ScienceDebate.org is a group dedicated to promoting the discussion of important scientific issues in American politics. They formed around the idea of holding a science-themed debate in the 2008 presidential election, and have continued since then. They were never successful in getting the two campaigns to agree to a live debate concerning scientific topics, but they did agree to submit written answers to questions. This time around, in the 2012 presidential election, it also appears that there will be no live debate, but both campaigns have submitted written answers to science questions.
The idea behind ScienceDebate is this – from their website:
“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”
Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking.
I remember Carl Sagan hitting this theme often, in Cosmos and in his interviews. He said, for example:
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
There are many important topics faced by society and relevant to presidential politics that are, as Sagan said, “exquisitely dependent on science and technology.” There are many critical policy issues that are mostly a question of science. Science cannot determine all political questions, as there is often a value judgement or matter of governing philosophy involved, but science does inform most if not all questions. Some issues are almost purely a matter of science.
There are more than enough science-dependent issues in presidential politics to warrant a live presidential debate focused on those issues. A live debate would be much better than simply submitting written answers to questions. Read the answers the two campaigns submitted and you will see why – they only sort-of answer the question, and as quickly as possible turn their answer to their campaign’s talking points.
During a live debate we can see how the candidates think and what they know and believe about scientific issues. They can also be pushed on specific points if they give evasive answers. My hope is that some of the questions asked by ScienceDebate will find their way to one or more of the presidential (and vice-presidential) debates. In this way, even without achieving their ultimate goal of a debate dedicated to science topics, ScienceDebate can serve a very useful role of raising the profile of scientific issues in the presidential election, and all of politics.
There isn’t space here to give my detailed thoughts and analysis of all the questions answered by the two campaigns, but I will give some tidbits that caught my eye, and you can read their full answers on the website.
The first question on innovation was largely an invitation to spout their respective economic vision, but some interesting points emerge. Obama mentioned doubling funding for “key research agencies,” but didn’t name any specifically. He also repeated his goal of creating 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade. Romney mostly laid out his economic philosophy, but did say at the end that he believes the government should not pick winners and losers in industry, but support broadly applicable science and technology development so that the private sector can take it from there.
Perhaps the biggest hot-button issue was that of global warming. Obama took the basic Democratic position that global warming is happening and we need take is seriously, but then launched into campaign talking points about what he has already accomplished.
I was very interested in Romney’s answer, coming from the partly that largely (but not uniformly) denies global climate change. He acknowledged that global warming is real and man-made, but then tempered that opinion by saying their is no consensus on the extent of warming or human contribution. I would have preferred a caveat-free endorsement of the science. I thought the rest of his answer was reasonable, however, especially the “no regrets” approach – developing technology that is a win-win, by improving quality of life while reducing carbon emissions. This opinion exactly matches the one expressed by Bill Nye when we interviewed him on the SGU.
The most disappointing answers from both campaigns came from the vaccination question. Neither seemed to have anything thoughtful to say on the issue, and just reverted quickly to standard talking points. At least there were no gaffes about autism, which I guess is the best I could have hoped for.
It is worth reading through the rest of the questions and answers. There were no shockers in there, and both candidates were, for the most part, reasonable in their answers, which reflected their basic governing philosophy, that of their respective party, and the points they have been hitting on their campaigns.
What we need now is growing public support for ScienceDebate.org and their mission. We need to force the campaigns to take these questions seriously and to increase the number of science-themed questions in the live presidential debates. These are among the most important issues we face as a society and directly involve public policy. Further, I think a basic scientific literacy should be considered a prerequisite for any important public office, let alone the highest office in the country.
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