No, I really do think we need a science debate

How science is done

Yesterday I posted a somewhat knee-jerk vote in favor of the idea of a science debate. Poking a little at the enormous lists of blog posts on this topic that A Blog Around The Clock has collected, one finds that while most people are definitely in favor, some people aren’t entirely convinced. The concern typically seems to be some variant/subset of “It’ll be too technical, the general public doesn’t care/understand, the candidates will get it all wrong, and there’s no way to correct that sort of thing in a live debate”.

These are real concerns. The NPR sponsored debate early in the year (involving non-politician panelists) on the question “Global warming is not a crisis” made me want to throw things. There should be a special punishment for dissembling people like Crichton, but unfortunately the scientists arguing that there is a crisis were largely ineffective in their responses. One was condescending to the audience and their ability to understand (and got rightly booed for his troubles), and they all allowed red herrings to distract the discussion, creating a “teach the debate” atmosphere depressingly similar to the whole creationist nonsense.

In short, there’s a good chance that the whole thing could go pear shaped if not handled well.

But that’s no reason not to do it.

Just because these issues are complex doesn’t somehow make them less important or worthy of public discussion. Their importance, however, does put a greater burden on everyone (scientists and politicians included) to step up their game and find ways to make sense of these issues in a public forum. I would argue, for example, that it’s part of the job of politicians to help the public understand complex issues, and if they’re not doing that we damn well ought to complain. I’m near the end of Goodwin’s wonderful A team of rivals about Lincoln and his cabinet, and it’s clear that one of his great gifts was helping both individuals and the general public understand the truly monumental issues that faced the U.S. at that time. He didn’t do this by talking down or over simplifying or dissembling. He did it through honesty, careful thought, and a keen intelligence. And he was largely successful.

I suspect that if we had a science debate there would be much that would be depressing and broken about it (especially in it’s inaugural incarnation). But that’s where the press (and the blogosphere) comes to play, taking it all apart, pointing out the misconceptions and unsupportable nonsense. The debate starts a vital conversation, says science and technology are crucial in our affairs (duh), and encourages us all to continue the debate long after the TVs are turned off. A debate like this isn’t going to convert creationists into evolutionary biologists, or hard core believers in climate change into denialists; it’s unlikely to affect the poles in any significant way. What it can do, however, is signal to the middle that these are important, complex ideas, and that asking questions and paying attention might be a good idea. That it matters where and how your food and energy are produced, how you move yourself around your world, and what medicines really make sense for a cold or earache.

So I’m full square in favor. Even if it isn’t gonna be perfect, it really needs to be done. Now.

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