David Phillips: Quest for knowledge doesn’t constitute an endorsement

When this column touches on President Trump, there is usually some criticism from his supporters, which is understandable. It is good to hear alternative opinions even if they aren’t for publication.

However, after the column two weeks ago questioning why Trump isn’t running on his economic record, instead focusing on threats, namely immigrants, one reaction intrigued me. An online commenter implied that the column endorsed tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has some interesting ideas about what he feels is the real threat to jobs — automation, not immigrants.

The column noted that Yang’s ideas haven’t been scrutinized because he isn’t a major candidate and there are serious reservations about his qualifications for president. Still, he is bringing up some interesting ideas on what he calls “the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of our country,” which is hitting workers hard as many good, hands-on jobs are disappearing to automation.

Finding some of his ideas interesting is a lot different than endorsing him, though.

That reach of logic isn’t an isolated case. Many people, especially those who are politically inclined, criticize others who are open to considering new ideas or new information, especially on controversial subjects where the lines have already been drawn.

State Sen. Scott Jensen (R-Chaska), a doctor, recently announced he won’t be seeking re-election, partly to spend more time with his family, but also because the first-time senator has been frustrated with the legislative process. He told MinnPost, an online newspaper, that when he was first elected in 2014 he assumed the two big driving forces of legislation would be “what’s good policy and what’s good information.” Instead, he has found the agenda is set by anecdotal stories, which frequently have no pertinence to the issue at hand, and the reluctance to allow anyone on the other side of the aisle to get a win.

For example, Jensen received some pushback from both sides of the recreational marijuana issue when he co-sponsored a legalization bill with DFLers and then later testified in a hearing that he wouldn’t vote for the bill. Jensen told MinnPost that he was willing to get the bill heard because he wanted the Legislature to find answers about marijuana use and its safety.

The bill was voted down along party lines, but Jensen endorsed a DFL push to convene a task force to study the issue over the interim. The Republican caucus objected, saying that he was wrong because a task force will lead to legalization.

“And I said, ‘I’m wrong because I want to learn more about this?’ And they said, ‘Yep, because the next step will be recreational marijuana legalized.’ I said, ‘How can you make that jump? There’s nobody in this room, me included, that has said I’m for legalization. But I’m certainly for preparing for the future.’ That was the end of the discussion,” Jensen told MinnPost.

The same happens at the national level. There are many calls for action to prevent gun violence in the wake of the two mass shootings over the weekend, yet we don’t know much about what kind of action would be effective. One reason is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quit research into firearm injuries and deaths in 1996 due to the Dickey Amendment. The amendment had been consistently renewed in spending bills until just last year when it was modified slightly to allow some research, but still prohibits recommendations to restrict guns in any way.

Back in 1996, Congress threatened to strip funding from the CDC unless it stopped funding that research. The National Rifle Association lobbied for the amendment, accusing the CDC of promoting gun control.

So the CDC stopped funding gun research for more than two decades, which also had ramifications far beyond the agency as money for all public health studies of the issue nationwide dried up.

Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican congressman who led the efforts to stop the CDC’s gun violence research, had a change of heart before he died in 2017. In a 2012 editorial he and the CDC director at the time wrote that the CDC should be able to research gun violence as Dickey had come to regret his role, saying he simply didn’t want to let any of that funding go to gun control advocacy.

He later told the Washington Post after several mass shootings that he still favored protecting gun rights, but he also felt gun violence should be studied because he wanted solutions to a pressing problem.

“We need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics,” Dickey told the Post.

That seems like just plain common sense, but common sense doesn’t have a place in the rigid world of politics today where winning is all that matters and a curious mind is a trait of losers.

In a sane world, people would have a desire to uncover all the evidence, or information, before reaching a conclusion.

Looking into research, considering ideas from a rival or asking questions don’t constitute an endorsement. It just shows a quest for knowledge, something the world is in short supply of during these hyper-partisan times.