party: “It would require the curiosity and education that members of the other party conspicuously lack,” Katz said. When we say these things, are we any better than the rednecks who see Obama as a socialist who palls around with terrorists? Or the folks who claim all New Englanders are just a bunch of pretentious, elitist “limousine liberals”? No, we are just as stubborn and narrow-minded as any far-right Republican. In fact, it is in these moments that we become the pretentious elitists who are detested by the rest of the country.

Color me a pansy, but I believe mutual respect is the keystone to resolving any conflict between two groups. It is much easier to brush off someone as being stupid than it is to understand his or her opinions. Thus, I agree with Katz wholeheartedly when he said:

“In summary, when talking to Republicans about science, don’t try to educate. Don’t tell the full story. In the context of this debate, don’t talk about sequence homology, conservation of genetic pathways across organisms or the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

“They don’t know, don’t care, and don’t understand. Just go to the bottom line, the medical application, the bang [for] the tax payer’s buck.”

Convincing other people that something is beneficial to all is appealing to the common good, creating a win-win situation, turning your enemy into your ally, etc. The difference is Katz resigns to this as a last resort while I think cooperation should have been the first choice. Last time I checked, MIT students LOVED to talk about their research. I, for one, would be proud to have the opportunity to justify the usefulness of my project to the folks on the right.

One of Obama’s great qualities is his ability to unite people. He does this by paying respect to and working with people who disagree with him. If you are going to vote for Obama then the least you can do is try to practice what he preaches.

I know it’s hard because we are in an inherently left-leaning environment (academia), but the next time you are stuck in a liberal circle jerk of McBush bashing, try to break free and say something positive about the Republican nominees. I’m sure you can find something nice to say about a pair who has the support of millions of your fellow Americans.

And more importantly, when Obama wins the presidency, please stay classy. Celebrate, don’t gloat.

Response to ‘Palin’s Anti-Science Rhetoric’

While I share Mr. Katz’s displeasure with Mrs. Palin’s vacuous policy on the funding of basic biological research, I am mystified by his recommendation to reject education as a tool to engage members of the Republican Party on the value of funding such research. Mr. Katz states:

“In summary, when talking to Republicans about science, don’t try to educate. Don’t tell the full story … They don’t know, don’t care, and don’t understand. Just go to the bottom line, the medical application, the bang the tax payer’s buck [sic]. We want to win this time, and this is what it takes to win.”

Communicating the importance of basic science is inextricably linked with education. Scientists have the responsibility to offer the public an opportunity to recognize that basic biological research is often funded on the basis of its direct relevance to understanding and treating human disease, including those conditions to which Mrs. Palin has referred.

Where appropriate, scientists should instruct the public on how their work relates to human health, and this should be done blindly to political affiliation. Members of all political parties pay taxes that fund basic research. Biology departments of the size and strength of MIT’s would not exist without this funding.

Importantly, this instruction in basic science must be done using language and methods that are accessible to non-scientists, which is not an impossible task. Applying even a small fraction of the brainpower that has led to discoveries like those Mr. Katz mentioned to broad science education would go a long way toward bridging the gap in understanding between basic research and medical applications in the public realm.

Mrs. Palin’s statements concerning science have been outstandingly defective and misinformed, surely causing research scientists, science educators, students of science, and many others to cringe in response. It is a great failure for the scientific community to witness a person making these statements rise to the position of vice presidential candidate. Hopefully these circumstances will be a strong impetus for us to strengthen education of all constituents on the value of basic biological research, and its connection to medicine.

While science education is rooted in the classroom, it can continue in forums the public is more likely to encounter, such as the media and public lectures. As MIT students, we can be great ambassadors for this cause, helping secure a future where funding for basic science is never in jeopardy, regardless of the affiliation of ruling political powers.