15 May 2012


A recent episode of NPR's Science Friday featured a group of science advocates (including a writer, a mathematician, and a physicist/former congressman) who point out that since the American President should have the basic scientific knowledge to understand policy challenges, evaluate options, and devise solutions, a presidential science debate could help voters decide if a candidate is up for the job.  I would carry it further, and suggest that science debates should be held among candidates for all elective federal and state offices.  After all, science is the purest and most effective form of problem-solving ~ investigating phenomena (political issues), acquiring new knowledge (understanding all sides of the issue), and correcting and integrating previous knowledge (writing new laws or revising old laws).

Here are a few excerpts to help understand the proposal ~

"[A TV debate] is a really important way of bridging the science gap that is emerging as science begins to influence more and more aspects of our lives, and lies at the center of more and more of our unsolved, major public policy challenges.  And yet the people that we're electing, often don't seem to have much knowledge of science, or the ability to tell the difference between a knowledge-based argument and one that just sound good .... High-tech firms routinely ask little puzzles of prospective employees and yet our number one employee, arguably, never has to respond in real time to a question that's not canned.  It's very easy to plug into well-memorized, well-rehearsed sets of answers.

"[Even in Congress] there are very, very few scientists there right now .... No presidential candidate is going to want to enter a debate involving much mathematics or science.  They just don't understand it.  They don't know anything about it.  They may have taken one course on it in high school, and the last thing they want is to publicly display their ignorance .... for certain candidates, their belief in the Bible would overwhelm any knowledge of mathematics they might have.  And so they might be influenced more by their religious beliefs than they are by any knowledge of math.  [That would be useful to know], but only if you're wanting to judge candidates on the basis of their religious beliefs.  I would be more concerned about, will they understand the financial structure of the United States government?  And will they be able to tell, by themselves, what is a dangerous direction to take, and what is a safe direction to take? .... I really want someone up there who is sharp in all fields of knowledge ~ not just science and mathematics, but a well-rounded, well-educated individual able to deal with all the many issues that come before the President of the United States.  And if they can't do that, I don't care what party they're from, I wouldn't support them.

" .... There are two different ways to [structure the debate].  One is asking them .... their positions on the big science policy questions, whether they understand that climate change is occurring ~ according to scientific knowledge, and the measurements that we're doing in nature ~ and if so, what their plan is to deal with that.  Or, how do we deal with our slipping science and math education standards?  Or, since science and technology drive so much of our economy ~ about 60 percent of our economic activity right now, in one way or another ~ how are we going to ensure our continued innovation dominance?

"There's another way to do it, too, and that's to ask them to take something called the American Science Pledge, a pledge to base public policy decisions on evidence instead of opinion or belief.

" .... I would be very interested in what they know about the importance of science, that scientific research is the basis of the economy because it's the research that leads to new discoveries.  New discoveries lead to manufacturing of new products, and that leads to jobs.  And if you're not going to fund basic science research, you're not likely to improve the economy as much as you could with allocating funds to research.  I would also be interested in how much a presidential candidate knows about the National Science Foundation.  That's a very good question to ask them.  What is the National Science Foundation?  What do they do?  Would you support increased funding for them, in an effort to improve the economy?  A question like that would really wake them up on some of these issues.

" .... I would like to know if the president understood anything about risk assessment.  If you don't understand that concept, you're so easily swayed by politics versus science.  Whether you're on the environmentalist side or the industrial side, it skews it so widely from one end to the other and nothing ever gets accomplished .... former Vice President Cheney had his famous 1 percent doctrine.  If there was a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack, you had to act as if it were a certainty.  On the other hand, if there's a 99.9 percent chance that global warming [is real], many people say, wow, maybe it's not established.  So people, politicians in particular, too often use numbers as providing declaration and not providing real information.

" .... part of the resistance is just the word debate, science debate.  Maybe it should be billed as science discussion.  What's important is how you think scientifically, whatever the topic.  That's why questions regarding math [or science] require them to think through a problem, just to see how they think analytically.  It's not surprising that you'd meet resistance because politicians are used to just giving canned, rehearsed answers .... It behooves people with a scientific or mathematical background to engage themselves in the public domain.  It's kind of scary in a way, because if you just forthrightly say something that's true, you're liable to incur the wrath of all sorts of people who feel that what you said has contradicted their religious or cultural beliefs.  But it's also harder to be a politician than it is to be a scientist, and less fun.  To be a politician, you have to assuage and placate various disparate constituencies, and that's harder to do.  Science is fun.  Math is fun.

" .... There's really no politician who is going to be excited about debating anything to do with science.  Politicians are in business when they're running for election to do one thing, and that's to get votes to get elected.  And if they don't see a payoff for them in this, and if they see undue risk, they're not going to want to do it."

Which means that it is up to us, the electorate, to make it crystal clear to ALL candidates that we expect our elected representatives, whose salaries we pay, to be well-educated, well-informed, and have the ability to think analytically about the broad range of issues we as a society face ~ and to understand in every fiber of their being that it's not about playing it safe, or pandering to special interests, or fund-raising for the next election.  It's about being the best, most balanced, most incisive thinker representing our interests.  The public in general, and politicians in particular, are lazy thinkers, preferring simple (and misleading) answers to complex issues.  Avoidance and denial won't accomplish anything beyond accelerating America's slide into ignorance, a second- or third-rate power in the world.  We have the talent, we have the ingenuity, we have the desire.  What we need ~ especially in our leaders ~ is a rigorous and comprehensive understanding of science and math.  And how will we know how much they understand, unless they demonstrate for us in a forum like a public debate?

The panel discussion covered much more material ~ you can read the transcript or listen to the discussion here.  For further ideas relating to a presidential science debate, check out the website Sciencedebate.org.  Whether the topic is energy, health, science education, climate change, the economy, or technology, clearly it is in our best interest to become informed citizens, and teach our children through our example.

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