A Presidential debate on science

Here is an interesting idea: holding a Presidential debate exclusively on science. Having some understanding of scientific issues is certainly essential to effective policy-making in many areas, especially medicine and the environment. A televised debate could allow voters to gain an appreciation for how strong each candidate’s understanding of science really is, when they do not have advisors to fall back upon.

That said, I doubt candidates would be keen to hold such a debate. For one thing, most of them would probably embarass themselves. For another, science has become such an acutely politicized field that such a debate may just reflect existing ideological stances.

This is being discussed on Slashdot.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “A Presidential debate on science”

  1. This would make the most sense if:

    1) They got the questions in advance, so they would be less stumped.

    2) They could ask one another follow-up questions.

  2. DAMS: Iraqi structure in danger of collapse, corps says (10/30/2007)

    Iraq’s largest dam is in serious disrepair and could collapse at any moment, killing half a million and putting two of the country’s largest cities underwater, according to an Army Corps of Engineers report set for release today.

    It found that if the Mosul dam burst, it would release a trillion-gallon wave of water that would drown Mosul under 65 feet of water and parts of Baghdad under 15 feet, killing as many as 500,000 Iraqis.

    Since it was constructed in the early 1980s, the dam has been plagued with problems, mostly because it was built on top of a gypsum, which dissolves when it comes in contact with water.

    “In terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world,” the corps said in September 2006, according to the report. “If a small problem [at] Mosul Dam occurs, failure is likely.”

    At the same time, attempts to repair the dam during Iraq’s reconstruction have been marred by incompetent contractors and wrangling between Iraqi and U.S. officials over the severity of the problem, putting the dam and the surrounding region at further risk (Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, Oct. 30).

    The report, written with the U.S. government’s special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, found multiple faults with several of the 21 contracts awarded last year to fix the dam.

    In May, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker sent a letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saying that the dam was at risk, but the report being released today shows little progress has been made.

    They urged al-Maliki to make fixing the dam “a national priority” for the government.

  3. Darling,

    Politicians are meant to be generalists, not specialists. They have a wide, often changing, array of areas which they oversee– they are only to be evaluated on leadership potential, principles, and vision for the country.
    The same would be required of the intricacies of all departments; health, environment, defense, industry, finance, etc, etc, ad nauseum.

    Substantial science debates would best be conducted by their chief scientific advisors if at all. How is ‘science’ a debate topic? Do you mean to quiz them on scientific knowledge a la ‘Smarter than a Fifth Grader’?

    How is a scientific background incompatible with public life? Why would success in a non-scientific profession limit one from becoming a national leader?

  4. The point of such a debate would be to expose which candidates are profoundly ignorant, and which have very unconventional views (i.e. there is no evidence for evolution).

    Because such a debate could only ever lose them votes, the politicians would not agree.

    Important as it is to have a President who knows a bit about medicine, biology, physics, chemistry, etc. I doubt very much the American political system will select for one very effectively.

  5. This is surely targeting the symptom and not the underlying disease – which is the lack of a permanent, professional and non-partisan civil service to provide expertise and advice on such issues. In a political system in which advisors are appointed by the government based on their political connections & not their skills in the area to which they’re being appointed, obviously you get biased, partisan and dubiously accurate advice. In Canada and the Uk we usually don’t get and more importantly don’t need political leaders with scientific expertise because we have the profesional civil service. The problem in the US isn’t with the Presidential candidates per se, it’s poor institutional design (and, I would argue, a problem with public knowledge and opinions regarding science – which in itself stems from poor institutional design regarding education provision, funding & syllabi).

  6. I am not saying they should have to perform complex calculus or discuss the importance of obscure genes: simply that they should display a basic level of understanding consistent with the level of influence associated with the position they are seeking.

    The debate would still be policy focused. For example:

    1) What kind of research would your government prioritize?
    2) How would your government engage with the scientific community / technical experts?

  7. Join the Debate

    Category: Communicating

    But first, support it. It’s simple. There ought to be a Presidential debate devoted to science and technology in the 2008 election cycle. Already, many prominent scientists agree. Here at Shifting Baselines, we have added our name to a list of blogs that also rally behind a political discourse on science and technology. Read more on the call at the Intersection. Then voice your support and spread the word!

  8. Editorial

    Nature 451, 605 (7 February 2008) | doi:10.1038/451605a; Published online 6 February 2008

    Best tests for candidates

    Science in presidential debates? Absolutely. A science debate? Not so sure.

    Many of the great and good in US science — from the National Academies to Nobel laureates and various journals, including some parts of the Nature Publishing Group — have joined an initiative calling for the American election campaigns to feature a science debate. Such is the groundswell of support that their call is starting to feel like an idea whose time has come, and indeed it may prove to be so. You can join the throng at http://www.sciencedebate2008.com.

  9. Climate change should indeed be debated by the ultimate contenders for the presidency. The optimum format would allow them to question each other freely, with expert interlocutors able to challenge claims and highlight both common ground and inconsistencies. Scientific issues — how to deal with the uncertainties of climate sensitivity when deciding goals for emissions, or how far to shift federal research priorities towards near-to-medium-term innovation in alternative-energy systems — would play a key role in such a debate. But they would not be the whole story: tax policy, international trade, treaty law and foreign policy are just as crucial.

    A similar approach, with candidates interacting with experts as well as each other, could be applied in other areas that are both of concern to scientists and significantly dependent on scientific data and research. The provision of health care, the encouragement of economic growth and the avoidance of nuclear proliferation are obvious possibilities.

  10. February 11, 2008, 11:01 am
    Science Debate Is Set; Now, Will Candidates Come?

    By Andrew C. Revkin

    The organizers of a proposed science and technology debate among the presidential candidates have set a date, April 18, and place, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. This would be four days before the Pennsylvania primary.

    The group, ScienceDebate2008.com, has sent invitations to each of the remaining candidates.

    Now the big question is whether their handlers will allow them to engage the thorniest scientific issues — like the dribble of money that the United States has invested in energy research through Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses; fetal rights and embryonic stem cell research; the need to add a cost to burning fossil fuels; reconciling science with belief in an all-powerful deity; the theory of evolution, which so many Americans (read voters) reject; etc.

  11. None of the candidates has agreed to attend the long-sought-after presidential debate on science and technology, scheduled for April 18. But in what may have been a gesture of consolation, envoys from both the Clinton and Obama campaigns made surprise visits to Boston Saturday, to conduct a 90-minute “forum” at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

  12. In this battle of the campaign stereotypes, Hillary came out the clear winner. Kalil began with a series of charts depicting the decline of American research funding. Then he laid out Clinton’s plan to double funding for the NIH, the NSF, the NIST, and the research arms of the DOD and DOE. She’d reverse the ban on embryonic stem cell research, triple the size of graduate research fellowships, push for the creation of an ARPA-E, and restore the authority of the presidential science adviser. And this was just “Version 1.0” of her agenda. The audience seemed appreciative—if not deeply moved—by the details.

    Ross responded by saying that Obama’s plan is even more “detailed” than Clinton’s, “both in terms of breadth and in terms of detail.” He then invited us—repeatedly—to visit http://www.BarackObama.com, where we’d see just how often they “really get into the weeds on an issue.” Those without laptops learned only that Obama planned to double federal research funding, spend $150 billion on biofuels, and appoint a national chief technology officer.

    What about the debate on April 18—would the candidates come out for that? Clinton: “Time will tell.” Obama: “It’s being given serious consideration.”

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