Interviewing John Edwards

i-e9b1e641f04e9107e77f47cfa9564363-johnedwards.jpgBora got to ask presidential candidate John Edwards 8 questions about science. As with most communications from candidates, a lot that can only be understood by reading between the lines, and by examining what isn’t there. For instance, Edwards wants to win the Iowa caucuses, so ethanol is played up, without any mention that existing ethanol technology probably has a negligible effect on greenhouse gas emissions, and promotes unsustainable agricultural practices. On the other hand, he properly puts it in the context of farm subsidies, and mostly includes it in the broader category of biofuels. Biofuels include conventional ethanol, but also biodiesel, which is economically viable already and does reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as cellulosic ethanol, biobutanol and other fuels that are on the horizon and could be produced with much lower carbon dioxide emissions, and could be manufactured from native grasses without fertilizer, irrigation or the erosion caused by plowing. He should have emphasized that ethanol is a transitional fuel at this point, not a permanent solution, but the way he talks about this suggests some awareness that ethanol is more than a ticket to votes in Iowa (he managed to discuss it without mentioning corn at all!).

Also revealing is how he handles questions he almost certainly never considered before. Bora asked a critical question, one that is too wonky to show up in the generally irrelevant debates, but critical to having a well-run government

If elected President, what do you intend to do to make sure that you receive trustworthy scientific information and that your policies are based on the best available empirical knowledge about the world?

Edwards replies:

This is a good question. As I said before, the disregard of science by the Bush administration — the censorship of data and analysis of global warming, the treatment of stem cell research, mercury emissions and other subjects – has been shameful.

As president, I will ensure that government professionals charged with the collection and analysis of scientific data–from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the EPA–are insulated from political influence. Period.

I think we can all agree that a good question deserves more than 3 sentences and a punctuation mark in response. He made and important promise there, but how will he ensure that he keeps it?


It seemed like we were getting the same promise when President Bush declared:

Leading scientists tell me research on these 60 [sic] lines [of stem cells] has great promise that could lead to breakthrough therapies and cures.?

I will also name a President’s council to monitor stem cell research, to recommend appropriate guidelines and regulations, and to consider all of the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation. This council will consist of leading scientists, doctors, ethicists, lawyers, theologians and others, and will be chaired by Dr. Leon Kass, a leading biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago.

It was later revealed that there weren’t really 60 lines, and scientists on the advisory panel who opposed the President’s policies were pushed out. Candidates for other advisory panels were screened on the basis of their political views about the President and abortion (a topic outside the scope of those panels; for more, see chapter 14 in The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney).

That last point would be less relevant if the Edwards campaign had been more willing to stand up for staff members who came under attack for personal opinions on subjects outside the scope of their campaign responsibilities. Part of the strategy employed to attack federal science policy has been to apply political pressure to federal scientists and advisory panels through industry lawsuits and attacks in the media. How will Edwards protect those scientists from such outside pressure?

We don’t have to go back to 2001 to find President Bush acting as if his anti-science policies were supported by science. Scientific support was implied when Bush vetoed the most recent stem cell bill. His explanation of the veto began:

I’m joined on stage by two good docs, really smart, capable people: Dr. Bill Hurlbut, Professor of Stanford University Medical Center; Dr. Don Landry, Professor at Columbia University Department of Medicine — actually, he’s the Chairman of the Department. The reason they’re here is these are brilliant biologists who are seeking new ways to develop stem cell lines without violating human life. And these are smart folks, and I cannot thank them enough for coming to the Oval Office to share with me their wisdom and their vision.

And concluded:

We want to encourage science. We want to say, we stand on your side in an ethically responsible way. Scientists have recently shown they have the ingenuity and skill to pursue the potential benefits of pluripotent [aka adult] stem cell research. Here’s two of them right here. That’s why they’re standing here, they have showed [sic] what’s possible.

Without background knowledge, it’s hard to see the difference between Edwards’ promise above and Bush’s misleading statements. For instance, I happen to know that Bush’s own Director of the NIH supports expanded stem cell research, and thinks the research potential of “adult stem cells” is “overstated.” That explains why two people from outside the administration were on stage, but the President’s own medical research advisors were not. I don’t doubt that Edwards will choose advisors on the basis of professional excellence, but there will be times when he will want to ensure that his advisors will deliver his administration’s line. How will he deal with that when he doesn’t know what his advisor thinks about the issue, or when he knows his advisors disagree with his decision?

I’m glad that Edwards thinks Bora’s question is important, and I hope the answer was brief because it was something he hadn’t thought about before, and not because he thinks he said all that needed to be said. I hope he’ll keep thinking about how to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the scientific advice he receives, and of the scientific statements he makes to the nation as a candidate, and hopefully as President. (N.B.: TfK has not endorsed any candidate yet, but Edwards is on the shortlist.)

Comments

  1. #1 SLC
    July 9, 2007

    “That last point would be less relevant if the Edwards campaign had been more willing to stand up for staff members who came under attack for personal opinions on subjects outside the scope of their campaign responsibilities.”

    I presume that Mr. Rosenau is referring here to Ms. Amanda Marcotte. The fact is that Ms. Marcottes’ irresponsible statements relative to the Duke lacrosse alleged rape case should have disqualified her from ever being hired by the Edwards campaign. Mr. Edwards, as a trial attorney in North Carolina, should have realized that her comments on the 3 Duke lacrosse players who were wrongly accused of rape were inflammatory as well as irresponsible. She compounded her indiscretion by repeating the allegations even after it became clear to everybody except Wendy Murphy that they were a crock and that the now disgraced prosecutor was a shyster.

  2. #2 james louloudes
    July 9, 2007

    The Bush Administration and the Republican Religious Right who think they represent the majority of American may think they have good reason to advocate a continued moratorium on embryonic stem cell research, but soon, the perceived societal benefits of such research will far outweigh the perceived moral objection by the mindless Republican Conservative Religious Right.
    A cure for Cancer, Diabetes, MS, ACL, MD or Alzheimer is all it will take for this issue to finally reach the tipping point. What will a member of the Bush Administration or the Republican Religious Right; facing a choice between futures lives of Alzheimer or MS do when a new cure based on an embryonic stem cell becomes available. Most of President Bush’s “dead-head” policies will become increasingly hard to sustain.
    Here’s a suggestion for the Bush Administration and the Republican Conservative Religious Right to rallying support for his stand against embryonic stem cell research. With the Fox News Network cameras rolling at the White house. The Bush Administration and the Republican Conservative Religious Right and their like-minded political friends (and their families) should gather at the White House to re-affirm their beliefs that medical treatment derived from embryonic stem cell research by signing a Presidential Proclamation stating that they all will never under any circumstances, accept any form of medical treatment for themselves or their children derived from embryonic stem cell research. Example has always been the most effective component of leadership; however two-facedness will most likely win the day.

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    July 9, 2007

    Why should that have disqualified her? Is it in any sense germane to her campaign responsibilities?

    It would be one thing if a policy advisor or legal counsel to the campaign had taken a position on a legal controversy. That might be interpreted in a way that would speak to Senator Edwards’s judgment on those matters. But Marcotte was not a legal counsel or a policy advisor. She was responsible for running the campaign blog as an outlet for the Senator’s views, not her own. If that blog became an outlet for her personal opinions about religion, sports or even politics, that would have been a problem. It didn’t.

    Should we also insist that campaigns ban anyone who weighed in on OJ’s guilt or innocence before the jury handed in their verdict?

  4. #4 Josh Rosenau
    July 9, 2007

    On what other topics should people’s opinions be screened before they can work in non-policy roles on a political campaign?

  5. #5 SLC
    July 9, 2007

    Re Amanda Marcotte

    Mr. Edwards is a member of the bar in North Carolina and an officer of the court therein. By hiring someone whose comments about an ongoing criminal case in North Carolina were completely irresponsible, he showed a serious lack of judgment. This is particularly true because Ms. Marcotte continued to make erroneous accusations long after it was clear that the charges against the 3 Duke lacrosse players had no basis in fact.

    The situation relative to the Duke so called rape case bears no relationship to the Simpson case in California. There was no case against the 3 lacrosse players, as the attorney general of North Carolina made clear while there was certainly a legitimate case against Mr. Simpson, regardless of whether he was in fact guilty or innocent of the crime (for the information of Mr. Rosenau, it is my considered opinion that Mr. Simpson almost certainly killed his ex-wife but I am far from convinced that he also killed Ron Goldman).

    I have made it clear on several blogs that I find the comments of people like Nancy Grace, Gloria Allred, Stacy Honowitz, Wendy Murphy et al on cable talk shows declaring defendants guilty, sometimes before they’ve even been arrested, to be obscene. I think these clowns should be disbarred from the practice of law and yes, I would strongly criticize a presidential candidate who hired any of them.

  6. #6 Josh Rosenau
    July 9, 2007

    Senator Edwards is indeed a member of the bar, and if he had prejudged a case, he would deserve your disapprobation. But you aren’t talking about anything he said about a case. You are holding him responsible for the comments of a non-lawyer who he later hired in a non-legal, non-policy position.

    My Linux box uses Reiserfs, which was written by Hans Reiser, a man currently on trial for murdering his wife. The evidence against him is pretty strong. Does my using his filesystem say something about my judgment? I don’t think so, unless there were technical issues with the FS. His actions in his private life don’t bear on me, and neither do Marcotte’s comments on her personal blog bear on her employers. It’s an absurd standard to hold anyone to.

    Nancy Grace is an offensive hack, and spreads calumny on the innocent and guilty alike at CNN’s behest. CNN is accountable for what she says and does because they hire her to do those things. The Edwards campaign didn’t hire her for legal or policy analysis. Judging the campaign on that basis just seems silly.

  7. #7 SLC
    July 10, 2007

    I am afraid that Mr. Rosenau is unable to see the forest for the trees.

    1. Mr. Edwards hired a person to work on his political campaign who was found to have made inflammatory statements about a criminal case in his home state, where he is an attorney and officer of the court, before she was hired by him. Just as President Bush must be held responsible for the actions of his appointees (e.g. Alberto Gonzalez), so Mr. Edwards must be held responsible for the actions of his. My suspicion is that Mr. Edwards was unaware of Ms. Marcottes’ statements before he hired her, which doesn’t bode well for his ability to properly vet his appointees.

    2. I don’t see what Mr. Rosenaus’ example of Mr. Reiser has to do with anything. Mr. Rosenau was not hiring Mr. Reiser to work on a political campaign for him.

    3. I am certainly glad that Mr. Rosenau shares my disdain for Ms. Grace. I would point out that Ms. Marcottes’ comments on the so called Duke rape case were actually even worse then those of Ms. Grace, who, after an initial smear campaign against Messrs. Finnerty, Evans, and Seligmann, studiously refrained from commenting after suspicions were raised about the legitimacy of the charges.

    4. I am not judging the campaign of Mr. Edwards solely on the basis of an error in judgment relative to the hiring of Ms. Marcotte (which, apparently, Mr. Rosenau doesn’t think was a error in judgment). In actuality, I am far more concerned with the presence of an Israel basher and abortion opponent like David Bonior in his campaign.

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    July 10, 2007

    I think it’s funny that you’d accuse me of not seeing the forest for the trees, and then compare a staff blogger to a political appointee.

    Ms. Marcotte provided technical services to the Edwards campaign, not a political advisor in line to be appointed to some high office if Edwards becomes president. Bush is responsible for the Abu Gonzales’s legal opinions because Bush hired Gonzales to be his lawyer, first in the White House, then as AG. Marcotte was not hired as a legal advisor, and does not present herself as a legal expert. She was not hired for her opinions, the way that Nancy Grace and Abu Gonzales were. She was hired as an expert on building and maintaining a blog, something no one denies she does very well.

    By that standard, your concerns about Bonior are valid (though he would dispute your characterizations), while applying the same metric to Marcotte would not be. Bonior is a political advisor, and likely to be appointed to an important position if Edwards wins. His opinions reflect the sort of political advice that Edwards is seeking, while Marcotte does not.

    That distinction seems pretty clear to me.

    If I were relying on Hans Reiser for marital counseling, his legal troubles would reflect on my judgment. If I rely on Reiser for a filesystem, it doesn’t. If Edwards relied on Marcotte for policy advice, her policy positions would reflect on him. He didn’t, so they don’t.

    It’s perfectly fair to question Marcotte’s comments on the issues of the day (that’s what personal blogs are for), but it isn’t fair to act as if the campaign had anything to do with those comments or vice versa.

  9. #9 SLC
    July 10, 2007

    Re Hans Reiser

    1. Excuse me. Did Mr. Rosenau personally hire Mr. Reiser to develop software for him or did Mr. Rosenau purchase commercial software developed by Mr. Reiser which was for sale on the open market? The former would be akin to the Edwards/Marcotte relationship; the latter would not. Given Mr. Rosenaus’ status as a graduate student, I strongly suspect the latter.

    2. Does Mr. Rosenau agree that Ms. Marcottes’ commentary relative to Messrs. Finnerty, Evans, and Seligmann was irresponsible and wrongheaded, in addition to being 100% inaccurate and unreliable? I think so and therefore conclude that she should not have been hired by Edwards to work on a political campaign. Period, end of story.

    3. Relative to Mr. Bonior, I don’t think he would in any way, shape, form, or regard deny that he is anti-choice on abortion and favors a constitutional amendment to prohibit the practice. He took this position consistently during his tenure in the House of Representatives. He would probably contest my characterization of him as an Israel basher. However, during his tenure in the House, he was one of the most pro-Arab members therein and certainly went out of his way to criticize any and all actions of the Government of Israel which were less then generous to the Palestinians, regardless of the provocations of the latter.