ScienceDebate '08 (Redux)

Looks like a couple of my fellow SBers have managed to get a date and location for their presidential debate on science, and have invited the candidates (Clinton, Obama, Huckabee, and McCain). I still think this is an absolutely terrible idea on so many levels, but I'm comforted by the thought that it's extremely unlikely that McCain would risk offending the conservative base that he's trying so hard to court by debating an avowed creationist on scientific topics when he's already got the nomination wrapped up, and equally unlikely that the Democrats would choose to debate on a single topic that's of much less interest to the public than, say, the economy, the war, health care, etc., just before what could turn out to be a very important primary. However, I figure some of you are interested in what's going on with the debate, so I thought I'd give you a heads up.

UPDATE: Nature's editors weigh in. I think they get it right when they say:

And the [ScienceDebate 08] campaign's website goes too far in saying that science and technology "may be the most important social issue of our time". In reality, science and technology are a factor in many issues, sometimes a defining one, but most often not. They can and must inform political debate, but will rarely be at its centre.


or all that it claims to be a 'grass-roots' phenomenon, the proposed debate can be seen as an attempt by various élite institutions to grab the microphone and set the agenda from the top down.

I don't think it's institutions, per se, though recent endorsements by the NAS and others can make it look that way. I think it's the scientists themselves attempting to "grab the microphone and set the agenda from the top down," and losing all perspective in the process.


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Every so often the posts on this blog absolutely flummox me; how can you possibly think having a science debate is "an absolutely terrible idea on so many levels"? This seems so wrongheaded to me that I don't even know where to begin.

So instead of flailing about, trying to imagine what your objections could be and then responding to them, I'll invite you to elaborate on your inflammatory statement.

shane, happy to flummox... heh. I think it's a terrible idea for reasons I've expressed in the past. My basic sentiment is that while it's important for politicians to be well-advised on science (I don't think they need to be experts themselves), it's equally, if not more important to make sure that science doesn't become political. It could be argued that it already is, of course, but that position would only strengthen my conclusion, because in the areas where science has been politicized (climate change, evolution, stem cells, etc.), science has suffered.

Then there's the fact that there are many -- many -- topics that I'd love to see entire debates about before science. Health care, for one, or poverty. Many of the most important scientific issues show up in ordinary debates (stem cells, evolution, climate change, etc. have shown up in debates by candidates from both parties), so it's not as though they've been neglected. What I'd really like to see is the candidates spend entire debates on policy issues that I (and, I suspect, most of the public) feel are much more important. In other words, the science debate feels like a waste of valuable time, and a dangerous one, in that it risks an increased involvement of politics in science that far outweighs any increase in the involvement of science in politics, in terms of its net effect.

I also feel like this is an attempt by a particular group to wield undue influence on policy, when I think it's safe to say that scientists are not people who should dictate policy. They know shit about it in general, and while that's never stopped scientific bloggers from writing about things, I think we should draw the line at them actually influencing lives from a position of ignorance.

Thanks for the response. I am somewhat placated. I still disagree, though.

In a nutshell, my disagreement comes down to this question: what do you think the President actually does? Myself, I think the President is - should be - much more of a figurehead than they pretend that he is, and I mean "figurehead" in all the best ways. She should integrate information from the best sources: she's got access to experts and panels and can call for committees and whatever else she wants. She doesn't have to know economics, and this is what annoys me about the current state of affairs: nobody aside from economists know much about economics, not really, certainly not clowns like George Bush et al. And yet, they get up to the podium and make authoritative pronouncements on this or that, as if speaking from a deep fount of understanding and wisdom.

This isn't what I want out of a President.

What I want is the ability to build consensus, to negotiate and compromise. To manage, in short. And in my opinion, having those guys up there answering basic questions about science would reveal the following:

1: Are they lunatics?
2: Do they have basic reasoning capabilities?
3: Are they aware of some important things, and how they relate to other important things?

You might say that all of these things can be got at in other ways, and you're right, of course. But I think having somebody up there talking about evolution, for instance, gets at these desiderati in the same way that standing naked in front of a dressing room mirror reveals things about one's body that one would prefer to ignore, but shouldn't.

Finally, you say that you don't want science politicized. That might be nice, but of course it's far too late now. With that in mind, what *I'd* like is for the field in general, and the practices of rigor and analysis in particular, to achieve the same prominence that we uncritically grant to much less important things, like how many times, and in how many ways, one works into a speech that he loves America, or has x years of experience, or prays to Jesus for guidance.

Chris, I'd wonder if you'd disambiguate: do you mean that the idea of a science debate is "terrible because it would be useless" or "terrible because it would be worse than useless?"

It sounds like you're thinking the latter. I'm definitely on board with the former, I'm agnostic about the latter.

Justin, I think it's worse than useless, in that it's useless as a vehicle for promoting science, and it could have unwanted negative consequences for science.

shane, honestly, I don't think evolution is a very important issue, politically. I think it's important that scientists counter the attempts at political influence by creationists, but on the list of important political issues, it's nowhere near the top.

Mostly, though, I don't think the three reasons you listed justify a science debate. As you anticipated, I think there are other ways to accomplish them. In fact, I think they've all been accomplished. We know who the creationists are, or at least the ones who are willing to admit that they're creationists, and we can get a good idea of their basic reasoning capabilities from any subject. Perhaps asking a question in a debate, such as, "What do you think are the most important science-related policy issues today" would be OK, but we don't need an entire debate to accomplish #3.

It would be nice to be certain that our candidates are capable of understanding and evaluating scientific information, and are not actively hostile to scientists as a source of data.
Since many of our compatriots are not capable of understanding and evaluating scientific information, questions that allow us to discern this about candidates are not likely to come up in other debates.
I'm not trying to be snarky, here. It's no more a condemnation of people to say they aren't educated about science than to say they aren't educated about poetry. However, an ability to understand scientific data has more effect on the ability to make important policy decisions right now than the ability to appreciate poetry. I think that has been an issue for the current administration.
Plus, I'd find it enjoyable to listen to.