A Horrible Idea Resurrected – Science Debate 2016

I’ll preface this by saying I still think the Presidential debates in the United States are shallow, vapid affairs that beat back the impulse to provide anything of substance.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the primaries or the general election, the outcomes of these events are judged far more on matters of performance and appearance than any substance or policies discussed.

Forget that the next Presidential election is more than 15 months away, the Sisyphean crew behind a candidate debate focused on science have already ramped up their noise machine.  They are likely to fail for a third consecutive Presidential election, so I  heartily suggest that nobody send them any money.  As I’ve argued before, it’s a waste of time.

The goal of Science Debate has always been presented as having the presidential candidates hold public debates on science and technology policy issues.  The best Science Debate has ever been able to do is be one of many organizations with a candidate questionnaire.  That’s a valuable thing to have, but it doesn’t represent a debate, or even an discussion about the issues.

Besides the questionnaire, the Science Debate organization has also conducted some polling to support their argument that the public is interested in such a debate.  But, based on the supporters highlighted on the Science Debate website, and the conversations of the key organizer, Shawn Otto, there are at least two distinct challenges facing this organization that seem to push it away from what it claims to want – public debate by candidates on science and technology issues.

There is an apparent fixation on media.  A perusal of the news section of the Science Debate website suggests that the strategy for putting pressure on the candidates to debate is to have scientists and Science Debate organizers make their case to the public.  It’s not at all clear what outreach has been done to the candidates, outside of some background in this recent TEDx talk by Shawn Otto.  In that same talk, Otto seems dismissive of approaching the commission that organizes the debates for the general election, and doesn’t mention approaching the political parties, only the campaigns.  I suggest that avoiding those debates with the fewest candidates and the broadest intended audience (the whole of the voting population rather than the party faithful) will keep the cause of a science debate firmly in an ignored niche.

There is also a partisan angle to this organization, making it harder than it has to be to attract interest from more than one party and undercutting the value of any ‘science debate.’  Absent the presence of former Representative Vernon Ehlers (also a physicist), and former Republican Governor of Minnesota Arne Carlson on the Science Debate Board, the others on the Science Debate board with political backgrounds are predominantly Democrats.  And the presence of Chris Mooney on the board pretty much taints the organization’s multi-partisan potential given his polemic The Republican War on Science.

If I were to push for a science debate, I would look more toward the U.K. than the U.S. for a successful model.  There have been cross-party debates focused on science and technology policy issues prior to U.K. Parliamentary elections.  While they have been between the parties science ministers, rather than the prime minister candidates the debates have been the kind of detailed discussion of the issues that I think Science Debate would be happy to have in the U.S.  Unfortunately, I think there is too much interest in pushing a particular debate rock up the same hill over and over again, and little ability to see other possibilities.


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