ScienceDebate.org is a national project started by Minnesota’s own Shawn Otto, as part of a team including “two screenwriters, a physicist, a marine biologist, a philosopher and a science journalist,” back at the time of the 2008 election. The movement to get the candidates to have at least one debate focused on science drew a lot of attention from scientist and the public. Over 38,000 people signed on, and the project was supported by the National academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other organizations, and both NOVA and NOW on PBS agreed to broadcast the debate. In the end, the candidates did not come through.
Since then, Shawn has written a tremendous book on science policy (or lack there of) with a title all Democrats and Progressives will enjoy: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. (I’ve reviewed the book here.)
I wanted to explore the idea of having State-level Science Debates within Minnesota among candidates running here for federal office, but also, and especially, for state office. Happily Shawn was kind enough to squeeze in a few minutes between talks and book signings and answer a few questions about this.
GL: Shawn, in your opinion, is there value to a Science Debate at the state level, for example, among candidates for legislative office?
SO: I think there’s a tremendous value. Look, we live in a time when science affects every aspect of our lives, and that makes it a tremendously relevant issue for vetting candidates. “Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” In this day and age when science issues have become the major intractable government and political issues, we need to be talking about them more to have any hope of solving them.
GL:What issues are these?
SO:Things like climate change, but it also includes our slipping science education, our economic competitiveness in a very aggressive global knowledge-driven economy, whether we teach our kids nonsense like young earth creationism in science class and tell them the lie that there’s a scientific controversy about evolution that underlies all the biosciences. But beyond the specific issues, in a science-driven world what we are really after, what we need to see as voters and citizens, is the candidates’ thought processes. What we really elect candidates for is good judgment, and right now there are a lot of ideologues running for office who voice their opinions really loudly and often very eloquently, but who lack good judgment and are driven by the authoritarian drive to assert their ideology instead of making policy based on the evidence. Science debates would help to tease that out.
GL:Clearly this is largely a Left-Right difference, or Progressive-Conservative difference for the most part, but isn’t poor scientific judgment even more wide spread than that?
SO:Many legislators seem unable or perhaps unwilling to distinguish between facts and propaganda. On the left this gets into things like the suspicion that vaccines may cause autism or cell phones may cause brain cancer or now, even, that cell phones may cause autism. Anyone who understands a little bit about chemistry, biology and physics will know why these things are not supported by science. But there are drives to base public policy on them. On the right it’s about dumbing down science classes with creationism, or denying climate change, or getting rid of regulations that have increased our overall health and freedom. We know most candidates come out of the humanities, lawyers and such whose last science class was most likely high school chemistry. Many of them have forgotten what they learned about why science works, what it is and what it isn’t, why it’s credible and how it’s different from opinions.
GL:So we are not necessarily trying to elect people with extensive science background, although that would be nice now and then. It seems like we are looking more for legislatures who would do well in a critical thinking class and understand the scientific approach, and not necessarily the details.
SO:We don’t care that much about training in science, as long as they have the good judgment to realize that science isn’t just someone’s opinion – it’s an opinion based on knowledge of the real world that is in turn based on measurements of nature that have been confirmed by others over and over, and so is the best basis for fair and effective public policy. Bad judgment is when a candidate goes off opining about something he or she knows nothing about and takes a blatantly antiscience position, like when Michele Bachmann seeks to lecture us from the floor of the House of Representatives about the chemical role of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or when Energy & Environment Chair John Shimkus holds up his Bible in committee and declares that the Earth will only end when God wills it to be over so we don’t have top worry about carbon emissions. Or locally, when someone whose been fooled by the propaganda the Heartland Institute spews out seeks to pass themselves off as an expert on climate change, as MN Senator Mike Jungbauer has. These episodes would be laughable if these people weren’t effectively throwing rocks in the state and federal policymaking system. Having science debates helps voters of all stripes to get a sense of candidates’ judgment on these things and to compare their positions to real knowledge before their are elected. This helps citizens have a deeper understanding of who they are voting for, and helps candidates to build a greater understanding of science and why it’s important to voters that they base their positions on evidence when it’s available.
GL:What are one or two (or three) key questions do you think should be addressed in Minnesota Science Debate?
SO:There are far more than two or three. I’m not going to get into phrasing prospective questions here because that’s a careful process and it’s important that questions are nonpartisan, not leading, and not advocating. I would encourage readers to go to our site and see the questions from the presidential science debate, and then also to go to http://questions.sciencedebate.org and see the questions other readers and scientists have submitted, vote them up or not, comment, or even submit one of their own. But some general subject areas might include: what to do about climate change on a statewide basis, whether we should be pursuing new nuclear power and if so what kind, what should we be doing to upgrade our grid to support distributed generation, should we set higher emission standards like California has or is that a failed approach, exploring the relationship between investment in education and basic research to economic gains, how that ties into tuition, how it ties into ECFE, how to bring our schools into the internet age when so much info is available on tablets or laptops and we’re teaching out of old paper textbooks… How do you resolve a conflict when a mining company wants to mine for precious minerals but scientists report that will increase sulfates in Minnesota lakes to the point that wild rice will no longer grow, what to do when evidence from science conflicts with a literalist reading of the Bible, how to get more kids to go into STEM fields, what the relationship is between art classes and innovation, what we can do to encourage more high tech companies to be created in Minnesota, what to do about improving health research while keeping costs more affordable, etc, and that’s just a beginning. These things need to come out of the community and be developed carefully, and themed around the major science issues facing the state.
GL:Isn’t it a fair criticism (of Science Debate) that candidates for office can never know the science well enough to actually debate? Shouldn’t the debate be among their policy makers or other surrogates?
SO:No, for the reasons I list above. We’re not interested in a candidate’s understanding of cell mitosis or whether they remember the third digit of pi. This isn’t a pop quiz on science or some attempt to sandbag people or make them look foolish. What we’re interested in is two things. One, their judgment. Do they know how to think and do they understand that basing public policies on evidence over loudly voiced and well-financed opinion is more just, humane, economical and American, and that it actually increases our freedom? And two, what is their policy position on these critical science policy issues facing the state.
GL:I suppose it is true that candidates and elected officials often talk about things they know relatively little about, or perhaps know something about but have no formal training in.
SO:Look, candidates freely opine on faith and values, sometimes ad nauseum, even though they aren’t usually pastors or priests. They talk about the economy and job creation even though few of them are economists. They talk about education even though not many of them are teachers. And yet they are strangely silent on the one area that is having the most profound impact on all our lives, and the topic around which so many of our thorniest unresolved policy problems revolve – science.
GL:The Science Debate idea is new, so there is no established pattern of voter expectation that there will even be one. Doesn’t this make it hard to get the first Science Debate off the ground?
SO:If voters don’t expect candidates to talk about this, they won’t. They are after one thing when they run: votes. Their job is to tell us who they are and to get votes. Hopefully those two goals mesh. But it’s very much a squeaky wheel approach. It’s got to come from the people or the candidates will think nobody cares. And if nobody cares, we get government by ideologues and religious zealots who want to force their views on everybody, and we start slipping behind, and that’s exactly what’s happened. That’s not to say that people of conservative or evangelical faith are wrong to express their views. Democracy requires a plurality of voices to arrive at balanced policy decisions. But with the voice of science silent, with the public’s concern over these science issues not being well-articulated, we are falling away from balanced public policy into a more authoritarian, ideological approach, and that’s as concerning as it is dysfunctional.
GL:Would it be reasonable for a debate to include both candidates and associated policy experts freindly to the specific campaigns?
SO:No, I don’t think do. People are interested in assessing the candidates and their capacity to exercise good judgment, and their positions on the major science-themed policy issues that affect their lives. Hearing from mouthpieces does little to help voters assess those key qualities in a candidate for office.
GL:If there was a state-level science debate among state legislative officials, who should moderate it?
SO:Don Shelby would be a good choice. Kerri Miller would too. You need a journalist who is used to interviewing and moderating discussions with politicians, who are often skilled rhetoricians, and doesn’t let candidates get away with things, but who is also familiar with science. Both those individuals have shown that consistently. One option we’ve discussed federally is a team of two: a journalist and a well-known scientist. This has some advantages as well. Personally I think the post-game show is also important: after the candidates leave their spot at the table is taken by scientists who don’t argue the same old left-right political pundit spin, but instead assess how well the candidates did in basing their arguments on real knowledge, and to what extent they were spinning nonsense. There is an intimate relationship between science and civics in America. George Washington talked about it in his first State of the Union address. Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and other key founding fathers involved in drafting our founding documents were all scientists. We seem to have forgotten that, and seeing candidates debate these real, and really interesting, and future-oriented issues, would help reaffirm that side of our innovative, can-do American nature for voters and for kids who may be watching the debate. That’s a huge plus for Minnesota, if our kids can make that connection and we can start building enthusiasm to pull together as a state and become a world leader again in science, innovation, and art, because they are all intertwined, and we’ve been devaluing all of them recently in our rhetoric and our funding.