A science debate, not a science exam.

I was reading John Timmer's post on Ars Technica about the call for a presidential debate on science and technology and found myself surprised at how many of the commenters on the post think such a debate would be a terrible idea.

It's not just that the commenters think that the presidential candidates would use all their powers to weasel out of taking clear stands that might get them in trouble with one constituency or another. There are quite a few commenters who make variations of this argument:

I don't see this as being a very good idea. These people are POLITICIANS, not scientists. I do not want to see them debating issues they have little worthwhile knowledge. If elected, they should rely on their advisors, and more importantly, the SCIENTISTS themselves to determine scientific policy. Science should not be "up for political debate." Science should follow the scientific method. Having some sort of half-baked, pre-programmed, campaigning answers only politicizes science even more -- which is exactly what we should try to avoid.

The list of questions I have for presidential hopefuls is manifestly not an oral exam on anything the candidates might have learned in their science classes. (Not a single question on intermolecular forces, I swear!) But just to be clear:

  • I don't think it's a necessary condition for being a good President (or Senator, or Congressional Representative, or whatever) that one have, contained in one's own head, vast quantities of scientific facts, theories, and explanatory patterns.* So setting up a science and technology debate along the lines of a spelling bee, while it might prove amusing, is not at all what I have in mind.
  • Knowing what you don't know -- and what you really ought to seek expert advice on -- is tremendously important. I want to see which candidates are confident enough to acknowledge that they need help understanding complex matters, and I'd like a forum in which these candidates distinguish themselves from the guys who think they know everything or who have no problem just making stuff up.
  • I think it will also be illuminating to see which experts (or "experts") various presidential hopefuls call upon for advice. "Whose scientific input would you want to get on X, and why?" would be a good question to put to the candidates.
  • I'm also interested in knowing what kinds of gambles presidential candidates are inclined to make in the face of uncertainty, and what sorts of changes of course they will acknowledge might be a good idea of their initial bets don't pan out.

I think it should be possible to get this sort of information in a well-designed debate. I have no principled objection to giving debate participants a set of questions in advance and allowing them to get help from science and technology advisors.

Indeed, I think getting advice from card-carrying denizens of the reality based community would be a huge step in the right direction for politicians. A science and technology debate might be a good thing just by virtue of getting candidates in the habit of asking the counsel of people who study more than just how to win elections.

*It's not a sufficient condition, either. There are lots of people who possess formidable knowledge to whom I wouldn't entrust a houseplant, let alone the job of governing a nation.


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Alas, this sort of rational, reasonable discourse that gives voters the information they should be thinking about in order to choose the best candidate is completely orthogonal to the "get out the message" way in which we currently do our elections.

We need to know whether a candidate will respect scientists' roles and abilities in undertaking the usual presidential activities -- appointing agency heads, proposing budgets, deciding how involved the Office of Management and Budget will be with agency activities, etc.

Through its appointments, budget decisions, and erection of hurdles for ordinary agency activities, the current administration demonstrates a lack of appropriate respect for the work government scientists do -- and a willingness to put that work second to an agenda designed to please religious zealots and foes of regulation. Will the next administration continue such short-sighted and dangerous policies?

We've posted some related questions at The Pump Handle.

Your questions are excellent, and are definitely relevant. There is a difference between deciding what science is, and and how is should be applied; the latter is the purview of public policy, and that's what you address.

With science policy, as with everything else, I would like to see more politicians referring to a "meta-ethic" rather than their own personal beliefs - how does their moral system tell them how to set up fair and just policy so that others may live morally by their own standards? In this vein, establishing the priority a politician would place on science and the comparative focus science policy would receive is a very important task the science community ought to advocate.

Because federal officials so often must make decisions based on science, in vertually every agency, it is essential that our elected officials have some command of basic science. They cannot count on experts for everything.

Probably more critically, history shows that those who are more scientifically literate count on appropriate experts appropriately, while those who lack such literacy sometimes dawdle at the great cost of human life.

Franklin Roosevelt was no physics genius, but when Albert Einstein wrote him about the importance of studying atomic bombs, Roosevelt acted. Moral debates about using the weapons never went away, of course, but there is no dispute that the world is fortunate the Manhattan Project succeeded before any Axis power was able to make fission work.

In contrast, Ronald Reagan was surrounded by people who generally scoffed at much of medical science. They refused to listen even to Dr. C. Everett Koop when Koop warned of the dangers of a newly noted disease syndrome we now call HIV/AIDS. Those months of delay back then probably contributed to an additional 100,000 or so deaths that could have been prevented.

I'd love to see a discussion on science. Surely not everyone would tune in, but it would be useful for those of us who do tune in, and for all who vote.

I think it's a great idea. But steer it away from evolution and global warming and take on something serious like interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Now, from what I've seen on CSPAN, John Edwards adheres to a limited version of Everett's many worlds interpretation in which two Americas simultaneously exist, whereas Obama argues that there is no red electron and no blue electron, just a united electron. Clinton's position is becoming more uncertain as the campaign speeds up and Giulliani has a strange version of quantum decoherence where all wave functions apparently collapsed on 9/11. Romney used to buy into the Copenhagen interpretation when he was governor of Massachusetts, but now refuses to admit to preferring anything of European origin, citing it as quantum socialism. Ron Paul is an old fashion hidden variables guy, arguing that quantum mechanics is a conspiracy designed to hide the true exact values of observables from the American people.

A debate, therefore to communicate, is always good; specially when it is getting everybody ahead & clarifying unknown or mis-information...
In this manner I say yes, sure let's do it. :-)