More on the science debate

Like various fancy bloggers and very serious people, I’m in favor of a debate among the presidential candidates about science and science policy.

Mark Hoofnagle has added some good points, addressing common concerns others have expressed about the idea.

Mike the Mad Biologist remains on the fence regarding:

If the debate revolved around the parties’ and candidates’ different approaches to address agreed-upon problems, then a debate might be useful (or at least harmless). But if there is no agreement on the problems or challenges, or for that matter, the fundamental nature of scientific reality, how the hell do we have a useful debate? Worse, it just serves as a platform for anti-science ignorance and propaganda. And if believe that reason and logic will necessarily prevail, and the anti-science lunatics will be exposed for what they are, I have a cache of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to sell you.

In Syria.

I think that revealing the fundamental differences in priority between the parties would be tremendously valuable. Pro-science candidates wouldn’t necessarily mop the floor with anti-science folks (there’s a reason that scientists don’t settle disputes using staged debates; debates reveal the better arguer, not necessarily the better argument).

Right now, Mike Huckabee and the other GOPers can spend weeks talking about how the Grand Canyon means that evolution is a hoax, and how bumblebees are aerodynamically incapable of flight.

And no one asks a followup question.

Huckabee can call for zero energy consumption in America.

And no one asks a followup.

Thompson and Huckabee can express uncertainty about whether concern over global warming is “overblown,” and Rudy Giuliani can suggest that coal is the solution.

And no one asks a followup.

The point is not to make this a trivia contest. Maybe these candidates have been living in a cave and don’t know anything that’s come out about the scientific consensus about the risks associated with climate change. Maybe the our boy Rudy isn’t clear on the whole link between burning hydrocarbons and releasing carbon dioxide, or between releasing carbon dioxide and trapping solar radiation. Maybe the Huckster doesn’t read The Straight Dope regularly.

The followup to these questions in a proper science debate would not be “But haven’t you read page x of the IPCC report?” When Katie Couric asked Huckabee “Is Global Warming Overblown,” he answered “I don’t know. I mean, the honest answer for me, scientifically, is I don’t know.” Which is a fair answer, and is a better answer than the gibberish Fred Thompson offered (“There are a lot of unanswered questions. We don’t know to the extent this is a cyclical thing. This may or may not effect very much.” No, no, and no.)

The right followup is: “When a scientific question arises, and you don’t know the answer, how will you proceed?” Or “If you were asked a question about the risks of global warming, who would you contact to help you produce an accurate response?” Along the same line, you might ask “How will you craft your policies when you are told that there are unanswered questions on a scientific topic?”

These aren’t gotchas, they are fair questions about about the way the next president and his or her administration will work.


  1. #1 dave X
    December 13, 2007

    Well, the politically wise followup answers are to say that you’d have your staff check into it and then form some expert committee to reasonably address the concerns of all the stakeholders, (while also privately finding out what your contributors and supporters in the next election would want from you.)

    I don’t expect them to say they’ll pray to the monkeygods for guidance and read the entrails of a rodent, even if that’s what they’ll do. Rather than a debate, I’d like to see a position paper from each of the candidates on popular technical issues like peak oil, global warming, vaccination, etc..

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    December 13, 2007

    Sure, but who would be on the expert panel? How would you select the members, and what would you look for in their report? What if you needed to make a decision the same day?

  3. #3 John McKay
    December 13, 2007

    The key to make this work is to get the questioners/moderator from somewhere other than the usual idiot talking heads. If we have to listen to Tim Russert ask his famous “tough” questions (Mr. Obama, what is your favorite element?), there’s no point in even having the debate. The need to get some science journalists, maybe some NOVA producers, and Bill Nye as the questioners. They need someone who can recognize what zero energy consumption is and ask that follow-up question.