Science Debate 2008 -- Do We Need It?

If you haven't heard, fellow ScienceBloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection have launched a movement called Sciencedebate 2008, in which they demand that the presidential candidates have a debate entirely on science and science-related issues. They've received the backing of Nobel laureates, editors and journalists, prominent business people for this statement:

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, the undersigned, call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Medicine and Health, and Science and Technology Policy.

The progressive blogosphere seems to be very enthusiastic about the concept, and it's already made it to Daily Kos.

The thing is, I'm just not sure I see the point. Several of the issues that would, I assume, be central in any science-related debate have already been central in the general debates of both parties, including stem cells, the environment, health care, and education. Each of the major candidates has laid out plans and programs related to these issues, either in the debates themselves or elsewhere. What would a science-only debate accomplish? What would we learn about the candidates that we don't already know? Or if the purpose is to make science issues more salient to the general public, isn't the fact that they've already been central in the debates enough to do that?

I can't help but think that this is an attempt by scientists and those who support them to exert more influence on politics generally, and while in some ways more scientific influence would be a good thing (e.g., in educating politicians and the public about global warming or the science of stem cells), overall I think it's dangerous. Scientists are, by and large, no more knowledgeable of policy (even science-related policy, such as the economic and diplomatic issues surrounding global warming policy) than the general public, and too much of a mixture of politics and science can only be bad for science.

At this point, there seems to be a largely reflexive pro-Sciencedebate reaction in the progressive blogosphere, and ScienceBlogs in particular, but I'd love to see some discussion of it. So what do you folks think?


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The biggest problem here is that the debate format forces the participant to rely solely on what they've committed to memory, while the actual decisionmaking process allows the candidate to seek advice from outside sources (some of which, I'd hope, are scientists).

The president is not a scientist, and while it would be nice to have a president with a working knowledge of most of the subjects he or she will be dealing with, there's simply too much data and all of it is changing too rapidly. The information gained by studying for such a debate (and we all know there would be studying) would become out of date within months unless the president actively maintains it, and I find that possibility unlikely.

If the people pushing for this are really concerned about the impact that science (or lack of science) on law, it would be wiser to push presidential candidates to keep more scientists as advisers rather than ask them to show their own scientific chops. This is a bit like challenging presidential candidates to a spelling bee, when the best solution would be to ask them to hire a proofreader.

By Kathy Kachelries (not verified) on 10 Dec 2007 #permalink

I would love to see such a debate, not only to hear what they have to say about specific issues, such as global warming, but also to hear what their epistemology is. What do they believe about the way the world is and humans are and why? Some people say candidates' religious views shouldn't matter, but surely such views do matter, since they influence both their (and everyone else's) ethical--and hence political--decision-making and their beliefs about the way the world is, why it is that way, and whom we should trust to tell us about these things.

I want to hear the candidates say whether they believe humans evolved by natural selection. If not, do they believe in intelligent design and/or the Genesis story or what? I want to hear if they believe a 10-day old embryo has a soul and whether that's why it should not be destroyed. If not, what exactly is their concern with stem-cell research? I want to hear if they believe we should do everything possible to avoid an environmental or nuclear armageddon (or war in the middle east) or if they think such an event would only occur if God wills it (and if God wills it, it must be what was meant to be). I want to hear if they think that scientific research is trustworthy if funded by organizations with significant stakes in the results.

In short, I'd love to run a sort of intro philosophy class on these potential leaders of the free world and see how they try to reconcile their religious and ethical beliefs with what the modern sciences tell us, both for specific issues and in general.

I think voters have a right to know. Alas, it's probably not going to happen. And if it did, it probably wouldn't affect voters much.

By Eddy Nahmias (not verified) on 10 Dec 2007 #permalink

Eddy, I think there are real problems, in addition to the ones you mention at the end (that it won't happen and no one would care if it did). The most obvious is that, as in any debate, you're not going to get a really straight answer. You're going to get a well-rehearsed, politically appropriate answer. They're all going to say they believe in eternal souls and that we should do everything we can to avoid nuclear armageddon because that's what god would want us to do, etc. They're all going to say that they think science is really important. The Republicans are going to say that they think more research needs to be done on global warming before we start implementing costly fixes. The Democrats are going to say that we have to do something now. The Republicans are going to say that we should look at adult stem cells, and the Democrats are going to say that we have to spend more on stem cell research. The Republicans are going to say we can't have a single-payer health care system, and that abortion is murder (or at least really, really bad), and the Democrats are going to give detailed close-to-single-payer health care plans and be pro-life. Everyone on both sides is going to say they think we need to improve education, including science education. Some of the Republicans will imply that improving education means teaching all sides of the "debate" in the classroom, some won't (and we already know who will say what). There is nothing they will say that we don't already know, and we won't really learn anything about their epistemology in the process.

The more I think about this, the worse I think the idea of a debate on science is. It won't accomplish anything for science, and it likely won't help any pro-science candidates, though it could hurt them. It runs the risk of making scientists look like elitists who think they have all the answers, including the policy answers (some of them already look like this, but they're easy to ignore when they're not asking presidential candidates questions on national TV). And we won't learn anything about the candidates anyway.

Chris, I agree with many of your points. And maybe a debate devoted to science would not be the best way to get at what I am interested in. But when Huckabee (and Tancredo and Brownback) raised their hand to indicate they don't believe in evolution, I think that gives us more information about the way they think about things than most of the more wordy answers we hear in the debates. If a debate was done right, I think it would be hard for candidates to squirm out of explaining what they believe and why they believe it regarding some of these issues: "Governor Romney, do you believe in a literal hell, where sinners spend 1000 years?" or "Senator Obama, you say you believe in evolution, but do you believe God directed the process to lead to humans?" or "Senator McCain, do you believe that fetuses have souls?"

If people try to wiggle out of answering these questions, I think we would learn something from the way they wiggle!

By Eddy Nahmias (not verified) on 11 Dec 2007 #permalink

Yet Eddy, there is a flaw in your logic: you are not proposing a science debate. What you want is a debate on philosophy, not science. I harldy think the canidate's religious views (such as the 1,000 years of hell question you mentioned above) have any relevance in regards the canidate's policy proposals. To quote Mr. Huckabee, none of these fellows are running as theologust in chief. Heck, none of them are even running as scientist in chief.

Personally, for this debate to work, I think it should steer away from the standard science quagmires of global warming and stem cells. Rather, I want to here about what the canidates think America's role is in the "technological revoloution" of today's world. I would like to see them discuss what science based branches of government should recieve the most funding. I would like to have them address what scientific groups and findings they consider credible, and how trustworthy they consider various scientific groups that are highly invested in the results of their various studies.

As other commenters pointed out, politicians cannot debate science.

Worse, for your purposes, if ever a free scientific debate were to occur on certain issues, ideologically oriented "science" bloggers would not like most of the scientific evidence presented. Ideology and science are enemies--not just religion and science.

It is the contemporary suppression of scientific evidence that ideologues like, and that is what they would expect to be maintained in a "science debate" of their design. For most "science bloggers", there is more of science that is off limits than on. Sadly.