A Call for a Science Debate

Following on an article in Seed and an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, ScienceBloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (of The Intersection) have teamed up with a bunch of other smart people to launch Sciencedebate 2008:

Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.

I’m on record as wanting fewer debates, at least in the primary season, but I’ll endorse this idea. It’s not that I expect it to provide me any useful information (I’m voting party-line Democratic this year, and every year until the Republican party stops being led by crooks and lunatics), or change many minds in the general electorate, but I’m in favor of anything that might lead toward a greater public respect for science and scientific issues.

And besides, wouldn’t it be fun to see a debate in which the Republican candidate had to ritually deny modern biology on national television?


  1. #1 Mark P
    December 10, 2007

    Well, maybe. I think the result, should such an unlikely event take place, is the transformation of science and science policy into sound bites. And the only people who would notice would be scientists. Is that a good thing?

    Aside from a few obvious hot-button issues (global warming, stem cell research, maybe possibly evolution as a way to weed out absolute wackos) where would the questions come from? I think the main thing we would learn from such a debate is that republicans are anti-science and democrats don’t know much about science. That is, unless the questions were given long enough beforehand that the candidates’ staffs could research them and allow the candidates to come up with reasonable positions. That’s the way debates should happen anyway. Ambush journalism doesn’t teach us much about any useful quality of a presidential candidate. Why should quickness on one’s feet have anything to do with how a president would run the country? Don’t we want our presidents to really research things and think about them?

  2. #2 Emily
    December 10, 2007

    I am saddened by your quickness to put this effort down, and furthermore by your lumping of all Republicans as anti-science and all Democrats as know-nothings. The Republicans boast some excellent defenders of science, including Vern Ehlers (PhD in nuclear physics, teaching/research at Berkeley & Calvin College, volunteer science advisor to Congressman Gerry Ford) and Sherry Boehlert (now retired). On the Dems side, Jerry McNerny has a doctorate in math, putting him into the ranks of the sci/tech/engin/math defenders. Several members of Congress on both sides have made an effort to become more educated about many pressing science issues. We must realize that there are many issues out there, and we can’t expect every Congressperson to be an expert on every one – but science deserves just as big a shot as health care, military, and other concerns.

  3. #3 Mark P
    December 10, 2007

    Emily, I was talking about candidates for president. I am sure there are many from all parties who are good scientists or who have smatterings of knowledge, but presidential candidates are not scientists. It is a little much to expect them to have anything more than a passing acquaintance with science, or to have much more than a general policy about science (like, for example, don’t let ideologues control federal science policy). It would be good to know that, but as to a debate, I don’t think it serves any real purpose. How much detail do you get in any debate (debate is, of course, the wrong term for what we actually get)? Even on strictly policy issues, like immigration or health care, you get sound bites at best. Forget getting anything substantive on science.

    Also, read what I said about giving them a look at the questions beforehand and a chance to think and come up with a position that reflects their true views.

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    December 10, 2007

    “Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.”

    That’s spectacularly amusing. How many of the current Democrat and Republican Presidential candidates can balance their own checkbooks? It is a Grand Guignol of overwhelming ignorance mercyhumped by overweening arrogance.

    Uncle Al will hold his nose and write in Stephen Colbert’s name.

  5. #5 Caledonian
    December 10, 2007

    These aren’t debates, for crying out loud! They’re position statements!

    Who’s stupider: the people who insist upon misnaming the publicity stunts, or the people who repeat the misnaming?

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