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Mar. 22, 2010

The Passage of Health Care and the Last Stand of the Republicans

by Jesse Medalia Strauss

Click to enlarge images

Greetings Dear Readers,

I understand that this is a funny headline for a science blog. But unfortunately we live in very politically volatile times. Although ideally science should be kept far, far, far away from the soap opera with a trillion dollar budget that is American politics, the reality is that politics and science are very much intertwined. Without the votes of our elected officials, there would be no funding for important and revolutionary projects like RHIC (Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider) at the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, a true modern marvel that I recently had the privilege to see. Totally funded by the United States government, this 2.5 mile circuit has the power to heat particles to up to four trillion degrees, and then smash them together to replicate conditions right after the Big Bang. Brookhaven scientists are working very hard in hopes of discovering vast new things about the origin of our universe.

Politics not only holds power over the current state of America’s scientific affairs, but also their future. For our government, local and national, has direct control over school curricula and funding. This means public officials have the power to graduate future scientists -- or not. If the schools stop taking science seriously, I can tell you for sure the students will stop too, if they haven’t already. This is precisely why it is crucial that scientists everywhere keep very close track of current political trends.

But above all else, this blog encourages rational thinking by exposing irrationality wherever it exists. Unfortunately the epicenter of irrationality often radiates from a white-domed, column-lined building, where every so often, 535 people congregate to determine the future of everything.

Last night, the United States House of Representatives passed HR 3590 with a vote of 219 to 212. This marks the greatest step forward in health care reform since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. This bill will cover 32 million people who previously could not afford health insurance, ban discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, and prevent arbitrary rate hikes. The bi-partisan Congressional Budget Office conservatively estimates that this bill will save the United State over a trillion dollars.

It was a long and painful path from the moment President Obama announced his intentions to reform health care to last night's achievement. The national discussion was not a debate over critical data, economic realities and moral philosophy; it was a debate hijacked by a storm of irrationality. What should have been an open and honest discussion very quickly turned into the mass broadcasting of erroneous, fear-mongering rumors, with the other side's feeble attempts to dispel them falling on deaf ears. President Obama could have hung a giant banner outside the White House that read “HEALTH CARE REFORM WILL SAVE US $1 TRILLION!!!” And yet every time I turn on the television there is a Tea Partier or a Fox News anchor talking about how the bill will increase the national debt and drive up medical costs.

Dissent over health care reform is valid. But there is a difference between irrational dissent and rational dissent. When the opposition has to launch one of the largest disinformation campaigns ever perpetrated against the American populace, they invalidate themselves. One should never have to lie to prove a point. As a tragic result, half the population now thinks that a bill that is less progressive than what Republican governor Mitt Romney signed into law in Massachusetts, and far less progressive than systems that work for almost everyone living in Europe and Canada, will turn this country into the Soviet States of America, with a 90 percent tax hike on all the kids to pay for it. That’s not thinking scientifically.

A scientific thinker examines available data and forms a hypothesis. For the most part, the opposition to this bill tried to alter reality to fit the hypothesis they already created.

The fact that the Republican Party was almost successful in derailing this bill is not a sign of its strength but a sign of its decline. Not a single Republican in the house voted, not just for the bill, but even to debate it openly. When President Clinton proposed his plans for health care reform, there was unanimous consent to open debate. No bill in U.S. history has ever attracted this much partisan opposition to any bill. Even the 1964 Civil Rights Act had bi-partisan support. The Republicans have banded together to form one dogmatic, homogenous voting block against the Obama administration, no matter what its agenda may be. They have done so because they are desperate. The Republican Party is a cornered wolf, taking one ferocious last stand.

Firstly, let's take a look at minority voting trends. Statistically speaking, minorities tend to vote Democrat. According to population projections, it will not be long before minorities make up a majority of the American population. At a time when Republican survival depends on widening their tent, their new-found dogma has only managed to narrow it.

Secondly, the Republican base has been hijacked by former Alaska Republican governor Sarah Palin, the religious right, and the Tea Party. What this means is that rational Republicans have to distance themselves from the base of their party. They have to clarify that even though they are Republican, they are no fans of Palin or even former President George W. Bush. However, Republican candidates still have to campaign to their base if they stand a decent chance of winning primaries or drawing high turnouts for general elections.

Take Mitt Romney. He is a highly educated man who signed into Massachusetts law one of the most progressive pieces of health care legislation this country has seen. But when someone of his intellect goes on national television, as he did during the C-PAC conference, and calls Obama supporters “neo-liberal monarchs,” you know he knows better. Moderate Republicans and independents are forced to take a step back, and the Democrats now have another sound bite to use against Romney in 2012.

The third sign of the decline of the Republican Party is simply that America is growing more liberal. The majority of young people vote Democratic, support gay marriage and drug legalization, and are pro-choice. We also are the generation that didn’t grow up during the Cold War. Outside Tea Party and Wall Street culture, the Red Scare doesn’t really exist. The word "socialism" doesn’t send chills down our spines the way it did for our parents and grandparents. So we are more open minded when it comes to social programs, such as a public option.

These realities are forcing Republican strategists to use fear mongering and disinformation tactics to the point where their constituents are buying into a new reality, one that is not based on fact or reason. In this reality, even the U.S. Census, which has been constitutionally mandated since our nation's founding, has become unnecessarily controversial and called an “encroachment on our civil liberties.”

These tactics are most effective and most dangerous when they are implemented in our public schools. Some of our most important elections -- and often the most overlooked -- determine who serves on our school boards. Scientists especially should be paying very close attention to school board elections. All too often, a school’s science budget is the first line item to be cut, before sports. All too often, teaching widely accepted scientific theory is considered controversial. What goes into our curricula could easily determine the future of the scientific standing of the United States and how effective we will be in dealing with issues pertaining to the environment and energy independence.

There is no greater evidence of this than the recent conservative overhaul of Texas’ textbooks. In what came down to a party line vote, the overhaul went so far as to significantly downplay Thomas Jefferson’s role in history, simply because of his secular ideology and writings. What makes this even more frightening is that Texas is the largest buyer of textbooks in the nation. So textbook publishers must cater to the Texas curriculum to survive. Changes in Texas education affect the rest of the nation.

Grade school science is so much more than just teaching kids the periodic table or what happens when you mix vinegar and baking soda. Teaching the scientific method and habits of scientific thinking is crucial because it teaches kids to base their conclusions on data and observation. Students learn to have viewpoints that are reflective of reality -- not to have their reality reflect their viewpoints. To study the scientific method is to encourage rational thinking. When that is cut, then perhaps students will cease to question why Thomas Jefferson is no longer in their textbook.

Schools should encourage students to think scientifically and civically. What this country needs more than anything right now is a generation of young people who will grow up thinking that success is not determined by profit margin but by whether you make the world a better place for all. Last night, 219 men and women in Congress did just that. Because of the great risk they all took by voting for HR 3590, 32 million Americans finally got that breath of fresh air they so desperately needed. The passage of the health care bill will be remembered as one of the most important pieces of legislation since the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. The only thing that will prevent that is if we let the Republicans cut March 21, 2010 out of the textbooks.

Be Skeptical, Be Critical, Take Nothing On Faith.

All the best,

Jesse M. S.

About Jesse Medalia Strauss

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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