How Do the Republican Candidates Score on Science?

2015-04-01T230014Z_1791549065_GF10000046738_RTRMADP_3_USA-POLITICS-CRUZ
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) greets supporters at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, April 1, 2015. Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters

To be a good president, you have to be able to evaluate data to make good decisions. Here, therefore, is a roundup of how the leading Republican presidential primary contenders have come down on various science policy issues.

Are they swayed more by data, or do they succumb to the allure of the momentarily popular position? You be the judge.

The selected topics include a proposed ban on commercial travel from West African countries during the recent Ebola outbreak, climate change, genetically modified crops, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility, vaccination, fetal pain legislation and biological evolution.

The likely candidates covered are Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida.

Before we get to the candidates, let's take a quick look at what the widely accepted data say for each of these topics.

1. Ebola.

In September 2014, an article in PLoS Current Outbreaks predicted that there was a significant chance case Ebola would arrive in the United States by the end of that month. The researchers also calculated that any subsequent outbreak would be small, involving only about 4 to 6 patients.

Sure enough, Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan arrived in the United States on September 20, 2014 and died of Ebola in Dallas, Texas on October 8. Two nurses who were taking care of Duncan became infected, but both recovered. That was the extent of the Ebola outbreak in the United States.

Nevertheless, panicked politicians began ordering quarantines of U.S. health care workers who returned from treating Ebola cases in West Africa. Some pols demanded a ban on commercial air travel from the region. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opposed such a travel ban, cogently arguing that it would be counterproductive to efforts to stamp out the epidemic.

2. Climate change

On the issue of climate change, all temperature data sets agree that the last decade has been the warmest one in the instrumental temperature record. All the records agree that the planet has warmed since 1979 at a rate of somewhere between +0.16 and +0.13 degrees Celsius per decade.

Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) reports temperature trends derived from satellite measurements and concludes that "climate models cannot explain this warming if human-caused increases in greenhouse gases are not included as input to the model simulation."

However, RSS also notes that "the troposphere [the bottom layer of the atmosphere] has not [emphasis theirs] warmed as fast as almost all climate models predict." Science is not decided by polls, but it bears noting that a Pew Survey earlier this year reported that 89 percent of the earth science researchers in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) agreed that climate change was occurring primarily as a result of human activity.

The same Pew poll reported that 88 percent of all AAAS scientists surveyed think that eating foods made from genetically modified crops is safe. In fact, every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of biotech crops has found them to be safe for humans to eat. Since biotech crops are no different than conventional crops with respect to safety, both the AAAS and the American Medical Association assert that labeling such products is unnecessary.

3. Burying nuclear waste

In 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was chosen to be a national repository for high-level radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants. Eventually, pressure from politicians such as Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) persuaded President Barack Obama to halt that project.

In 2013, a U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must move forward with the licensing process for the facility. In October 2014, the NRC issued the technical volume evaluating the safety of long-term storage was issued; it concluded that the repository design met the requirements for individual protection, human intrusion and protection of groundwater after the repository is permanently closed—a period defined to end at 1 million years after the waste's initial disposal.

4. Vaccinations

A measles outbreak starting at Disneyland in California sparked a national discussion over the costs and benefits of vaccination. The idea that vaccines cause autism was jump-started by a fraudulent study published in The Lancet in 1998. Years of subsequent analysis and reams of studies have shown no correlation between vaccination and autism.

5. Do fetuses feel pain?

Pro-life activist groups like the Family Research Council claim that fetuses feel pain after 20 weeks of gestation. This claim has been used by such anti-abortion proponents as a justification for declaring that states have a "compelling interest" in limiting abortions after that period.

The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, for example, was introduced in Congress most recently in January, 2015; it would impose such a limit nationally. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reviewed the scientific evidence and determined that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester (24 weeks). Ultimately, the controversy over fetal pain isn't about the scientific debate as much as it's about how people feel about the morality of abortion.

6. Biological evolution

Finally, we have biological evolution. Many object that candidates' views about evolution are irrelevant, since they will not be making public policy about it. Nevertheless, how a candidate thinks about evolution provides an indication of their overall level of respect for scientific reasoning and evidence. Or else it shows that they are willing to set aside what they believe to be true in order to pander to voter ignorance and prejudice. That tells you something about a candidate too.

Each candidate will be scored as follows: Pass(able) equals 1 point; Incomplete earns ½ point; anything else is 0. The maximum score obtainable is 7 points.

So what how do the six selected candidates fare with regard to these seven scientific policy topics?

Ted Cruz – Score: 3 points

Ebola: Called for a ban on travelers from West African countries grappling with Ebola. FAIL

Climate Change: In January he voted against the Hoeven Amendment that the "sense of Congress" is that "climate change is real, and human activity contributes to climate change." On March 23, Cruz told The Washington Examiner that "the computer models relied upon for this theory showed there would be significant warming, and yet the actual data don't back up those flawed computer models." FAIL

Biotech Crops: On March 7 he said the nation should push back against the "hysteria" over food made with genetically modified organisms, saying these innovations in science should be celebrated for the positive impact they've had both at home and abroad. PASS

Yucca Mountain: In May 2014, Cruz issued a report calling out the Obama administration for refusing to obey a 2013 court order to issue a license and continue the construction of the nuclear waste facility. PASS

Vaccination: Cruz has stated: "Most states include an exception clause for good faith religious convictions, and that's an appropriate judgment for the states to make. But on the question of whether kids should be vaccinated, the answer is obvious and there's widespread agreement: Of course they should." His two daughters are fully vaccinated. PASS

Fetal Pain: He co-sponsored the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. FAIL

Evolution: His views are not on the record, but he did announce his candidacy earlier this week at Liberty University, which teaches—in accordance with a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible—that the world is 6,000 years old. WORRISOME

Rand Paul – Score: 3 points

Ebola: In October the senator said "a temporary hiatus on flights" was "only reasonable." By contrast, his father said, "Right now I would say a travel ban is politically motivated more than something done for medical purposes." FAIL

Climate Change: In January he voted in favor of the Hoeven Amendment that stated that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it. However, he voted against the Schatz amendment that stated the human had contributed "significantly" to climate change. PASSABLE

Biotech Crops: In 2012, he voted against a GMO labeling bill on the grounds that the "federal government lacks constitutional authority to mandate labeling of products containing genetically-modified food." But he added, "So while there is evidence we should be concerned about GMOs, we should also be careful not to lose our constitutional perspective simply because the end result is one we may desire." In 2013, he voted against the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. BARELY PASSABLE

Yucca Mountain: In January, Paul said, "The thing is that I am of two minds." He favors local control but added, "I'm also not afraid of radiation. I'm not afraid of radiation in a mountain. It's gotta go somewhere." PASSABLE

Vaccination: In February, the senator seemed to lend credence to the thoroughly discredited claims that vaccinations are associated with autism when he said, "I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines." He backed off on this statement later, arguing: "I didn't allege there is a connection. I said I heard of people who believe there is a connection. I do think that vaccines are a good idea. I've been vaccinated. My kids have been vaccinated." He added, "I'm not promoting any change to vaccine law." UNSATISFACTORY

Fetal Pain: He co-sponsored the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. FAIL

Evolution: In 2010, at a Christian homeschooling conference, he was asked: "How old is the world?" Paul responded, "I'm gonna have to pass on the age of the earth. I think I'm just gonna have to pass on that one." This is disappointing, because Paul reportedly defended evolution when he was a student at Baylor. PANDER

Marco Rubio – Score: 3 points

Ebola: In October, 2014, he argued that "the State Department should institute a temporary ban on new visas to non-U.S. nationals seeking to travel to the United States from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea." FAIL

Climate Change: In January, he voted against the Hoeven Amendment. "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it," Rubio said in 2014. FAIL

Biotech Crops: In 2013, he voted against the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. PASS

Yucca Mountain: In 2011, he signed a letter to the relevant congressional committees urging that Yucca Mountain be preserved "as an option for the transportation of nuclear waste away from cities and ecosystems across America where the permanent storage of nuclear waste is clearly inappropriate." PASS

Vaccination: "I believe that all children, as is the law in most states in this country, before they can even attend school, have to be vaccinated," Rubio said on February 3. "Absolutely, all children in America should be vaccinated....Unless their immune (system is) suppressed, obviously, for medical exceptions....There is absolutely no medical science or data whatsoever that links those vaccinations to onset of autism." PASS

Fetal Pain: He co-sponsored the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. FAIL

Evolution: “I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe,” Rubio said in 2012. “And that means teaching them science, they have to know the science, but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile the two things.” Biology in biology class and theology in bible studies. UNSATISFACTORY

Jeb Bush – Score: 2 points

Ebola: In October, 2014 Bush said he supports travel restrictions for those who have been to Ebola-stricken countries. FAIL

Climate Change: Nothing recent, but in 2011 Jeb Bush said, “I think global warming may be real.” He then added, “It is not unanimous among scientists that it is disproportionately man-made. What I get a little tired of on the left is this idea that somehow science has decided all this so you can’t have a view.” It is not known on what information about global temperature trends the governor bases his views. FAIL

Biotech Crops: At a March 2015 agriculture conference in Iowa Bush said he opposed labeling of Genetically Modified Foods. PASS

Yucca Mountain: In March 2015, he declined to take a position on Yucca Mountain. FAIL

Vaccination: “Parents ought to make sure their children are vaccinated,” Bush said in February, 2015. PASS

Fetal Pain: Jeb Bush calls the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act "humane" and "compassionate." FAIL

Evolution: In 2005, Bush was asked by the Miami Herald if the religiously inspired ''intelligent design'' concept belongs in public school science classrooms. He replied, ''I don't . . . I don't know. It's not part of our standards. Nor is creationism. Nor is Darwinism or evolution either.'' Later that year, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Bush said, "I think people have different points of view and they can be discussed in school. They don't need to be in the curriculum.” CONFUSED PANDER

Scott Walker – Score: 2 points

Ebola: In October 2014, Governor Walker called on the federal government to institute a commercial travel ban for affected countries in West Africa, while still allowing charter, military and other flights deemed medically necessary to help combat the spread of Ebola in those countries. FAIL

Climate Change: Incoherent. However, when a 7-year-old asked in January what he would do as president about climate change, the governor responded that when he was a boy scout he was taught to keep the campground clean, further suggesting that we should leave the environment a better place than when we found it. CONFUSED PANDER

Biotech Crops: At a March agricultural conference in Iowa the governor said that he opposed the mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. PASS

Yucca Mountain: No statements found. INCOMPLETE

Vaccination: Walker “believes vaccinations help prevent serious health problems,” a spokesman said February 3, 2015. “That’s why his family is vaccinated and he encourages others to do the same.” PASS

Fetal Pain: Walker, a longtime abortion opponent, said in March 2015 that he supports banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. FAIL

Evolution: In February, while on a trade mission to London, the governor was asked what he thought about evolution. He responded, “For me, I’m going to punt on that one as well,” Walker said. He added, “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another. So, I’m going to leave that up to you.” A week later on Fox News, Scott asserted, "I think God created the Earth. I think science and my faith aren't incompatible." PANDER OR FAIL

Chris Christie – Score: 2 points

Ebola: "There are no direct flights from these countries to the United States, so what you’d need to really do is do a visa suspension,” Christie said in October, 2015. He added, “That’s a significant step. One that I think should be considered, but that’s ultimately going to be the decision of the president of the United States.” FAIL

Climate Change: Although the governor has been silent recently on this topic, he did say in 20011, “When you have over 90 percent of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role it’s time to defer to the experts." PASS

Yucca Mountain: No statements found. INCOMPLETE

Biotech Crops: In March 2015 at agricultural meeting in Iowa Christie was asked if genetically modified food should be labeled. "No," he said, adding, "Sometimes you don't need to give a complicated answer." PASS

Vaccination: In 2009, while running for governor, Christie wrote a letter in which he stated, “I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage. Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”

On February 2, 2015, he said that parents should have a “measure of choice" when it comes to vaccinations. He further observed, “Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others." He quickly backed off the latter sentiments, and had a spokesperson say, “The Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” PROBABLE PANDER

Fetal pain: The New Jersey governor is pro-life. No statements on fetal pain found. INCOMPLETE

Evolution: In 2011, Christie said, “Evolution is required teaching.” He, however, added, “If there’s a certain school district that also wants to teach creationism, that’s not something we should decide in Trenton.” Also in 2011, Christie was asked about whether creationism should be taught in the state's public schools. Christie replied that it was "really a dangerous area for a governor who stands up from the top of the state to say, “You should teach this, you should teach that.” PANDER

Overall, the scores of the six would-be Republican presidential candidates considered here are disappointing. A cynic might ask with respect to the high number of panders recorded, what else did one expect from politicians? Better, actually.

Ronald Bailey is a science correspondent at Reason magazine and author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus). This article first appeared on the Reason site.