It Is Time For A Presidential Debate On Science – Part II

Reiterating our previous call for this debate, I’d like to point out two articles that have come out in the past day, that may address some of the negative commentary here.

The first is Chris Mooney and Lawrence Krauss at LA Times.

The second, by Sheril Kirshenbaum and Matthew Chapman at HuffPo. Note, I consider the Huffington Post a den of denialist iniquity, supporting the lies of Chopra, Kirby and various other conspiracy mongers. But I will consider this an act of saint-like walking amongst the sinners to spread the good word of science. Further, she does a pretty good job addressing some of the early complaints about the plan.

Generally, I can sum up my commenters complaints that this is not a feasible idea based on the fact it wouldn’t benefit most of the presidential candidates, or that debates themselves are not valuable as they are just press conference, or more simply, what kinds of questions would we ask? Is it just going to be an exam? Finally Chris at completely misses the point and has a mixture of complaints ranging from “science should not mix with politics” and that we already know where the candidates stand.

Sheril and Matthew point out:

One of these is the suggestion that the candidates simply are not equipped to talk about science. We disagree. The candidates do not need a degree in economics in order to talk about the economy, nor do they require one in science in order to discuss science.

We are not proposing a pop quiz or an argument, but rather, we are suggesting an illuminating debate. The electorate should have the opportunity to hear the candidates discuss their policy positions on our many scientific and technological challenges, what their ethical positions are in relation to them, and what their aspirations are.

But this does not finish the job. Here’s my arguments for why you critics should stop being such a buzz kill.

Science and politics are already intertwined, ignoring the problem will not make it go away or prevent it from getting worse.

It would not necessarily be bad for the hyper-religious candidates, because their constituency may actually be thrilled to see them reject science for denialist nonsense like ID or AGW denialism. It will give them the opportunity to stand up for their popular pseudoscience if they like. Although they more be more cautious depending on who makes up the panel. It might be quite interesting.

As far as the publicity stunt/fake debate criticisms that is inevitable with any debate but that doesn’t mean the debates aren’t helpful. For one thing, this emphasizes that science has become important enough to have a public discussion, no matter how orchestrated it might end up being. Second, even though we supposedly know where the candidates stand, making them say out loud what they believe, ideally to a panel of Nobelists asking questions, may diminish their lack of embarrassment in announcing their love of anti-science ideas. Forcing candidates to evaluate science and be publicly challenged by experts may make them refine and improve their positions. Rather than throwing the occasional bone to an interest group, they may have to develop a coherent set of ideas.

Finally, it makes the minority of Americans that think science is incredibly important a defined constituency that must be courted. We may be a minority, but we’re likely one of the largest minorities – those that accept science as fact. To be treated as a bloc increases our power.


  1. Fnord Prefect

    But are we motivated enough by our beliefs to actually vote as a bloc? I know plenty of science-accepting rationalists who have over and over again voted for loony jesus-freaks who promised lower taxes. My mother is a rationalist in most things and a science acceptor (and a democrat and heavily involved in social justice/anti-death penalty work) but also a rabid anti-abortionist and tends to unfortunately vote on that issue above all others. To be treated as a bloc we must vote as such and, thus far, we haven’t.

    I guess I would like to see a science debate, but at the same time it is hard to get enthusiastic about the idea knowing that even if one were arranged it would almost certainly not be done in such a way as to be what you or I would want.

  2. I remain unconvinced. I think it will a waste of time at about the 85% level, with maybe – maybe – 5% of useful information and 10% of semi-useful information. If the structure of the debate is anything like the current debates, it will be useless at the 95% level, if not higher. I also think formulation of questions will be much harder than anyone thinks so far.

    I still say that submitting questions and reporting the answers is a better idea.

    But this will be an interesting test. Will there be enough support that enough candidates agree? Remember, there will have to be two debates, since the parties are holding separate debates at this point.

  3. I agree that it would be a good idea to have such a debate. For one thing, the problems with the other debates is the lack of accountability. A debate on science is likely to have the kinds of hosts and questions that have settled, definate answers (at least some of the time).

    I would find it very helpful to see which candidates don’t believe in evolution or global warming. Or even just which candidates are willing to give a straight answer. The leading GOP candidate Huckabee would likely be very hurt by such a debate. After all the religious debates a scientific debate would be a nice counter.

  4. I think the critics are still missing the point of such a debate.

    Think about it this way. Why do they have a presidential debate on faith? Will 100% of religious voters make up their minds together? Will it make all the candidates look good? Will perfect questions be asked to satisfy the objectives of some imaginary faith-based voter?

    No, no and no.

    The point of the debate on science is to create a emphasis on science as an important topic for politics. It will spill over into congressional campaigns as well. Rather than just talking about religion, and how to be a Mormon president, we get the candidates to acknowledge there are more than just church-goers in this community. It forces them to acknowledge there is a group of people in this country for whom scientific policymaking and rational public policy is an objective. Will this bloc of voters march in lockstep? Of course not. But we are a bloc, and this issue is important to us.

    The debate is more about acknowledging the importance of the scientific approach to the world than it is about quizzing candidates obeisance to current scientific beliefs. You would think that people who endlessly complain about the kowtowing to religious voters would appreciate an effort to make the candidates acknowledge the rational bloc of voters too.

  5. Wake me up when there’s a debate on electoral reform.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly… the debate itself may not illuminate much, and it would be possible to parse through a politicians comments to get a good idea of where they stand on the issue… but the significance is in the action of having a debate on the topic. It elevates the status of the questions, even if the answers are crap. It may even impact the viewers at home saying, “gee whiz, I never thought about how the candidates could influence the direction of technology and discovery.”

  7. You darned naive scientists! You’re so cute, calling for your little debate, as if any politician is going to take science seriously. You see what happened to that nice Gore fellow when he started talking about that global warming stuff? All those effect Europeans fell all over themselves to give him a Nobel, but all he gets in the US is ridicule because he gained some weight. If the candidates decide to humor you all, I think they’ll find it an excellent opportunity to talk about whatever they want to.

    On a more serious note, if it happens, I’m sure you will get a glimpse of their attitudes, but I’m also sure it won’t surprise you, and it won’t change anyone’s mind. And it won’t bring science into the public awareness, because those who care will watch and those who don’t wont.

  8. I’m not missing the point — I’ve seen the justifications you’ve given (and even mentioned them in my posts, I believe) — but I don’t think the point is a good one. There’s a difference.

    The problems, as I see it, are that I don’t think it will accomplish the stated goals, like emphasizing that science is important in politics), I think it risks doing the reverse, which involves emphasizing that politics are important in science, and I think there are many scientists (including some who blog on SB) who feel like science (and more importantly, scientists) should dictate policy, rather than inform it, and that’s their real motive for supporting the call for a debate.

  9. As one vignette into the way politics and science interface, one Congressional Rep trumpets awards received from the Humane Society of the United States (that’s the animal rights extremist org that your local HS dissociates itself from) on proper voting behavior. And yet the district is easily within the top 8 and likely top 4 receivers of federal biomedical research dollars. Spouse of Rep is reportedly a physician, of all things. Ditto dear-auld-dad! Said Rep also brags extensively about efforts to improve health care for our returning warfighters and other specific issues as well as efforts to increase the NIH budget.

    And with all this still manages to get props from an animal rights group?

    WTF? doesn’t even begin to cover it…

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