I still get a little chill down my spine when the news announcers say “President-elect Obama,” but already I am being reminded that we can’t just sit back and wait for him to save the world. We still need to do our part, and one of the things we need to do right now is be vigilant to make sure that the most competent people are running the bureaucratic machinery of the country.
So I was very pleased when a list-serv to which I belong circulated an email from a major research organization saying that they were being contacted by the Obama transition team and asked for nominations of people to fill the relevant scientific appointments (Cabinet level, associate directors, National Science Board, etc.) Makes perfect sense to me that the scientific community would have a good sense of who is qualified and capable of leading the executive branch offices that regulate, conduct, and fund science research. Score one for Obama.
But other news is not so good. Apparently, Robert F Kennedy, Junior, a prominent lawyer, environmental activist, and anti-vaccinationist is in the running for Director of the Environmental Protection Agency.
And my favorite mysoginist and yours, good old Larry Summers is a top contender for Treasury Secretary. Yes, Larry “women just aren’t as smart at science as men” Summers could be put back in charge of fixing our economy and leading the charge in the 21st century.
Details below the fold, including links to relevant critiques and how you can contact Obama’s transition team and register your criticism. Also, consider the comment thread open for suggestions of who you’d like to see in the critical science-related political appointments.
First up. Larry Summers. Remember the remarks about the innate aptitude of women with regards to science? At a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce, he suggested that a reason for the small number of women in STEM fields could be a genetic difference in ability, that when you went several deviations above the mean IQ, there just might not be as many smart women as men. Yea, that didn’t go over so well. Early reporting here. Resignation letter here. Scientific studies supporting his notion? Not linked because they either don’t exist or are overwhelmed by studies that show that the minority status of women is a result of bias, barriers, and socialization.
He’s certainly qualified to be Treasury Secretary, after all he had the job in the Clinton years. But do you really want someone who suspects that 1/2 the population isn’t very smart planning the economic policy of the country? Even if he’s a repentant sinner, his women-in-science remarks are just one example of his choosing to be provocative and impetuous rather than using better informed, reasoned judgement. Again, not a quality I’d want in a Cabinet secretary.
And in choosing Summers, the message Obama would be sending women, women in science, and scientists is that despite all his talk about being pro-women and pro-science, he’s not going to hold his administration to those standards. That’d be a pretty damn disappointing first message to get from him.
Then, RFK Jr. Orac’s got the definitive piece, chock full of links and references. Here’s a sampling.
RFK, Jr. first came to my attention when he published a screed simultaneously on Salon.com and Rolling Stone, entitled Deadly Immunity, which ranted that mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines that was so dishonest and full of misinformation and distortions that at the time I labeled it the “biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd I’ve ever seen it [Salon.com] publish.” I wasn’t alone. Skeptico famously labeled RFK, Jr.’s Deadly Immunity his “completely dishonest thimerosal article” and “lies, damned lies, and quote-mining.” [see original for extensive linkage]
Since that “splash” in 2005, RFK, Jr. has unrelentingly kept up his antivaccination crankery. He has not retreated even one inch, even though numerous lines of evidence, including several very large epidemiological studies, have failed to find a link between mercury and autism or vaccines and autism.
So what? You say. The Head of the EPA doesn’t have anything to do with vaccines. True enough. But RFK, Jr. has demonstrated himself on this issue not only to be prone to dubious science, but to have become a true believer in one of the most outrageous and dangerous forms of pseudoscience out there: antivaccinationism, or vaccine rejectionism. If you’re trying to build an administration ostensibly devoted to using the best science as the basis for public policy, and the EPA is one agency where that is incredibly important, you do not want someone who is so prone to pseudoscience and promoting misinformation running that agency.
Feeling a little bit queasy all of a sudden? I am. Then “be the change we want to see” or “the change we can believe in” (whichever you choose) and head on over to http://www.change.gov/page/s/ofthepeople to register your objections and make your suggestions for rational, competent science advisors, administrators, secretaries, etc. Let’s keep this ball rolling in the right direction.
Here’s what I submitted. Feel free to use or modify. Let’s make our voices heard.
Congratulations on your election. I am very glad to see a well-reasoned, pro-science, pro-women occupant of the White House. I look forward to eight years of your administration.
I have a Ph.D. in -ology and am on the faculty at Mystery U, and I am disappointed by two of the names being floated for prominent positions in your administration.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is not a suitable choice for director of the EPA because of his support of unscientific anti-vaccination propaganda. It is absolutely critical that the EPA make decisions based on the best available science, and Kennedy’s continued and prominent support of a link between mercury in vaccines and autism, when numerous scientific studies have shown no link between the two. Placing a pseudo-science supporter in such an important position would cast a pall of doubt over the whole agency.
Second, Larry Summers, while eminently qualified to serve as Treasury Secretary, has repeatedly chosen to ignore scientific evidence and his better judgement in favor of being “provocative” and impetuous. His remarks about the innate ability of women to do science are simply the most prominent example of that character flaw. A rash, impetuous person does not seem like the best choice to lead our country out of economic crisis, and appointing him to your Cabinet would be a slap in the face of women, like me, who work tirelessly to do good science and encourage the next generation of women scientists and engineers. We’re going to need all of the brilliant scientific and technical minds we can get to solve the problems confronting our nation and world, and we can’t afford to alienate 50% of them by putting someone with such well-documented anti-woman attitudes in the Cabinet.
Update: An excellent first comment from Chez Jake:
It might also be a good idea for others submitting comments to the change.gov site to make reference to the fact that an appointment of Summers would run contrary to Obama-Biden’s stated goal of promoting women in STEM occupations. See specifically the third item from the bottom on this page: http://www.change.gov/agenda/women/