Science as Political Joke Fodder

It's Not a Fish Story

Once at social event I was introduced to a couple sitting nearby, and after a brief exchange of greetings, one began to pepper me with questions. His first question was about fish, simply: "Why do scientists study fish?" Followed without pause by: "What could you possibly learn?" Nothing I've ever done has anything to do with fish, and everything I've done is only even remotely related to his subject, so it all seemed a bit out of the blue at the time -- even weirder now -- "Hello, nice to meet you why do they study fish?" Who's "they"? What fish? Where and how do you start with that? Gently.

Was it a specific fish study? As you the reader know, there's a lot of "fish" research; for aquaculture for instance- a growing industry that produces farmed fish for consumer products and agriculture. Scientists also study reproduction and development in wild salmon or sharks or trout or striped bass, they do migration studies, studies of predators, studies on the impact of non-native fish, the impacts of fishing, recreation, pollution, and global warming on inventories. Scientists study nutritional values of fish and fish oil for human and animal consumption. Researchers study mercury levels in fish. They study shellfish and crustaceans. Did my acquaintance mean fish in oceans, or in rivers, estuaries, or lakes? Perhaps he meant zebrafish used as a model to study neurobiology, physiology, the cellular and molecular basis of disease?

But it turns out his question wasn't about fish, per se, more just research in general, which he'd recently taken special interest in...something to do with investigating wasteful research spending for the government. After a cocktail or so, he thought I might be the source of a little information to help him with his new project.

Although he was clearly predisposed to a certain answer -- research having to do with fish is wasteful -- he wasn't hostile, just baffled. He had no way of connecting "fish research" to anything meaningful in his life and was bent on doing his patriotic best to route out fraud.

With further conversation it became clear that he was repeating a line that was told to him as an example of government excess. He had clearly absorbed someone's mission and its easy target, wasteful spending in science. If you blank out of your mind everything you know about science and research, you too could be convinced to think this way. 1

It's Not About the Fish

The food we eat is supported by research, as is the water we drink, the air we breath, our medicine, the materials we build are houses with, the lawns we grow, and the toys we buy our children. Our lives are supported by science research. But while research is applauded when the result is a new iPod, people for some reason get skittish about other science research and its results, from genetically modified anything to global warming science.

In the past decade there's been great attention paid to science as a political target, especially during the last Bush administration. Analyzing the reason why this is so, some people even blamed the scientists themselves for their communication styles, their personalities, or the size of the words they use. While these things may contribute to lack of understanding, as I've written here before, I think there are more essential problems, for instance the paltry attention paid to science education.

The lack of understanding and interest isn't unique to science, it permeates our culture and influences conversations about economics, math, finance, history, and medicine. The ignorance is reflected in the priorities of our politics. So perhaps more fundamental to even-handed science policy than communication and education, is reconsideration of legislator's motivators and campaign finance.

But even small changes would improve things. Congress certainly doesn't need a greater percentage of scientists to balance science interests, as some have suggested, nor do more voters need to be scientists to think analytically. Not everyone needs to know the nitty-gritty details of polar ice research. But you'd hope they'd recognize the importance of the research in order to recognize talking points from balancing the pros and cons of an issue.

If they did, some could shut down politicians who talked science nonsense, Or at least tell them their jokes aren't so funny. Because as it turns out science is sometimes a target not because of lack of education or understanding, or communication, or scientists have a penchant for four syllable words. It just because it makes a good joke.

Furthermore, Don't Call Me Four Eyes..."Friend"

Take John McCain's repetitive joke about "pork spending", where he uses the example of the study on endangered grizzly bears in Montana. Since at least 2003 McCain has been using this one study to make a point about of excessive spending. He guffaws that he doesn't know whether it's a "paternal" issue or a "criminal" one. "Gotta get their DNA", he chuckles, riling up the crowd. Ad he gets a good response -- part indignant, part laughter, all approval. "Corrupt, my friends", he yells. "Corruption, my friends!" he yells louder.

In the past, so many people have pointed out the flaws of his joke that it immediately shows up on all those post-debate "fact-check" blogs. The "Religionblog" at the Dallas News, for instance, griped "the loser was the truth." Introducing their own assumptions and bias along with "the facts", they wrote:

"In fact, that study is part of a push by Montana ranchers and farmers (most of them Republicans) to have the grizzly bear removed from the endangered species list. If successful, that effort could lead to increased logging and oil and gas drilling in Montana, which would cover the government's costs for the DNA study many hundreds of times over."

So the good news is, that as grating it may be to hear McCain distorting science information one more time, wide swaths of the population do get the facts right. So then why is McCain still grinding away with the same joke? Despite how many times reporters tell him, over and over that it's both flawed and not funny, I guess McCain still gets a ha-ha from the audience -- so he continues.

It's akin to offering up your wife at the Buffalo Chip "beauty contest" during the biker convention. If it gets a laugh and is a crowd-pleaser, who cares? If women take offense or call you sexist, just scoff that they just don't know how to have a little fun...Vroom, Vroom!

Deoxyribonucleic Acid Tactics

There are several components to the bear DNA joke that apparently make it funny and effective for McCain. There's his insertion of a paternity or crime part, which confuses (on purpose?) the research with forensic science as seen on TV. If you think about it, his distortion of the this particular research also connects the research on bear populations with images of crime scenes and children of unknown fathers that are favorite Republican campaign devices.

There's also his utter denial of the value of the research, no mention of the Endangered Species act, and the sort of down home, "don't know much about bi-ol-o-gy" slap-on-the-back camaraderie in his joke. The actual Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project succeeded. The goal was to obtain an accurate count of the bears in one of the Endangered Species grizzly areas, which the scientists achieved. The results were widely publicized, and will be published more formally as a research study in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Oceans of Pork? Maybe it is About Fish

Congress waxes on about earmarks because people like to hear about "cutting out the pork". The real issue says McCain, is that these appropriations use resources from the central bill and shouldn't be tacked on. Despite his angry fist thumping however, McCain voted in favor of the bill that included the bear population study appropriation. The bill's sponsor, former Sen. Conrad Burn, chairs McCain's campaign in Montana.

The White House Bulletin wrote August 11, 1997, "Mr. McCain has waged a lonely, battle against pork before. And in almost every case, he loses". But actually in every case he wins. He doesn't need to vote against anything, he just needs to sound tough. Basic research scientists generally don't make large campaign contributions, so its not surprising that individual research projects might be picked out by our representatives for public pillory. Basic science is not the farm lobby, the auto industry, the oil industry. It doesn't cost much political capital to score some points with voters on the back of a scientist or two. 3

And so the politicians continue to use science projects as examples of pork.2 Tom Coburn M.D. (R-OK) recently complained about a Homeland Security bill. Citing the Citizens Against Government, he said there were "11,620 earmarks worth $17.2 billion for all 12 appropriations bills in 2008." But out of thousands of earmarks Coburn spoke of, he pointed out just a few for special focus, and those were disproportionately science studies.

He cited (in his words) a "Hibernation Genomics" study, and a "space technology" education center. He plucked quotes from the grants to amuse the readers and added short explanations. With no elaboration whatsoever, I guess because its so funny without explanation, he wrote these words in his list of studies "Pseudofoliculitis Barbae (PFB) Topical Treatment". Frankly, I don't know whether these are good projects or not, but they apparently have great political value for Senator Coburn.

The media piles on too. In countering McCain's grizzly bear DNA routine a few months ago, Politico wrote that "Palin requested millions of federal dollars" for the State of Alaska everything from improving recreational halibut fishing to studying the mating habits of crabs and the DNA of harbor seals." Politico chose a few egregious Palin examples from the Alaska's 30 item summary of appropriation requests, and the three they listed as absurd expenditures were all (coincidentally?) marine biology projects.

After perusing the state of Alaska's appropriations, Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish was also offended by GOP contender's hypocrisy -- indicating that all McCain's ranting about pork and bragging about Palin's record was a sham. Sullivan called John McCain's bear DNA joke an "endlessly repeated, grandpa-at-Thanksgiving, punchline provided, anecdote". But while he could apparently see the purpose of bear DNA, he commented derisively on one of Alaska's appropriations: "The DNA of seals?"


1 I never found out exactly what he was doing for whom or what the overall intent was, though I asked.

2 Similarly his talk about "ethics and transparency" despite what many have pointed out to be dubious dealing and practices through the Reform Institute that he founded.

3 I'm know some research is pork.

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