Science Debate 2008: It's not the candidates' answers that leave me cold

... but the questions that they were answering!

Regular readers will know (from these posts, among others) that I think the extent to which presidential candidates have gotten right with science (or with reliable advisers on same) is important information for voters to have.

Indeed, I was hoping to get some nourishing information (building an informed electorate and healthy democracy with 12 vitamins and minerals!) when I checked out Obama's and McCain's answers to the Science Debate 2008 questions. And, while it is possible to glean information about McCain's and Obama's attitudes toward science and its role in the public sphere from these answers, there was rather less straight talk than I had hoped.

The reason for that, I think, has a lot to do with the 14 questions actually put before the candidates -- questions, Michael Eisen points out, that sidestep the science-y heart of the matter for all-too-familiar political territory:

1. The questions are all obvious and overly general. They basically call on the candidates to say "Rah Rah Science!" And yes, I understand that, sadly, in this climate it's important for presidential candidates to actually stand up and say "I support Science." But still, I wish they'd asked them more difficult and more specific questions.

2. Many of the questions aren't really about science. For example:

Climate Change. The Earth's climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change--a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?

Whether the president supports a carbon tax, cap-and-trade or increase fuel-economy is a political question about which science is neutral. Now scientists may have an opinion on this. But Science only tells us that the planet is warming and that we need to do something to reduce carbon emissions now. It says nothing about how we should do that. To conflate these two issues is a huge mistake that only serves to foster the idea that science somehow favors different political solutions to our problems, which in turn undermines politician's and the public's sense that science is neutral.

3. They avoid controversy and controversial questions.

Why pussyfoot around the important question of the day? Where's "Do you believe that the release of CO2 from human activity is dangerously warming the planet?"

And hello, evolution anyone? Can there be a more important topic to ask about? Not because evolution is so important relative to other aspects of science. But rather because the assault on evolution is a direct assault on science. And our failure to defend evolution is one of the major reasons Americans do not believe in science.

Eisen goes on to set out ten questions he'd want to ask the candidates about science. I like these questions a lot (and not just because some of them are pretty close to questions I put forward). Some of these questions (like Eisen's #5 and 6) are straightforward enough that they seem to demand straightforward answers. They're just the kind of questions that could be asked in a regular presidential debate, or in an interview of a candidate conducted by a serious journalist.

Given the indications that the political press corps may be starting to remember that it is at least nominally composed of vertebrates, I'm thinking that a good reporter might want to have Eisen's questions (or mine) handy, just in case.

(Shout-out to RPM, who pointed me to Eisen's post.)

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I completely agree with you here. The question of evolution in schools seems to have been deemed too sensitive to include by the group drawing up the list. The idea that they needed to provide easy questions in order to get any answer whatsoever from the two candidates makes the whole effort somewhat pointless. Did anyone actually learn anything new from these answers?

Thanks for stepping back and helping me realize why I was really unimpressed with the "Science Debate" questions and answers. You and Michael have good questions, especially your #7 and his #5.