Friday, December 14, 2007

Letter to Ben (and Everyone Else)

By now, I'd wager you've read about the proposed Science Debate 2008. Denialism has writen about it twice. Steve Novella at NeuroLogica put up a post about it today. You can find plenty more if you want. And the second denialism article links two articles in popular outlets (LA Times and Huffington Post, resp.) by some of the organizers/supporters of Science Debate 2008, including Chris Mooney and Lawrence Krauss.

The point is, both Mark Hoofnagle and Steve Novella, whom I enjoy reading and respect very much, are supportive of the idea. However, I don't think I am... though I'm not sure. At the very least, my feelings on this issue are complex.


  • Science is incredibly important to our society and, arguably, more complex than ever. Any political leader should have, at the very least, a passing knowledge of the important issue. Hopefully a debate will make them study.

  • This may seem crass, but knowing who does and who does not support nonsense would inform my vote.
  • In my opinion, debates are about political posturing. I don't think a science debate would be any different. If I'm wrong in this, please let me know.

  • I worry that a science debate would inform the votes of other people as well... but in the opposite way it would inform mine.

On that last point, however, there is a bit more that I can say. As you may remember, the doctor provided us with some poll numbers about belief in evolution. Tucked away in that article are also questions regarding candidates and evolution.

More than 50% of respondents said knowing a candidate did not believe in evolution wouldn't affect their vote. Of those who said it would, just under 30% said they'd be less likely to vote for an evolution denier, and about 15% said they'd be more likely. And 70% said a candidate's views on evolution are not relevant to a campaign.

These statistics can be taken several ways. I won't get into that here. The purpose of this article was to stimulate discussion. I've presented some of my thoughts on a science debate, but what I really want to know is what you think.

Anyone who is reading this, put your thoughts in the comments below. Should we encourage a presidential debate on scientific issues? Would it help? Or would the effects of such a debate run counter to the purpose of this and other skeptical organizations? Don't be shy. Step up and tell me your opinions.


Kelly said...

I'd bet every candidate would say scientific research is important to our society, but its importance among other debatable topics is the key difference. So, how do we create a meaningful debate on science and technology (without everyone focusing on their education platforms)?

I'd love to see the candidates squirm in their seats when asked their opinions about the bleak state of scientific funding. But I don't really see much good in a having a debate. Unless, the goal is to find out who believes in global warming or evolution, for example.

Ben said...

In my opinion, assessing a candidates knowledge and respect for basic science is the most important determiner of a candidate's legitimacy given the state of the world today. Scientific literacy is not entirely about evolution, atoms, computers, NASA, and bombs. Being scientifically literate also implies being able to think scientifically. Scientific thinking implies being able to look at evidence and make a decision based on that evidence. But even more importantly, a lack of scientific literacy shows an unwillingness to try to understand the important issues of today (global warming, stem cell research, evolution, etc).

When it comes to a debate, I think that it is important to remember that the candidates do not actually debate. They just say whatever they planned to say almost regardless of the question asked. However, if candidates were pressed to speak off-the-cuff (something I think is unlikely) we might be able to glean some interesting information about the candidates. I am very interested to know who among the candidates respects the consensus of scientists.

I see the debate being not extremely informative though. I think the questions will be about global warming (What should we do about it?), stem cell research (Yes or no?), evolution (Fact or fiction?), general science funding (Sure more is needed.), going to the moon again (Why oh why?), alternative fuel sources (Yes, we need them.). I think there will be nothing interesting gained from these questions except for when a candidate denies a problem or scientific fact. The evolution questions I believe will be the most important. If a candidate rejects evolution, he/she is rejecting one of the better tested and most accepted (by scientists) scientific claims. To elect someone who rejects evolution based on faith is, in my opinion, very dangerous. The man puts his religious ideas before the opinion of those who have studied the theory in great detail, for well over 100 years. If policy were enacted based on these perceptions, not only does it mix church and state (a horrible thing in my idea), it also goes against what is demonstrable scientific fact.

I would hope, however, that the debate would convey how utterly important science is. I think there is a lack of scientific in the United States because there is a lack of appreciation of the necessity of science and scientific thinking in relation to the progress of the country. If the Americans were convinced that scientific literacy was an important quality for candidates to have, then the debates would be very useful. I can only hope that would come across.

I just thought of something. In order to be a doctor (medical or PhD), lawyer, teacher, and many other important/respected professions, a basic competency exam is required (MCAT, GRE's, LSAT, qualifying exams, etc) to ensure that the candidate for the job has the required general knowledge to understand the material of the position he or she is in. Why do we not have this for politicians? There would be a exam on the candidates familiarity with the current state of affairs both domestic and abroad. I am sure there are downsides to such an exam such as who would write it and given the current amount of political corruption, how we could ensure it was scored and enforced correctly. I don't any objective downsides to the concept of testing our candidates for a basic level of knowledge (math, science, lit, lang, foreign affairs, geography, economics, history, etc) . I know that I would feel more confident about the candidates in general. Like I said, I just came up with this idea as I was writing this so I'm sure there are flaws.

Overall, I think a science themed debate is a good idea and I look forward to seeing it. While I think there will be nothing profound said, there might be blatant displays of ignorance which are just as important.