Suffolk Closeup: A scientific look at politics


On June 28, a group of Congressional representatives, led by Tim Bishop who represents Shelter Island, hosted a reception in East Hampton for a fellow congressman, Bill Foster of Illinois.

Mr. Foster is one of only three scientists in the House of Representatives. His invitation to the fundraiser was headed by, “Why Don’t Americans Elect Scientists?” Mr. Foster, in a statement, wrote, “The complex economic and technological issues our nation faces today will require leaders who think through the critical issues of the day, using logic and facts rather than resorting to mindless party-line talking points … Part of that solution has to be to elect more scientists and engineers to Congress.”

Mr. Foster worked for 22 years at Fermilab and, a bio stated, “participated in leading-edge scientific research, designed and built state-of-the-art physics experiments.” Fermilab in Illinois, with 1,750 employees, is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Considering especially the debate among Congressional representatives on climate change, science is indeed important. Mr. Foster is a Democrat — like Mr. Bishop of Southampton and the other representatives who hosted him, Steve Israel of Huntington and Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan. Democrats in Congress and Democratic President Barack Obama have been blasting Republicans in Congress who deny climate change and global warming. They emphasize that the science on both issues is clear and charge the GOPers have a politicized “anti-science” agenda.

Mr. Bishop’s Republican opponent this year, State Senator Lee Zeldin of Shirley, is holding his own fundraiser on September 8. His main guest will be former Representative Allen West of Florida.

According to published reports, “When asked if he felt that climate change was causing the earth to become warmer, West responded with a firm ‘No.’”

Yes, utilizing science rather than a dubious political line when it comes to climate change and global warming is a good thing. But, on the other hand, scientists often also have their own political agendas rooted in promoting scientific institutions. Science might be objective, but that doesn’t mean all scientists are.

Some of us are familiar with President Eisenhower’s warning in his farewell address to the nation in 1961 about the rise of a “military-industrial complex.”

Not widely known is that the original draft of that speech warned not just of a “military-industrial complex” but of a “military-industrial-scientific complex.” The president’s science advisor, James Killian, later president of MIT, pleaded that the word “scientific” be eliminated and it was.

Nevertheless, President Eisenhower went on warning, “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists and laboratories.” He declared that “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect … we must also be alert to the equal and opposing danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.”

David E. Lilienthal, first chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), used similar words in his 1963 book, “Change, Hope, and the Bomb.” He wrote how “scientists are ranked in platoons,” and “the independent and humble search for new truths about nature has become confused with the bureaucratic impulse to justify expenses and see that next year’s budget is bigger than the last.”

He spoke about the “elaborate and even luxurious [national] laboratories that have grown up at Oak Ridge, Argonne, Brookhaven.”

In that line he was referring to Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), set up by AEC in Suffolk and now owned by the U.S. Department of Energy.

One need only examine what happened to one of Mr. Bishop’s predecessors in the lst Congressional District, three-term Representative Michael Forbes of Quogue, after he challenged BNL in 1999, to see the concerns of President Eisenhower and Mr. Lilienthal playing out.

Mr. Forbes was concerned about radioactive leaks from nuclear reactors at BNL and spoke out forcefully.

He was opposed in a primary for the Democratic nomination by Regina Seltzer of Bellport whose husband had been a BNL scientist. BNL personnel manned phone banks for Ms. Seltzer. She took the nomination from Mr. Forbes by 45 votes, but lost the general election. Meanwhile, a highly capable representative was driven out of Congress.

There have been many studies into scientists being influenced by ties to government and corporations and perverting their analyses.

Being anti-science, as such, is wrong. But so is having an uncritical belief in scientists.