Politicians talking science

The proposal to have a presidential science debate has been getting a surprising amount of traction. After ringing up a billion prominent endorsements, the organizers of the proposed debate have now picked a date (April 18) and have sent out invitations to the remaining candidates.


The idea behind Science Debate 2008 is straightforward:

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

Curious: what do people think of this?

I’m a bit conflicted, for a few reasons. The first is that I suspect the event will be less enlightening than people hope. Presidential debates consist mainly of sound bites and point-scoring, and this one will likely be no different. Another concern is that science itself may come off badly. The politicization of science is a real problem in the U.S., and it’s not hard to imagine a debate exacerbating that problem. Of course, an intelligent choice of format can help a lot here.

I’m not the only one to raise such concerns. But a long list of luminaries feel otherwise, and I confess that I also signed the petition in favor of the debate. Why? Because there are too many issues we simply never hear about. Whatever its chance for success, the science debate seems like a worthwhile experiment.

Your thoughts? (If you’re in favor, you can voice support the cause here.)

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  1. Anonymous - February 12, 2008

    I think that conservation is a great thing but it can only work if we start at home.

  2. dave - February 13, 2008

    Bad idea. Science is about hypothesis testing, reproducibility and ultimately informing us about facts of how and why the natural world works. Politics is about values and policy — opinion. Debating is about expressing opinions.
    I’d be fine with hearing the politicians tell us their values with regard to funding science, using science for good, and generally trying to solve some of the world’s problems that science provides us information to begin to address responsibly.
    I’d love to hear them tell us how they’d like to approach risks of nanotechnology, whether they are in favor of drilling in ANWR, favor whale hunting for any purpose, how they would handle navy sonar and whales, if they like having snowmobiles in Yellowstone, drilling in the great lakes, protection of the great lakes water quality and quantity, prevention of sewer overflows from big cities with combined sewer problems, prevention of invasive species entering our country in ship ballast waters and other stowaway imports, and of course what they think we need to do on carbon emissions and climate change. How would they propose to handle nuclear waste disposal, and if not in Nevada then where? Would they permit new coal fired power plants without carbon sequestration? Are they in favor of cap and trade, and how low do we need to go how soon with regard to carbon emissions? I’d like to have an understanding that they appreciate the concept and value of biodiversity.

  3. Kevin LeGrand - February 13, 2008

    Science is the basis of progress. Any politician wanting to move a country forward must address that science is imperative to human progress and survival. Prudent investment and beneficial results that are conclusively evident must be the benchmark of the future.

  4. Anonymous - February 13, 2008

    A debate is a great idea to talk about science and the environment. It will be a starting point at minimum for the environmental movement and its possible role in the upcoming administration. Perhaps animal rights will be addressed in the future too if politicians start branching out.

  5. michael - February 15, 2008

    Reflect on a time in your past when you learned something new…or had to learn a lot more about something you could only describe with a fuzzy outline. The learning path can be awkward especially against the backdrop of politics.
    However, politicians need to learn more about the depth of our environmental troubles so they can become better leaders. Skewing the truth to meet some political objective has always been a part of political rhetoric. The danger here is that progress/truth may become stifled as weight/priority and a lack of clarity are balanced against a political adgenda.
    Part of me wonders why we need a debate among politicians; They are not scientists. What message can they send? The science community has been on this track more or less for quite some time. In a debate a politician is establishing a backdrop to help he or she to standout above the rest. The environment is not a volley ball. Perhaps the science advisor for each party should participate in a debate…

  6. Anonymous - February 17, 2008

    I mostly agree with dave, that while there’s many things I’d love to hear the candidates discuss, I fear it would degrade into ungrounded opinions. I’d also worry that candidates would not talk about a very broad range of issues, only those that they are absolutely certain they understand completely and will not look ignorant discussing. Unfortunately, I find it unlikely that the candidates have enough knowledge about most issues other than the absolute basics of global warming to merit any discussion. (runoff? biodiversity? invasive species? Generally heard in a small blurb in the back section of a newspaper, or as terms causally dropped in an article about global warming)
    Furthermore, I think that science is not only about the environment (though I do suppose that’s what I should be addressing here) and it’s painful to hear discussions that can be summed up as “all file sharing is because of evil hackers on the internets” or “well, how bad could it be to put ID chips in ____ or allow one company to own all the rights to ____”
    The best format I could think of would be to have the candidates briefed immediately beforehand and given the basic facts about the issues, (and any additional information they desire) and not be allowed to contradict the proven facts. While it would be nice to have experts included in the discussion, I think that any disagreement between them and the candidates would be more likely to lead to the debate being labeled biased than the candidate labeled ignorant or misinformed.