Why an Actual Science Debate is Probably a Bad Idea


Over at my friends Chris and Sheril's Intersection blog, I posted a summary of some reservations I have always had about the staging of an actual presidential science debate. Bottom line: research suggests that when it comes to audience effects, a presidential debate is a really bad idea. Despite our best wishes, intentions, and hopes for deliberative democracy, the reality is that a debate would be sending the strongest of invitations to the American public to think about science in partisan terms. Go here for my comments.

If the goal is to turn science into a wedge issue, as the Dems tried to do on stem cell research in 2004, then a debate suits that goal. But that clearly is not the goal of most people organizing Science Debate 2008. Instead the intention is wider public engagement and even education. It's a noble goal and one that I obviously support, it's just that a political debate is the wrong tool for achieving that.

I will probably be writing something up about this in article form at some point. What do readers think?

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By Martha Mashala (not verified) on 16 Apr 2009 #permalink

I've been saying since the day this idea was announced that a debate about candidates' positions on substantive scientific issues is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, counterproductive. What matters is process for addressing science policy issues involving in a new administration, not a bunch of soundbites about "green" this and "sustainable" that.

Matt - you're over-intellectualizing this. What you're saying is like advising the New England Patriots to not go to the Super Bowl because ... well, look at what a disaster it now is for them that they went and lost, clearly their franchise is done and over with. Clearly they're far worse off than the Miami Dolphins whom nobody will call losers.

C'mon. The world of science needs to exert its voice. And the doofuses at Nature have no clue about American society. And John Horgan should be eternally embarrassed for his cynical and clueless comments a few weeks ago on his video blog. This is an opportunity for a shift in public perception -- for the public to actually see the science world as having the ability to show leadership in society instead of assuming its traditional role of quiet and humble observer (and complainer as science gets misused and misinterpreted). It is possible for things to change in this world.

And furthermore, "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." I have seen this so much in environmental groups who buy into the idea of, "we're not going to say anything on this issue until we have the perfect message that we know will work immediately." That's okay when you have unlimited resources and no timeline, but when things are changing rapidly, you need to simply enter the game and be willing to accept some trial-and-error dynamics.

What you're advocating is not entering the game.

By Randy Olson (not verified) on 18 Feb 2008 #permalink

Communication is an art, a skill, and a craft, but understanding its effects is a science. And that science can and should meaningfully inform communication strategy.

I'm offering my honest analysis based on what research suggests would be the audience impact of an actual debate. If someone had called me up several months ago and asked my advice, it would have been exactly as I wrote. There's nothing over-intellectual about it. We can either rely exclusively on personal experience and intuition with sometimes the chances we take paying off, or we can plot out and think about communication strategy drawing on insights from research.

Just a follow up. I know you have been a critic of how Inconvenient Truth was structured in terms of messages and you have noted that it is not surprising it has had polarizing effects. Either reviewing the research or doing additional research on how to actually structure the personal narrative and framing of climate change in Inconvenient Truth probably would have helped widen its audience impact and made it a more effective film at engaging a diversity of audiences.

Looking at the research on audience effects of debates and how they are covered in news coverage could have also informed moving forward with Science Debate plans.

Precisely. Inconvenient Truth is an excellent example. And what you're talking about here is STEP 2 - making the communication work perfectly. But Step 2 is of no use if you fail to start with STEP 1 - actually communicating. I have criticized Inconvenient Truth for not being perfect, but not for being the most powerful and effective piece of environmental media ever produced. Its a shame it was unnecessarily polarizing (didn't need the barbs against the Bush administration, could have allowed the opposition a little bit of a voice), but that said, it succeeded massively with Step 1 -- it COMMUNICATED.

Laurie David produced a first global warming film, "Too Hot Not to Handle," for HBO. It did exactly as you say -- was well thought out, filled with scientists, and got the information exactly right. And nobody watched it. The Al Gore movie was less well thought out, more visceral, and it changed the world.

The science world needs to get a little more courageous, as Laurie David did, and show some sponteneity. Instead of sweating over the supposed science of thinking you can predict human behavior, just frickin' get out there and start making things happen. This is the problem of intellectuals -- they are given the three options of yes, no or later, and almost always opt for later, as you are advocating here.

Like I said, c'mon, make something interesting happen. Look at what Al Gore did. It wasn't perfect, but the world is a better place for him having done it.

By Randy Olson (not verified) on 18 Feb 2008 #permalink

"Despite our best wishes, intentions, and hopes for deliberative democracy, the reality is that a debate would be sending the strongest of invitations to the American public to think about science in partisan terms"

Unfortunately, that public already thinks about science in partisan terms. One need only observe the discussion about global climate change in which the Republicans (with a few notable exceptions, one of whom just lost a primary in his district on the Eastern Shore of Maryland) on the nay side and the Democrats on the yea side. This is a scientific question that, in an ideal world, should have nothing to do with politics. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world.

A significant problem with debates is the conflation of policy choices with the truth about the underlying issue. That is, debates over policy about X can be easily transformed into assertions about what X is.

So, aside from the risks of candidates gaming a debate for their own agendas, we have the risk about discussions on science policy becoming debates over what science is. And while asserting our voice on science policy would be useful, there is no way to constrain the discussion in a debate to policy.

By David Bruggeman (not verified) on 18 Feb 2008 #permalink


You write, "a debate would be sending the strongest of invitations to the American public to think about science in partisan terms."

Isn't this an argument against doing a presidential debate on any topic?

By Austin Dacey (not verified) on 18 Feb 2008 #permalink

Let's agree that the goal of the science community is to educate and inform. It's very difficult to educate and inform via a presidential debate format, given the differing incentives of the candidates and the news media.

Because of this tension in goals between science as sponsor and candidates and media as participants, the result translates into ready made partisan heuristics for the public. The fact that only Dem candidate reps participated at AAAS is already one heuristic that science is a "Dem issue" but not a Republican priority. This is not the fault of the organizers, but just the reality of how things predictably played out.

I share your goal of increased public engagement, but my own expertise in political communication tells me that a debate is not a very good public engagement tool on science.

Getting science on the agenda is good for science, but I agree with Matt that the debate will politicize science and be counter-productive.

The debate is an attempt to pin down politicians and find out who's our friends, but we know that already. To an audience of non-scientists, the debate will say science is important fodder for partisan debates. The importance message is good, but the partisan message is harmful.

Perhaps the goal of the science community is to educate and inform, but that isn't the goal of Science Debate 2008. The goal is to help the candidates nourish the public discourse with their stances on scientific policy questions. The event may be a dud, but any So-and-So, PhD, can surely ask better questions than Wolf Blitzer.

Maybe this is just a nerd's revenge fantasy, but I would also love to see the commentariat trying to discuss the debate afterward. The post-debate debate would be as rewarding as the debate itself, and an excellent precedent would be set.

I see Matt's point but also think it could depend on the questions. Much like discussion of the economy, I can imagine a situation where the debate would focus on who has the best package for stimulating innovation or meeting challenges associated with one issue or another.

Some issues like stem cell research are clearly partisan but many others are questions over what policies and procedures are needed to get us to an agreed upon place. While it hasn't always been true, I can much more imagine a discussion about how to address climate change than one over whether climate change is real.

A debate about science POLICY is not the same as a debate about science.

Communication is an art, a skill, and a craft, but understanding its effects is a science. And that science can and should meaningfully inform communication strategy.

Seems to me that the science of communicating can produce a competent communicator, but never a brilliant one. Genius comes through creativity, through passion, through intuition and the analytical act can often destroy that, producing something too self-conscious and cold.

By Nathan Parker (not verified) on 18 Feb 2008 #permalink

Andrew has it exactly right. It's not about having a perfect debate in which everyone gets oh so much smarter. It's about throwing the science voice out into the mix, and reaping all the add-on benefits.

In 2002 I told a group of ocean conservationists very worried about the state of the oceans and the public's lack of awareness to just take a big chance and blow $2 million on a Super Bowl commercial (which could have easily ended up costing a whole lot less with some ingenuity I have since learned). They scoffed and said, "What if it wasn't a good commercial?" in the same way as everyone here is fretting over, "What if it's not a good debate?"

That's not the point. Just a few weeks ago I saw a segment on ABC News in which they asked the question of whether one of the presidential candidates should blow $2 million on a Super Bowl spot. The conclusion was yes, given the amount of scrutiny every ad gets in the business media and elsewhere, even a bad ad results in a huge amount of exposure.

Those who buy into the metrics and supposed science of communication lead themselves to believe that it can all be controlled with laser guided precision. It can't. Just do it. Do the best that you can. Then work on guiding things at the next step.

By Randy Olson (not verified) on 18 Feb 2008 #permalink

The main reason a presidential debate about science is a bad idea is because most presidents don't know much about science.

And it's polarizing: The spin wil be that Democrats are for science, Republicans are against it. Obviously this is a distortion, but that is the message it will convey.

Finally, it will exacerbate the battle of special interests funding research that supports their political and money-making goals. The anti-science crowd will trot out as many PhD's as they can bribe into becoming flat-earthers to convince us that the debate is about whether evolution even exists or not, whether it's possible for humans to have an effect on the environment, why oil and coal are the only viable sources of energy,etc...and everyone who thinks otherwise is Berkley librul.

That's precisely the PR science does NOT need right now, if you ask me.

Al Gore's movie wasn't a science movie - it was Al Gore yelling as loud as he could to get people to wake the hell up. It wasn't a scientist explaining the phenomenon of fire - it was somebody grabbing you and shaking you out of a dream so you could realize your house is on fire.

It is a good point that in order to get people to move sometimes you have to fore go the wonky details and just grab folks' attention and get them to realize the urgency of the situation.

Hopefully that will inspire at least a percentage of people to want real information and start demanding change.

A high profile event that thrust science in front to of the mainstream is a great idea. But a debate between Presidents is probably not a good way to accomplish it.

The risk of it degenerating into dumbed-down distortions, which is exactly what we already have too much of, is too high.

I agree that a debate could backfire. But, I can recall a good number of lectures on the value of priming. Isn't that exactly what the debate is? Just introducing a debate on science gets people talking about science.

It is a rational fear that science will become a political football - but if it is already in the game, then it might as well be played with. Scientists and researchers across the country depend on funding from the federal government. That funding comes with caveats, like "this much must be spent on the mission to Mars", as opposed to saying, "You're the experts on this, spend the money how you will."

Without making science a political issue, scientists voices will never have the same volume.

Anything can become a partisan issue because one side is spending the time talking about it. Saying Democrats are the party of science - because they were willing to show up on a day's notice to debate - is like saying that Republicans are the party of family values because they make their voices heard about gay marriage and abortion.

The scientific community had the fear of interference for so long that they barely noticed the interference had begun. Now that it is obvious that funding is being cut or earmark-allocated, when huge scientific issues are barely newsworthy, when more than 60% of the country can't name a living scientist (though statistically, they probably know one personally); now, more than ever, scientists need to step up and get into the discussion.

The debate, however it turns out, can make that happen. The coverage of the debate - more than anything else - is going to determine how science and the issues are perceived.

Perhaps the best way to avoid the outcomes you predict would be to start shoring up members of the NASW and others to make sure the debate coverage is as impartial and positive as it can be.