08/12/2016

Debating Science in the 2016 Election

12:17 minutes

Empty debate podiums, from Shutterstock
Empty debate podiums, from Shutterstock

The election season has now been going on for more than a year, and while the candidates make lots of speeches about taxes, job creation or international trade, there’s one topic you don’t hear about much on the campaign trail: science.

It certainly didn’t play a role in the primaries, but might there be more of a science focus in the general election? Maybe even some science questions during the three scheduled debates?

Shawn Otto, a science writer, chair of ScienceDebate.org and the author of a new book called “The War on Science,” sure hopes so. In 2008, Otto says, candidates were asked nearly 3,000 questions during the campaign. Only six of those questions were about climate change.

Flash forward eight years to Democratic and Republican debates that were each held within a week of 195 countries signing the Paris climate accords: Not a single journalist in either debate asked the candidates about climate change.

Too many of the people involved in political campaigns wrongly assume that the public is not interested in questions about science, Otto says.

“We have encountered this problem over and over again,” he says. “I think it’s because most of the political class and most of the political journalists had their last exposure to science in high school and they didn’t like it very much. They went into the humanities, they went into journalism or they went into law, and they haven’t had to deal with it since, and they’re very happy in that world. But that’s not the world we’re living in anymore.”

For example, when ScienceDebate.org and Research America commissioned a national poll to hear voters’ views on the subject, 87 percent of voters said that “candidates for president ought to be well-versed in science and ought to be able to talk about these issues in a public forum,” Otto points out.

Otto has created 20 questions he believes candidates should answer and he has posted them atScienceDebate.org/20 questions. These questions are central to many of the big policy challenges any new president will face in office, he insists.

Reporters and the public must ask questions like, “How are you going to continue to power the American economy forward using science and innovation, which is responsible for over half of the economic growth of the United States since World War II? How are we going to balance privacy and security on the Internet? What are we going to do about the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that are threatening to end some of medicine as we know it?”

These issues affect voters’ lives at least as much as economic policy or foreign policy or the faith and values issues that we often hear candidates sharing with journalists on the campaign trail, Otto contends. Beyond getting a candidates to answer on the content, their answers reveal something about their respect for the role of evidence in their decision-making.

“In America, evidence is the foundation of justice,” Otto insists. “It is evidence that the Founders relied on when they crafted the Declaration of Independence, to argue that all of us are created equal.”

Otto’s organization has reached out to all four major presidential campaigns and received a “somewhat receptive response” from most of them, he says. In addition, ScienceDebate.org and a broad coalition of the American science enterprise — including the National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Chemical Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers — are pushing journalists to start asking these questions when they encounter candidates on the campaign trail.

“Over the next 40 years, we’re going to create as much new knowledge as we have in all of recorded human history,” Otto continues. “So, we’ve simply got to find a more robust way of incorporating the advances from science into our policy-making dialogue, so we can continue to govern ourselves.”

Policy-making is, in fact, at the core of what Otto aims to achieve: Public policy ought to be based on evidence, when evidence is available.

“If there is evidence, somebody’s well-held opinion shouldn’t be trumping it,” Otto says, “because it’s the evidence from nature that determines what’s really going on and what’s most fair to the majority of people.”

—Adam Wernick (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Shawn Lawrence Otto

Shawn Lawrence Otto is chair of ScienceDebate.org and author of The War On Science. He is based in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

The election season has now been going on for more than a year. And while the candidates make lots of speeches about taxes, job creation, or international trade, there’s one topic that you didn’t or don’t hear about much on the campaign trail. And that’s science. It certainly gets much– it certainly didn’t play a role in the primaries, but might there be more of a science focus in the general election? Maybe even some science questions during the three scheduled debates?

What science question would you want to ask the candidates? Not a quiz question to trip somebody up like, you know, why is it hotter in the summer than the winter. Very few people know that. But an actual question about the issues. Our number 844-724-8255.

Shawn Otto has been involved in this a long time. He’s a science writer and chair of sciencedebate.org. His new book is The War on Science. He joins us from NPR studios in St. Paul. And way back in 2008, he tried to get science questions introduced, calling his efforts a Science Debate 2008.

Welcome back, Shawn. Good to talk to you.

SHAWN OTTO: Thanks, Ira. Happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Have you had any more success than back then in getting science questions into the debate?

SHAWN OTTO: No, we haven’t. And it’s not just us. You know, we looked at it back then and we saw that, oh, the candidates had been asked about 2,975 questions and hardly any– just six– were about, for instance, climate change out of those 3,000 questions in 2008.

Flash forward eight years and the Democrats and Republicans held a presidential debate, each of them, within a week after the Paris Climate Accords. The big international agreement featuring 195 countries. And not a single journalist in either debate asked the candidates about climate change. So I think that the situation hasn’t really improved.

IRA FLATOW: Is the problem with the journalists or is it with the topic material?

SHAWN OTTO: I think it’s a little bit of both. When we’ve talked to journalists and news directors, they’ve often thought of it as a nice topic. So we decided to do some science on that, and we worked with Research America.

And the two of us working together commissioned a national poll to hear voters’ views on this. And it turns out that 87% of voters think that the candidates for president ought to be well-versed in science and ought to be able to talk about these issues in a public forum.

IRA FLATOW: Now, let’s talk about some of– give us a handful of some of the questions you’d like to ask.

SHAWN OTTO: Well, as you said at the top, these aren’t about trick questions like the details of cell mitosis or the fourth digit of pi or something like that. They’re about the big policy challenges that the candidates for president, no matter who’s elected, no matter what their party, they’re going to face these things when they’re in office. So it is things like climate change.

Or how are you going to continue to power the American economy forward using science and innovation, which is responsible for over half of the economic growth of the United States since World War II? How are we going to balance privacy and security on the internet? What are we going to do about the rise of antibiotic-resistance superbugs that are threatening to end some of medicine as we know it?

So these questions are broad and they impact, collectively, voters’ lives at least as much as the economic policy or the foreign policy or the faith and values issues that you often hear candidates sharing with journalists on the campaign trail. So we contend that they really need to be talking about these issues as well.

IRA FLATOW: Considering how important the Senate race is shaping up this season, would you like people to question locally? Not just wait for the presidential debates, but at their local congresspeople, and senators, congressmen running in their hometown?

SHAWN OTTO: Oh, absolutely. You know, and one of the things that this does– people, by the way, they can find the questions at sciencedebate.org/20questions. And one of the things that this does is beyond getting a candidate to answer in the content, it also reveals something about their respect for the role of evidence in their decision making. Because it’s evidence in America that’s the foundation of justice. It’s evidence that the founders relied on when they crafted the Declaration of Independence to argue that all of us are created equal.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. And how can you influence the people who are going to be asking the questions in then presidential debate? Do you have to go to the candidates themselves? Or did you go to the people conducting, the moderators, get them interested in this?

SHAWN OTTO: Well, we don’t know who the moderators are going to be yet. We have reached out to all four major presidential campaigns this time. And we have gotten somewhat receptive response from most of them. We’re hopeful that they’re going to be engaging with us.

But one of the other things that we’ve done this time– and this is not just sciencedebate.org. This is a broad coalition of the American science enterprise, including the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AIBS, the American Chemical Society, IEEE, a lot of people. And collectively, we’re really pushing journalists to start asking these kinds of questions and including them when they encounter candidates on the campaign trail. And by those means, we hope that journalists will begin to inject them into the debates as well.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let’s see if we can get some listener feedback. Let’s go to Goldsboro, North Carolina. Hi, welcome to Science Friday. Hey there.

SPEAKER 1: Hi, Ira. How you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

SPEAKER 1: I was just– what I’m curious about– and it’s a great topic, because I have probably seven or eight questions I’d love to ask candidates. But–

IRA FLATOW: Give me one.

SPEAKER 1: –one that I– OK. NASA. Where would NASA fit into the budgets? And space exploration? What do the candidates feel about?

IRA FLATOW: OK, what do you think?

SHAWN OTTO: That’s actually– that’s a great question. And it’s number 16 of our questions that there’s a political debate over America’s national approach to space exploration and use and what should America’s national goals be for space exploration and earth observation from space.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I think–

SHAWN OTTO: And what step would your administration take.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You know, I think that people normally are assuming that the public is not interested in questions about science.

SHAWN OTTO: Well, that’s a problem that we have encountered over and over again. And I think it’s because most of the political class and most of the political journalists, their last exposure to science was in high school and they didn’t like it very much. And they went into the humanities, they went into journalism, or they went into law, and they haven’t had to deal with it since and they’re very happy in that world.

But that’s not the world we’re living in anymore. You know, over the next 40 years we’re going to create as much new knowledge as we have in all of recorded human history. So we’ve simply got to find a more robust way for incorporating the advances from science into our policymaking dialogue so we can continue to govern ourselves.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Do you still see in your surveys that the evolution/creation debate is still very hot among people? And among politicians?

SHAWN OTTO: Absolutely. We don’t ask it, because it doesn’t really rise to the level of the presidential debates because a president can’t really prescribe policy about teaching of evolution or creationism in science classes. But it is a good barometer for the relative role of ideology or evidence and what that plays into policy makers’ thinking.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Phoenix. Hi, Mateo, is it?

MATEO: Mateo.

IRA FLATOW: Mateo. Sorry.

MATEO: Hi, how are you doing today?

IRA FLATOW: Fine. How are you? Go ahead, please.

MATEO: Good, thank you. Just had a question insofar as we could be doing more to ask presidential candidates to entertain questions about science and perhaps science and technology, one of the things that we might look at in terms of having them answer our questions is where they see investment in science and technology helping us to further democratize our public institutions, whether that’s higher ed or something else.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Good question. Shawn?

SHAWN OTTO: Yeah, I think that philosophically that really strikes to the core of what we’re talking about, this idea that public policy, when available, ought to be based on evidence. And if there is evidence, somebody’s well-held opinion shouldn’t be trumping it. Because it’s the evidence from nature that really determines what’s really going on and what’s most fair to the majority of people.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. And you have– you said you have submitted these questions already to the candidates? The remaining candidates?

SHAWN OTTO: Yes, we have. Yes, a couple of days ago on the 10th.

IRA FLATOW: Four of the candidates from all the different parties?

SHAWN OTTO: Yes. This is an unusual election cycle, as you know, Ira. And a lot of media are covering all four campaigns. And we thought that it would be an important discussion to see the views of the Green Party and the Libertarian Party candidates as well, since a number of voters are considering them as alternative candidates. So we thought it was an important contrast.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Do you find that when you bring up the topics, I mean, and you ask the candidates, that you get them to think about it for the first time? And maybe they say, hey, you know, this might be important to talk about.

SHAWN OTTO: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in 2008. You know, when we first started out, President Obama was not particularly pro-science in his rhetoric or in his approach. In fact, he tried to avoid our effort for quite some time.

But then once he embraced it and agreed to answer the questions and formed a Science Advisory Committee, we really saw a change in his approach. And he provided outstanding answers. But he also seemed to embrace the idea of science and evidence as a core strategic value for his administration.

And, in fact, he wound up appointing five of our core early supporters to cabinet-level positions, including the Presidential Science Advisor, the Energy Secretary, the Director of NOAA, the Director of US Geological Survey, and the Director of the National Cancer Institute. So I think that just having the discussion and putting the pressure on candidates to talk about this does push them in a healthy direction for the country.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if we can get the last question from Salt Lake. Michael, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

MICHAEL: Hey. Thank you very much. My question, and it’s more of a question/comment– and I’d like to preface this by saying that I am strongly in support of more scientific talk in the political realm– but I do feel a lot of the responsibility for the lack of science talk lies with the scientific community itself. I mean, I don’t see– there’s no science, you know, political PAC. I don’t see science political advertising. I don’t see the Scientific Association donating to different candidates.

Like, I work in politics and I feel and am somewhat frustrated by the fact that I don’t feel the scientific community actively engaging in the political process. And then they’re aghast when, you know, no journalists or the public don’t seem–

IRA FLATOW: OK.

MICHAEL: –that interested in the subject.

IRA FLATOW: Shawn, running out of time. Question? Answer?

SHAWN OTTO: Yeah. Well, you’re absolutely right. And in fact, I address that in my new book called The War on Science quite extensively, how the scientific community post-Sputnik and the funding of the NSF really withdrew from the public conversation. But that’s changing now. This is the scientific community speaking here, getting behind this sciencedebate.org initiative. And I think that over the near term we should be able to see some positive movement in that direction.

IRA FLATOW: Shawn Otto, Chair of sciencedebate.org, author of the new book The War on Science. And you can go to his website and find out the 20 questions that they’re going to be asking the candidates.

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  • geraldfnord

    I’d ask what non-biological science most needs seed funding from the government for the sake of future technology. (I’d consider ‘materials science’ a good answer, though quite possibly there are others.)

    I’d ask for the difference between science and technology.

    I’d ask in what part of the body biologists thini the life-force is concentrated—a trick question, as biologists discarded the idea of a ‘life-force’ long ago.

    I’d ask the average time before an unprotected computer on the Internet were likely to suffer an intrusion attempt or other exploit. (I believe it’s on the order of minutes.)

    I’d ask the average number of Polish workers likely to suffer moderate to severe lung disease if they are asked to clear away asbestos without face-masks for two months, and how long they can continue to work without eating if they are not paid.

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