Science Debate Once Again Imitating Sisyphus

A point of blog history worth noting – I’m no fan of ScienceDebate, so you can guess the emphasis of the writing to come.

Yesterday ScienceDebate released the questions it wants the Presidential candidates to answer.  While it still makes the motions toward an in-person debate, past experience suggests it won’t do any better than receiving answers from the campaigns.

Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the organizers actually engaged with the Presidential Commission on Debates, which sponsors the debates (for the general election) and sets everything up several months in advance.  While I doubt they would be immediately open to having a debate focused solely on science, they might be persuaded to make those questions a significant portion of a debate focused on domestic policy.

(As for science debates during the primaries, those are handled through the parties, and may be harder to persuade than the Commission)

The staff, board and organizers of ScienceDebate are experienced people.  They have been media savvy with the use of polls and friendly publications of their coalition to get their message out (though I think Ira Flatow should disclose his involvement with the organization whenever they are on Science Friday).  Yet there seems to be a consistent strategy of appealing directly to the campaigns and not engaging with the Commission.  It makes me wonder how serious ScienceDebate is about having a debate versus talking about one.  Is it just a matter of not being able to raise the money to host a debate?

I will at least acknowledge something good that ScienceDebate is doing.  It has sent their questions not just to the Trump and Clinton campaigns, but also to the campaigns of the Green and Libertarian parties.  I don’t expect either campaign to have particularly strong science platforms, as the Green candidate has expressed skepticism over vaccine oversight, and the Libertarian party objects to most government funding and most mandatory things, including vaccines.

Whatever happens, I expect that this will be forgotten by mid-December, only to be raised once again early in 2020.  Once again, this will be several months too late to mater.


2 thoughts on “Science Debate Once Again Imitating Sisyphus

  1. Pingback: Science and the 2016 US presidential campaign | FrogHeart

  2. Hi David. The commission, as you may know, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic and Republican parties, and does not set agenda at the questions level. Their role is to protect their candidates from exposure so it is a marriage of mutual convenience, and there is no motivation on either side to expand the mandate into an area like science which the (in most cases) humanities-trained politicos whose last class in science was likely high school chemistry and they hated it see as something the public is disinterested in, and a political risk. We learned this very clearly during the primary season, when (for example, using the party that offers themselves a pro-science) despite support for more than one DNC Vice Chair and purported support from the debate managers at both Clinton and Sanders campaigns, all of whom I was personally in contact with, in addition to various interested host state party organizations, none of them would finally commit. So while it’s quite easy to comment on the apparent ineptitude of our approach, it’s based on several assumptions. At this point, the commission has stated that the selected moderators will choose the questions. This, too, is a point of party negotiations. This is why we are raising the pressure on journalists to step up to the plate more on these issues, which they should anyway, as these issues are overtaking their reporting and they are essentially AWOL on several of them, leaving the ship of democracy to drift on them without the tiller of the press. The hope is some of the moderators will get the message. Additionally, it’s becoming possible this cycle that Trump will not participate even in the commission debates; they are a part of the old order, and the old rules are being reexamined by almost all the players. Finally, we are also asking candidates to attend a forum, which they can and often do do during the debate period, on faith and values most often, but also on other issues. Certainly science, tech, engineering, health, and environmental issues are worthy of such a sit-down, since, collectively they affect voters lives at least as profoundly as economic policy, foreign policy, or faith and values. But beyond all of these arguments, the very point of driving the conversation is important. As I said on Science Friday, it had a powerful effect on President Obama’s administration, and in an age when such issues are having a greater and greater input into the policymaking process, and when evidence from science can be brought more and more to bear, and when we are creating new knowledge at a rate ten times what we have in the recent past, we simply must find a more robust way of incorporating that knowledge more successfully into our policy dialogue so we retain the ability to self-govern, that relies upon Jefferson’s well-informed voter. Thanks for your criticisms, they are always welcome, but in this case the picture is larger than the one you argue against above.

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