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Sarah Palin

Interviewer: Often, government-funded scientific research gets on the front pages of newspapers, where people see it as not being a good thing: ‘We’re spending x millions of dollars studying such-and-such behavior of chimpanzees!’ When you see something like that, what’s your response?

Steven Pinker: Oh, well, am I allowed to bring up Sarah Palin?

The most hair-raising, egregious, nauseating example of this occurred just last week, when Sarah Palin ridiculed the idea that the federal government would sponsor research on fruit flies. She followed by saying, “I kid you not,” as if this was the most absurd thing she’d ever heard — ignoring the fact that almost everything we know about genetics originally came from research on fruit flies, such as the existence and behavior of chromosomes, which is one of the things that allows us to determine the cause of Down syndrome, something that she claims to be interested in devoting more resources toward.

So genetics is something you study with fruit flies. Fruit flies are also a major economic pest: our huge citrus industry in California and Florida can be threatened by quirks of the behavior of the fruit fly. So in picking what she thought sounded like an example of government waste, she was identifying one of the most important bodies of research in the entire scientific enterprise.

And John McCain did the same thing. In two debates, he ridiculed research on the DNA of grizzly bears, not realizing that nowadays if you’re a biologist, you study DNA. Even if you’re a field biologist looking at conservation of endangered species (and grizzly bears are a threatened species, so there’s a federal mandate to keep track of their numbers). How do you know whether you’ve seen two grizzly bears or one grizzly bear twice? Well you snag bits of their hair, and you do DNA analysis, and that’s how we know how many grizzly bears are out there.

In making the cheap shot of joking, “Well I don’t know if it’s for a paternity test or a crime scene,” both he and Palin I think showed a certain contempt for science that I and many other scientists find deeply disturbing.

If you describe any scientific research out of context, you can make it sound silly. I think it’s utterly irresponsible for a politician to do that, given how much of the fate of our country — and of our species — is going to depend on basic and applied scientific research.


A moment from In Depth with Steven Pinker shown on C-Span in November, 2008.

Last evening, the Senate voted 72-26 to approve our federal budget for the upcoming year. The bill now heads to the White House to receive President Obama’s signature before the deadline at midnight on Saturday.

Sarah Palin with a Bear

The above photo: a keen lesson in gun un-safety, from a recent Facebook photo-op of Palin posing with a dead (black) bear.