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Obama on Science: Hope or Hype? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

There may not be a blog in the world that isn't talking about Obama today. His speech included two important things for our community: nonbelievers and science. While we at the JREF are thrilled that a president actually acknowledged that nonbelievers are welcome in this country, it's his comments on science that we'll look at here.

We have a reason to be happy that Obama mentioned science from the podium, and in a supportive light, but what did he really say?

Remember: Obama's speech was written by a team of writers. He directed them, but he is not solely responsible for these words. Every syllable of this speech was checked for clarity of purpose and meaning. It was an extremely scrutinized eighteen minutes of text.

Obama said:

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost

Interesting wording there. What is science's rightful place? Skeptics might see science as something that should influence all aspects of life. Others might think it's only needed in the laboratory. He could have been very specific there, but chose to leave the wording open-ended.

The next clause seems somewhat unrelated. Science can clearly raise health care's quality, and has done so year after year for hundreds or thousands of years, but can science lower its cost? Possibly, but the real problems with the cost of healthcare aren't science problems, they're bureaucracy problems. That's the domain of politicians, not scientists.

He continued:

We will harness the Sun and the winds and soil to fuel our cars and run our factories

Ok, solar could be good, there have been some recent innovations there that could be exploited. Wind power remains problematic, but there is clearly the potential to collect some energy. Bio-fuels (unless by soil he meant coal and oil!) could have some impact, but the current ethanol situation isn't all clean air and fresh roses. It seems that Obama is saying that we'll explore many options to reduce our oil dependency. That sounds great, but how?

Hopefully, Obama's choice of appointees is a sign that smart, science-minded people will actually have a hand in making policy. He's asked real scientists, some of whom are Nobel laureates, to populate posts that were formerly filled with administrators. And indeed, if you read the article, you can see that they have experience in the very issues he raised in his speech.

Later, Obama said:

We will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet.

I'm not sure how science can be used to lessen the nuclear threat. In fact, what does he mean by that? Science can find a way to split an atom, but deciding what to do with that is up to politicians and other decision makers. The "nuclear threat" cannot be solved by science. Things cannot be unlearned in that way.

As for the warming planet, controversy continues to reign in the skeptic community. If global warming is caused by human activity, it's possible for science to help, but this is no small feat. Affecting the world's climate on purpose, with a goal in mind, is the stuff of science fiction, and likely the kind of science fiction that ends badly. I hope the plan is to study more before we devote massive resources to a problem we may not be able to solve.

In the end, while it's refreshing to hear these issues being brought up by the executive branch, Obama remains unproven. He has inherited the office at an incredibly difficult time, and it seems foolish to think that he'll be able to change things quickly.

At the same time, isn't it nice to have a bit of hope for a change?

(Lest the politicos descend, neither I nor the JREF espouse any political party.)

 

 

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written by Kuroyume, January 20, 2009
Pros: Obama understands and utilizes technology. He will not give up all of his Blackberry's unless pried from his cold, dead hands (but they aren't addictive, we'll save that for another article) smilies/smiley.gif. His successful campaign and instantiation into the office of President of the United States of America was very much a result of reaching out to the masses on the internet. He is young enough to be savvy with technology and comprehend its usefulness. Now, technology and science aren't synonomous but what I have read of his proposed agenda, he espouses directions that augment scientific research, technology, education, and marketplace competitiveness without just spouting vapid ambitions (like George W. Bush's espousal of a permanent Moon-base and human exploration of Mars).

Cons: Energy. That is a vague topic even for the professionals. At this time, we have few efficient ways to harness the sun's radiation; wind, hydrodynamic, and other 'green' forms of energy are also very inefficient and oft-times unpredictable. Hydrogen, Oxygen, and water-based fuels are highly volatile and expensive to produce. Nuclear energy, although much more stable than in the past (from someone who lived near enough to Three Mile Island to care) is still a very expensive enterprise with very volatile and lethal byproducts. My money is on nuclear fission-fusion. The problem is that it will require much more than my money to realize this technology - much more by many magnitudes. Renewable resources used for fuel are admirable but I don't see it happening unless they can put gallons of gas worth of energy into a single 'wood log'. Wood is a renewable resource but it is extremely inefficient (that's why we don't drive cars with wood-burning stoves). Even locomotives rather use coal to create the steam pressure for locomotion - but it takes a lot of coal. My stated beef with using bio-fuels is that it requires agricultural land to grow the product and lots of land if we intend to use it to any significant degree. This would instead be a stop-gap measure while researching better alternatives and not the alternative itself, imho.

In conclusion, yes, it is nice to know that President Obama isn't being guided by some deity and understands that hope is a goal towards improvement rather than a hollow wish. My personal three-point plan for bettering our nation and the world is this:

1. Manufacturing, engineering, science as key focuses in this country.
2. Using the aforementioned in infrastructure, products, exports. Use our own natural resources for our own rebuilding and use the surplus to supplement needy regions throughout the world until we can do more so from prosperity.
3. Education, education, and more education. A well educated populace will be more adept at making informed decisions and less likely to be culled by shams, religions, and spur-of-the-moment concerns.

As a sort of addendum - stop rampant, abusive consumerism and commercialism. We waste so much that it is absurd. Our stores are stocked to the roofs with perishable products that are regularly circulated out due to expiration. We live in an economy based upon having all choices immediately available in massive quantities that most often overshoot demand. We manufacture who knows how many automobiles a day to sit on dealership lots waiting to be purchased. Surpluses abound to the extent that the surplus waste could fuel economies all over the world. We haven't quite reached the perfect JIT system of product distribution but at the moment what we have is a gaudy plethora of vulgar choices most often left to rot. Efficiency is not only about how little is wasted during a conversion process but also about how well resources are used to avoid waste byproducts. Currently, the USA is at negative efficiency. We waste so much that we should be a bit ashamed and more motivated to change this situation.
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written by Spyronz, January 20, 2009
But wait, if he said "WE will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet", didn't he mean "we" as politicians, administrators etc...? I don't think he meant that only science can or must handle these issues.
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this sheep joins the flock
written by MadScientist, January 20, 2009
I agree. I'm still waiting to see signs of actual change; mere words really mean nothing to me. However, it would be very unfair to Obama if people portray him as the messiah then shun him because he can't deliver on all his promises. So while I'm not screaming and waving the flag as if the world were about to end and proclaiming Obama as our savior, at this point in time I have nothing negative to say about him either. I don't like his choice of chief of NASA but I'll wait one or two years before I get stuck into him about that.
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Well, he hasn't actually had time to act yet.
written by BillyJoe, January 20, 2009
mere words really mean nothing to me

It would mean nothing to you if he had not mentioned science, energy, and warming at all in his speech?
I think what you meant is that the words are nice but let's see if he turns words into actions.
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written by tctheunbeliever, January 21, 2009
Kuroyume's addendum reminded me a little of Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, after which Ronnie told us we could be as greedy and wasteful as we wanted to, and of course we ate it up and voted him in. Hopefully Americans have learned a few things since then, and Obama will have better luck with his own troublesome inheritance. If I'm preaching, I'm one of the congregation, too--sorry for the metaphor.
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written by razmatazspaz, January 21, 2009
"We will restore science to its rightful place..."


By this I think that Mr. Obama intended to highlight the differences between his upcoming administration and the past administration. It was one of his many references to change from the former ways. It means that he will consider the advice of his science advisors even if that advice is inconvenient or troubling or even not what he expected to hear. That will be a refreshing change from an administration that manipulated scientists with the threat of unemployment if their findings did not coincide with the wants of the administration. Changing or suppressing information to suit your own goals or fit your philosophy has no place when it comes to the "rightful place" of science. I think these words were well chosen.
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written by MoistenedBint, January 21, 2009
Immediately following the ceremony he was ushered into a briefing room and told the actual truth about crashed space aliens, the grassy knoll, who actually planned the 9/11 attacks and planted all the explosives, and the ultimate secret to unlimited mileage that the oil companies are suppressing. As we all know, he will not be allowed to divulge any of these secrets because the CIA is already giving him mind altering drugs.

I'm serious! A friend of mine told me. No really.
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written by Son of Rea, January 21, 2009
When will people realize that political speeches are meaningless? They are catered to appeal to the greatest number of people by remaining vague and emphasizing things everyone wants to hear.

Therefore, analyzing the contents of the speech is pointless. How many times have we seen politicians do the opposite of what they promised?

Analyze actions, not words.
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written by TDjazz, January 21, 2009
From Kuroyume's post: "...it is nice to know that President Obama isn't being guided by some deity"

We can't be so sure--he's taking part in the National Day of Prayer today (Wednesday, Jan. 21). Well, he may have to take part, but IMO a deity of some sort will probably "guide" some of his decisions. Most likely, he will be guided by the cigar-chomping members of the Chicago political machine.
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written by Cuddy Joe, January 21, 2009
Obama Year One: "Great! This new guy's gonna fix everything!"

Obama Year Two: "OK, OK, it's a tough job canging things. We need to be patient."

Obama Year Three: "Hmmm. I've got doubts, but I'll keep them to myself."

Obama Year Four: "Why, this clown is no different, no better, than all the other clowns we've elected!"

(Forgive me my cynicism - I hope Obama does well - but trying to evince meaning from a political speech is pointless. All we know as of January 21, 2009 is that Obama has good intentions.)

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Ironic Typo
written by Jim Shaver, January 21, 2009
Ever syllable of this speech was checked for clarity of purpose and meaning.

But you missed a syllable in your speech, Jeff. smilies/wink.gif
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written by cwniles, January 21, 2009
Cuddy Joe a prognosticator? You trying to put Sylvia out of a job Cuddy? ;-)
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written by Kuroyume, January 21, 2009
TDJazz: Unlike the previous president, at least he hasn't stated that god tells him what to do and that he's on a mission from god. This is why I especially dislike b.a.cs. The mention of 'non-believers' in a positive way is surely a turnaround from, say, GWH Bush's statement that atheists are neither citizens nor patriots.
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Too many people
written by Bill Henry, January 21, 2009
Assumptions:
1 - Every person on the earth should have equal access to energy.
2 - The world can not support the present rate of use of energy indefinately.
3 - There is no cheap alternative to natural gas, coal and oil.
4 - There is limited hydro-electric potential available.
5 - Nuclear fusion is a pipe dream and at least 50 years away still (probably 100's of years in fact). Nuclear fission is cost effective but the up front costs will prevent it from becoming prevalent for many years. Even then it will only be able to handle a small percentage of the energy demands. And there are a lot of other challenges with it.

Conclusion, the world is going to choke to death on this infestation called man. The only effective way to have a substainable world is to have far less people.

With regard to Obama, lets just say I am hopeful that he is close to what he has portrayed himself as. I think he realizes his place in history is dependent upon following through with what he has said he will do. He might just be the man to get past all the crap that successful politicians have to commit to to get anywhere. Go Obama.
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written by Kuroyume, January 21, 2009
While I agree, how do we implement a plan to reduce the world population without resorting to Draconian laws or worse? Unfortunately for humans, we don't live in a world with a single body that enacts policies and law for the entire world (suggesting that the U.N. isn't that body). We live in a world with many 'sovereign' nations which all have their own agendas, policies, and laws.

A population of no more than one billion or even less would be much more sustainable but that doesn't guarantee that the smaller population won't waste more for more extravagant lifestyles. If the top ten percent, the wealthy, are any guidepost then it is also a pipe dream to think that a smaller population will use less resources. What we'd indeed be proposing is a utilitarian society built purposely to remain at a certain size and use metered out amounts of resources. Not likely until the situation is so dire that it is the last resort.
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written by Cuddy Joe, January 21, 2009
"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you..."

American society loves heroes, needs heroes, and as many as 52% see one in Barack Obama. Given the history of American politics, we ought to be forgiven for hoping one might emerge from that cesspool of self-interested game-players. The concept of a politician who comes to Washington DC and succeeds in changing it rather than being changed by it is time-honored, to the point of being a Hollywood cliche, the theme of many a movie over the years. It's a great notion, but just doesn't happen, or, more accurately and hopefully, has not happened yet.

Is Obama the guy? While the heart says 'I hope so', the brain and history say no.

To speak of using science to address perceived needs such as renewable energy, clean energy, etc., might be sincere and a true intention, or it might simply be political rhetoric, a bone tossed to those voters who feel strongly about those issues and voted for Obama accordingly. We just can't know until the pin hits the shell.

National politics is the constant practice of compromise and horse-trading, and while it is heartening to hear Obama speak generically of honoring science, I suspect he'll end up doing whatever is politically expedient at the time the decision to do something comes nigh. Nothing agianst Obama, it is the nature of the political climate and practice.

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written by TDjazz, January 21, 2009
Kuroyume: There is still a lot of prejudice against atheists, which is regrettable in this day and age. That Obama mentioned nonbelievers is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go before we are accepted at the higher levels of our government, at least openly.

We just elected a black president, and a qualified woman would be welcome in the future. But I don't think we're going to see an openly atheistic politician run for president any time soon. smilies/sad.gif
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Too much religion
written by grochon, January 21, 2009
Even though Obama threw out an olive branch to "non-believers", I was still extremely disappointed at the presence of Rick Warren (an infinitely arrogant being, IMHO) and the continued references to 'God' and 'Jesus' that permeated this political anointing. Was anyone else as outraged? Maybe it was just me....

Regardless, even though the color barrier to the White House has been breached, there are other significant barriers that will be as difficult to overcome, one of which will be of concern to many who visit this site: the election of a committed atheist or agnostic (or "nonbeliever, if that works for you) to the Presidency. With the ballot power of the Christian Conservatives, however, this will surely be a long and arduous struggle. But, as witnessed yesterday, there is always hope.....
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written by MadScientist, January 21, 2009
@BillyJoe:

I mean what I wrote - mere words are meaningless. Whether Obama chose to mention science, warming, blahblah, or chose to avoid any mention of those words makes absolutely no difference to me - talk is cheap. What *would* terrify me is if he started babbling about his glorious visions from god. Dubbyah scared me stiff when he spoke about talking to god; it's very fortunate that, contrary to what is seen in the movies, the president cannot unilaterally launch a nuclear attack (that's 'nukular' to those who attended the Dubbyah School of Inglush"). As for Obama's hat-tipping to religion in his speech, that tells me absolutely nothing about Obama or his intentions. He may be trying to 'fit in' - he may have been advised that he needs to acknowledge the belief of religious groups around the country who may feel they're owed something for getting him elected. I'm waiting for evidence, not talk. Personally I can't understand the herd mentality and Obama worship that's going on. There's nothing wrong with optimism; only sad cases see no hope, but don't try to imagine there is any substance whatsoever to a political speech unless it is an inflammatory speech. For examples of inflammatory speeches, just look at the current president of Iran. He may be just a babbling idiot and do nothing to back up his talk, but people who talk like he does usually support some horrible agenda.
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written by tctheunbeliever, January 21, 2009
I don't think that everyone who voted for Obama did so because they think he's a superhero--I voted for him because he at least says what he plans to do (and I don't believe that he's lying about his basic aims) rather than just saying "My friends, trust me." If he talks about "reaching across the aisle" and "Wall Street and Main Street", he still has a few things to say that are not cliches. I won't try to say that he's not a demagogue, but I think he was clearly the better choice.
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He's a politician
written by Griz, January 21, 2009
The simple answer is that he's saying what he thinks everyone wants to hear.

What I heard when he mentioned bringing science back into its rightful place is that we'll eliminate the impediments to advancement caused by religion, in the case of stem cell research, and greed, in the case of energy technology. YMMV, but those seem to me to be the areas where the previous evangelistic oilmongering administration fell down the most.
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written by cwniles, January 21, 2009
I know I won't agree with everything he does, I am just hopeful that he won't start invading countries under false pretenses or issue an executive order justifying the use of torture on civilians.

Maybe as a bonus he could repeal the Patriot Act, steady the economy and dedicate some serious resources to climate change research and/or real world actions.

I am not looking to Obama for my scientific information, I am looking to Obama to make logical decisions based on data provided by experts in the corresponding field(s). I am hopeful he will prove to be a logical President
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written by acedwards, January 21, 2009
With George HW's words that an atheist can never be a patriot still ringing in my ears all these years later, I was thrilled to hear him identify non-believers as a group that really exists. I too was unnerved by the carelessness of his diction here. I don't know that it reveals lack of understanding so much as jingoism, but it worries me either way. Still, you are correct - it is nice to have hope that we might finally have a president who knows what science is.
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written by cullen, January 21, 2009
Jeff Wagg wrote:
Later, Obama said:

We will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet.

I'm not sure how science can be used to lessen the nuclear threat. In fact, what does he mean by that? Science can find a way to split an atom, but deciding what to do with that is up to politicians and other decision makers. The "nuclear threat" cannot be solved by science. Things cannot be unlearned in that way.



I don't see where he stated that science would lessen the nuclear threat. President Obama, I believe, was consistent in using the term "we" to mean "everybody" (or as one might say in the south, "you'all and me"). And by the nuclear threat, presumably he refers to the number of countries with nuclear weapons (as well as the number of poorly guarded nuclear weapons in others, and the chances of non-governmental groups gaining access to nuclear weapons).

One cannot expect a full explanation of all points of policy in an innaugural speech.
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written by Roo, January 21, 2009
I really hope Mr. Obama doesn't follow the same path as our Tony Blair. He was so promising to start with, open, honest and engaging. But I believe he became corrupted by power and those parasites that it attracts and ended up by lying to the nation in order to send us to war.

I do think that Mr. Obama will be a good president, though. One thing is certain - he cannot be any worse than Dubya "I believe human beings and fish can co-exist peacefully" Bush. Somehow, I can't imagine Mr. Obama (with or without advisors and speech-writers) saying anything quite so daft.

One of my US friends gave me a GW Bush Out-of-Office-Countdown desk diary for Christmas in 2007. It has one Bush gaffe for each day. The final page on Tuesday was from a speech Bush gave in Beaverton, Oregon in 2004. He said:

"I hope you leave here and walk out and say, 'What did he say?'."

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written by BillyJoe, January 21, 2009
I mean what I wrote - mere words are meaningless. Whether Obama chose to mention science, warming, blahblah, or chose to avoid any mention of those words makes absolutely no difference to me...

If he didn't mention science, goodbye science. Having at least mentioned it science at least has some hope.

...talk is cheap. What *would* terrify me is if he started babbling about his glorious visions from god.

So words are not meaningless.

Personally I can't understand the herd mentality and Obama worship that's going on.

As Neil Young said, it's not really my scene either, but...
If the populace is urging him on, it might at least make it harder for him to renege on his promises. It they showed they didn't care, how much easier would it be.
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written by BillyJoe, January 21, 2009
PS:

For the moment I think it will work in our favour to remain totally optimistic, at least outwardly. At the first sign of an Obama cave-in, we will need to make a really big noise...

BJ
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written by MadScientist, January 21, 2009
@Roo:

The president has to work within the established framework of the government; in reality his powers are severely limited and that was the intended effect of the laws which established the offices of the federal government. As horrible as Dubbyah was in eroding civil liberties and subjecting people to torture, Dubbyah will be known in US history as one of the most influential presidents ever. Even if we assume Obama is very capable and has predominantly sensible advisers, his effectiveness can still be easily stymied by the legislative branch of government; even if the Democrat party controlled the two houses of congress there is still no guarantee that Obama would be able to achieve much. I don't know how your political system operates in the UK, but unless your prime minister had the good old Roman position of dictator, I can imagine most of his efforts being thwarted by other branches of government.
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healthcare costs
written by sibtrag, January 22, 2009
I disagree with your statement that "the real problems with the cost of healthcare aren't science problems". Reducing the cost of the current healthcare methods is indeed a political issue. Possibly a single-payer plan would reduce the total cost by eliminating the overhead of insurance companies. Or maybe not.

But, the best ways to reduce healthcare costs involve changing the nature of healthcare. Prevention and early detection can greatly reduce costs. Consider the vast cost reduction which the polio vaccine gives us.
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written by JeffWagg, January 22, 2009
@sibtrag: how is that a science issue?
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written by BillyJoe, January 22, 2009
the best ways to reduce healthcare costs involve changing the nature of healthcare. Prevention and early detection can greatly reduce costs.

Actually, it only delays them.
We will all die eventually and 90% of our life time's health care costs are consumed with the diagnosis and management of our final illness.

It actually costs too much to see a doctor in America. They are all specialists who command extraordinary wages and order extraordinary number of investigations for relatively minor problems. You need a system of "gatekeepers" like the GP in Australia. Our system, though not perfect, is far superior, all inclusive, and at a fraction of the cost.
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written by Cuddy Joe, January 22, 2009
BillyJoe: "We will all die eventually..."

For the record, I have no intention of ever dying. So far, so good.

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written by tctheunbeliever, January 23, 2009
(and he knows how to pronounce "nuclear")
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written by Steel Rat, January 23, 2009
Too much religion
written by grochon, January 21, 2009
Even though Obama threw out an olive branch to "non-believers", I was still extremely disappointed at the presence of Rick Warren (an infinitely arrogant being, IMHO) and the continued references to 'God' and 'Jesus' that permeated this political anointing. Was anyone else as outraged? Maybe it was just me....


I wasn't outraged as much as disgusted. How can one put science in its proper place and still believe in an invisible sky daddy who knows and controls all? I rolled my eyes, a lot.
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Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
written by starparty, January 23, 2009
The new Secretary of the Department of the Interior, in his address to all employees on January 22nd, echoed President Barack Obama when he said, "My priorities are many... one of those priorities will be to lead the Interior Department with openness in decision-making, high ethical standards, and respect for scientific integrity." This garnered strong applause from his audience in Washington, and also from our audience of 300+ people strong at a remote location. As a Federal employee in the Department, I must say that I find his words and his sentiment - and that of the President - to be long overdue and quite welcome.
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Nonbelievers and others
written by alofkeene, January 26, 2009
It was good to hear Obama say something good about nonbelievers. Maybe atheists will become acceptable before some other groups--can you imagine the buzz that would have occurred if, instead of "nonbelievers", he had included Wiccans or Neopagans?
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