A Blog Around The Clock

To keep the conversation about the Science Debate 2008 going, I decided to post, one per day, my ideas for potential questions to be asked at such a debate. The questions are far too long, though, consisting more of my musings than real questions that can be asked on TV (or radio or online, wherever this may end up happening). I want you to:

– correct my factual errors
– call me on my BS
– tell me why the particular question is counterproductive or just a bad idea to ask
– if you think the question is good, help me reduce the question from ~500 to ~20 words or so.

Here is the first one, so comment away!

Advancements in science and society have brought in new technologies over the past decades and centuries, so today we have to deal with the consequences of uses of such technologies that previous generations did not have to deal with, ranging from reproductive technologies to global warming, from ecosystem protection to bioterrorism. More and more policy decisions are heavily dependent on good understanding of the underlying science. Thus, there is an increased need for good science advice to the President and the Congress, as well as good implementation of science policies devised and enacted by the President and the Congress.

Unfortunately, empirical knowledge of the way the world works stands in the way of ideologically motivated policies, thus some politicians and some of their allies in the business community and/or religious community have systematically suppressed science and ignored scientific advice. First, in 1994, one of the first acts of the Gingrich Congress was to eliminate the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. President G.W.Bush demoted the office of the Presidential Science Advisor who in previous administrations was a member of the Cabinet present at daily meetings and who had the ear of the President instantly whenever needed. The President’s Council on Bioethics has been systematically filled with far-Rightwing ideologues. The Federal scientific, health and environmental agencies are now headed by party loyalists with no scientific background who act as censors of the research produced by the agency scientists. Finally, the reports of the National Academy of Science were ignored or even openly dismissed by the current President.

If elected President, what do you intend to do to make sure that you receive trustworthy scientific information and that your policies are based on the best available empirical knowledge about the world? What do you see as the primary role of the Presidential Science Advisor? In what way, if any, would you change the current federal framework of implementing science-related policy?


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    December 14, 2007

    I think that is an excellent question, and frankly the only one that would be particularly relevant if such a debate were to occur. It is not relevant whether candidates have particular opinions on particular specific scientific issues. All that matters is that they are committed to an appropriate non-insane decision-making process that incorporates reliable scientific information, and distinguishes it from bogus propaganda spewed by various interest groups.

  2. #2 Dan
    December 14, 2007

    Looks like you did a good job of working out a ~20-word question already, with the first sentence of the last paragraph of this post! Okay, so that sentence is 33-words. You could simplify it a little, maybe, to something like this:

    “If elected President, what do you intend to do to make sure that your policies are based on trustworthy scientific information?”

    Of course both questions are still a bit general.

  3. #3 Dan
    December 14, 2007

    “It is not relevant whether candidates have particular opinions on particular specific scientific issues.”

    I disagree – If a presidential science debate were to move away from a simple litmus test of science literacy, it MUST discuss specific scientific issues. With policy, as with engineering, there are a number of scientifically-valid solutions to an issue. A good science debate might involve presentation of alternative and equally valid policy solutions.

    Of course that assumes that presidential candidates could come up with policies that reflect trustworthy science – which you describe with the “All that matters…” caveat.

  4. #4 Ramji Bhandari
    December 14, 2007

    Sorry Bora, I am a new to blogging.
    I enjoyed reading your letter. Your writing is so well-organized that I could not think about restructuring it.

  5. #5 John S. Wilkins
    December 15, 2007

    Technically the Gingrich Congress did not eliminate the OTC but defunded it. It still exists as an atavism.

  6. #6 Coturnix
    December 15, 2007

    Good to know – this makes it easier to get it back: just fund it again. Thanks.

  7. #7 leandra
    December 15, 2007

    I like your question, but feel that I might disagree with some of those who think the questions should be very general, because allows candidates to spin things to make them look good even if they really aren’t going to do anything (or will do what isn’t scientifically recommended).

    Basically this debate, if it ever were to occur, would be fascinating simply because the reality of much scientific evidence is that it goes against some political ideologies. I also wonder, if you were to have a debate that asked really good questions, with specific examples, how you’d avoid accusations of “liberal” bias because of scientific evidence on global warming, evolution/creationism in schools, endangered species act research,etc.

    I also like “would you make it a priority to fund the OTC” even though that’s the kind of specific (but important) policy question that wouldn’t resonate with or matter to most people.

  8. #8 Libertarian Girl
    December 15, 2007

    It’s a good question, and it displays exactly why the government needs to stay completely out of the realm of scientific research. It’s quite likely that the person elected President next year will not believe in evolution. Many members of Congress don’t. Do we really want to entrust the future of scientific research to a group of old people in DC who sit around all day and think of new ways to get elected by the decidedly non-scientific American public at large?

    The federal government is not authorized by the Constitution to be involved in these sorts of endeavors and there was a good reason why: Jefferson, et. al., were smarter than that and wouldn’t have dreamed of making Benjamin Franklin apply to the government for approval first before he invented something. It’s madness.

  9. #9 Dan
    December 16, 2007

    Libertarian Girl,
    Do we want to entrust the future of scientific research to the government? No, but we don’t have any other choice – we’re dependent upon government funding to a large degree.

    Also, it’s inevitable that the President (and Congress people) will have to use scientific findings in the course of policy-making. Simply too many decisions necessarily must involve at least a high school level of science education.

    That said, I hear you on the cynicism!! 😉

  10. #10 Coturnix
    December 26, 2007

    I have now posted all six of my potential questions. Click on the very first link of this post to find all the relevant information.

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