Sorry to bring this up again, as I’m sure most of you couldn’t care less, but something about the idea of a presidential debate on science-related issues really bugs me, and I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what that is. Plus, part of me is hoping that someone will come along and explain to me why this is a good idea.
So far, though, there seem to be two main justifications for having this debate. The first, expressed in the quote from the Sciencedebate 2008 website (and elsewhere) is that we are utterly dependent on science and technology in virtually every aspect of our lives. This is undoubtedly true, but the president has very little if any influence on the vast majority of the science and technology that we depend upon. Nor should he or she have much influence on it. Perhaps the one question to ask each of the presidential candidates will be, “Will you leave science the hell alone or not?” Because problems only arise when politics and science get entangled, as has happened too frequently under the current administration. A presidential debate on science-related issues can do nothing to remove political influences on science, but it can sure as hell serve to increase them.
The second justification, expressed for example by Chris Mooney in his Seed article titled “Dr. President, goes like this:
The next president of the United States of America will control a $150 billion annual research budget, 200,000 scientists, and 38 major research institutions and all their related labs.
I think this is a bit of an overstatement. The president doesn’t have complete control over the budget; congress gets a say in that too. And most of those 200,000 scientists won’t be affected at all by who happens to be elected in 2008, I imagine. And that’s as it should be. Again, it seems that the main question to ask of the candidates here is, “Will you leave these 200,000 scientists be?”
And with respect to the science-related issues that politicians can, and at least in some cases should affect (i.e., policy that is informed but not dictated by science), we know perfectly well where the candidates stand. If scientists or the public haven’t figured that out by now, it’s not because the candidates haven’t been talking, at length, about issues like the environment and global warming, health care and stem cells, and even space exploration (which has been a topic in at least one Republican primary debate that I know of). It’s because the scientists, and anyone else who doesn’t know exactly where these people stand on these issues, haven’t been paying attention. And if you need the candidates to have an entire debate on your pet issue(s) in order for you to pay attention to what they say about them, then that’s a personal problem.
In short, then, I don’t think either of the main reasons given for having this debate are any good, and I think the problems with the idea of a science-only debate far outweigh any merit those reasons might have. In particular, we already know about where the candidates stand on the major science-related issues, as they’ve talked about them pretty extensively, and more importantly, an increased mingling of science and politics can only be bad for science. I get the impression — and perhaps I’m wrong — that this whole movement is yet another case of the hubris so frequently demonstrated by many scientists who think that their issues and opinions should be heard over everyone else’s, and that Sciencedebate 2008 is merely a ploy to get scientists more influence in politics (where, for the most part, there only influence as scientists should be as information-conveyors), rather than to raise the awareness of science among the candidates and public.