If you visit ScienceBlogs regularly, you’ve probably read about ScienceBloglings Sheril Kirshenbaum’s and Chris Mooney’s proposal for a presidential debate about science. There’s a lot I like about this proposal, but the reality of what could happen bothers me. First, what I like about the idea.
For much of the last two and half years, I worked at a non-profit organization that focused on infectious disease policy and programs. Science policy–and politics–are important. The idea that every political candidate would actually have to devise a science policy, and perhaps even be judged by its quality, is wonderful. Having science and technology as a regular part of the national discussion would be a good thing:
Other than abortion (which is also a health issue), the cost of health care, and evolution (which shouldn’t be an issue), you almost never see any informed discussion of biology, health, or medicine on the op-ed pages (Dowd’s brainless ersatz sociobiology doesn’t count). Occasionally, a guest op-ed brings up these topics, but since the author is not part of the stable of columnists, these topics are not discussed regularly (or at all). The absence of a sustained drumbeat for biology and medicine means that these topics fall off the radar.
This isn’t just a Mad Biologist’s love of things biological: the lack of attention to these areas means many people suffer or die without anyone giving a damn. To put things in perspective, in the U.S., more people die in a month from hospital-acquired bacterial infections than have been killed by terrorists in the U.S. during the last century. Which gets more play on the op-ed page?
And Amanda writes:
And all too often, in the name of “balance”, the media will present someone who is essentially making shit up vs. someone who is invested in proof and evidence as equals on TV, not revealing to the audience that some kinds of knowledge are gained differently than others. And I suspect Americans, being a generally pragmatic people, would be much more pro-science if they had the entire clash defined that way. I suspect the right wing nuts know this, too, which is why putting forth a science debate as such will inevitably scare the shit out of them.
Too bad. Americans have a right to engage in the debate as it is, and not just to pick up on a hint here and a hint there–inevitably distorted hints, no less–from the TV. We live in a country where huge percentages of otherwise smart people fall into thinking global warming is a conspiracy theory, that scientists want to pursue stem cell research out of sadistic baby hate, and that there’s any real debate between creationists and reality-based biologists. This kind of systematic ignorance needs to be addressed for what it is, a science debate could help move us in that direction.
I do think the complexity issue shouldn’t be trivialized, however:
In my own field of expertise (evolution, microbiology, public health), I’ve witnessed some real boneheadedness: watching George Will, Cokie Roberts, and Boy George discuss bioterrorism would be laughable were it not an important issue. It was like watching monkeys talk about building a nuclear reactor.
But I think the stupidity issue can be overcome (or at least, be no worse than with any other topic). What is far more serious is the underlying dynamic of the science discussion in the U.S. Quite simply, the Republican Party is in thrall to its Christopath Uruk-hai base which is every bit as delusional as this crazy guy, only they bathe more regularly. How can you have a debate about science policy when many of those participating in the debate would deny the existence of foundational scientific observations?
I’m not just referring to Huckabee’s refusal to accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution. The insistence that global warming is not due, in considerable part, to human activity is another area of delusional Republican cogitation. Do I think the Democratic candidates could (and should) hold a debate revolving around science? It certainly couldn’t hurt. But explain to me what happens if a Republican candidate lets loose with some idiocy about global warming or evolution. Will he be corrected? Will the panel or moderator let that idiocy stand? It’s the exact same problem biologists have in deciding whether or not to debate creationists.
If the debate revolved around the parties’ and candidates’ different approaches to address agreed-upon problems, then a debate might be useful (or at least harmless). But if there is no agreement on the problems or challenges, or for that matter, the fundamental nature of scientific reality, how the hell do we have a useful debate? Worse, it just serves as a platform for anti-science ignorance and propaganda. And if believe that reason and logic will necessarily prevail, and the anti-science lunatics will be exposed for what they are, I have a cache of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to sell you.
You’re correct that the debate will probably result in some ignorant fool politician rambling about how evolution is just a theory and that global warming is fake.
However, I don’t see where this is any different than politicians rambling about how the drug war is winning or Giuliani’s 911 Tourettes or the red scare of socialized medicine or the faux panacea of privatized social security.
A presidential debate is not engineered to change any of the candidates opinions — only to give them a space to air their ideas (as right or wrong headed as they may be) so that the public knows who they hell they are voting for.
Whether or not we should staff the debate moderator panel with scientists to correct stupid statements is an interesting question.
I share your pessimism, but I don’t think the Democratic debates would be that much better. Edwards has made some ridiculous overstatements about how close embryonic stem cells were to producing viable treatments and when Yucca Mountaint came up in the Dem debates 1 or 2 debates ago, Richardson said that long term storage shouldn’t be necessary since we can just throw research money at the problem and it should go away. While creationism and global warming skepticism are likely to be absent, the Dem candidates are quite capable of being scientifically ignorant in an orthodox liberal way. Rather than getting who can deny global warming and evolution more vigorously, you’ll get who can promise a cure to cancer or free energy sooner through the magical power of throwing money at the problem.
As a rule of thumb, if you don’t want to be lied to about something, don’t ask presidential candidates to discuss it.
In the debate, I wouldn’t be as interested about whether the candidates were experts in the issues, but whether or not they have the power of discernment to determine which sources they can trust use for scientific advice.
Yes, Edwards has said some wrong things about topics such as ethanol and stem cells and Yucca Mountain; but would we able to determine if he would be able to get at the people who can get at the facts before he makes policy directives. He has allready said, on Blog Around the Clock that we would not suppress nor delete reporting based on political expediencies.
That is the type of discussion I would want to see in a Science Debate 2008. How likely are they to properly source their information, and will they choose based on phony ethics issues?
As someone who has paid particular attention to the WAY we communicate science, and in particular, the way we debate science, I have some important comments on this matter. The anti-science crowd is better than we are in one field of science, that is the science of communication aka persuasion and marketing.
Even bringing up the topic in scientific circles creates a backlash. There is a mistaken belief that persuasion connotates deceit. When I mention the problem of the anti-science crowd and to quote Rick Piltz, its “predatory relationship to the uncertainty language of science”**, I get a backlash of arguments about proof and theories which misses the point. You don’t have to speak inaccurately about scientific concepts to close the door to those predators.
For example, how science defines a theory does not preclude us saying evolution theory is supported with overwhelming evidence. Evolution theory is not on the whole uncertain. The philosophical definition of theory in science simply always allows for the accommodation of new evidence. The fact we are continually explaining to the lay public that a theory does not imply gross uncertainty indicates we are not communicating this concept effectively. The anti-evolutionists continue to market the, “it’s just a theory” slogan and the scientific community has been ineffective in countering the ‘ads’.
If we cannot recognize and effectively counter the straw men and shifting of the debate questions then we would be wise to defer this debate. For example, evolution arguments should be about the scientific validity of evolution not about the “fairness” of including alternative theories in public school science classes. We can debate evolution evidence against irreducible complexity evidence. There is no reason the get sidetracked with the ID isn’t science debate.
Nor should we even try to explain to the lay public why “intelligent design” isn’t science, unless of course, we can effectively point out ID includes a foregone conclusion and as such is not an avenue of scientific investigation. It’s darn tricky to explain how evolution theory is a conclusion from evidence and ID contains a conclusion without evidence. It also plays into the straw man that scientists exclude ID because of its religious implications. When the evolution debates are diverted from the merits of the evidence to these other discussions, we have to be able to effectively return the discussion to the merits of the evidence. If we let the anti-evolutionists control the debate question, is it any wonder we end up debating everything but the actual science?
And a million dollar marketing campaign by big oil to promote anti-global warming evidence shouldn’t be allowed to appear as significant as the budget it enjoys. A few paid prostitutes or the occasional scientists with unique interpretations of the evidence do not put a scientific consensus into question.
When you are ineffective, just repeating the same actions is not likely to result in a different outcome. You must reassess the problem. Every failure to communicate is not a knowledge deficit problem. Until we are prepared to use the science of communication as effectively as the anti-science crowd uses it, we might indeed want to hold off on that public debate.
Ideally, the scientific community will recognize what I’ve been saying all these years and finally delve into that science of communication. I know at least some people have heard me. 😉 And some like Piltz made similar observations independently. The scientific process can be used to find the best ways to communicate science. Madison Avenue and the anti-science crowd have figured that out. Isn’t is about time we did as well?
(**Quote from Rick Piltz, senior associate with the US Climate Change Science Program testifying before a Congressional Oversight Committee on the current administration’s censorship of NASA scientists.)
***As long as you credit me, feel free to copy this message. I may post it elsewhere as well.