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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Science Debate: It’s about time!

Science buzz!!!

w00t! There’s a group pushing for a presidential science debate focused on the many scientific issues that face us nationally and worldwide. Their call:

Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.

I’m all signed up, and definitely encourage others to visit and do the same. I seriously doubt there is a single major issue these days that doesn’t have a significant technological or scientific component. Yet there’s precious little discussion of science in our political dialogue, and candidates regularly display an ignorance of science that is at best extremely worrying.

To be honest, I have doubts about this happening, at least right away, but we’ve got to start demanding this sort of accountability on science and technology. Every journey begins with a single step web site…

Oh, and they really need a badge that people like me can include in posts and sidebars and such. Anyone want to make one?

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