Behind the Push to Hold a Presidential Debate on Science-Based Issues

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This week’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is the first of three the candidates will engage in before the November election. As in years past, each debate will be broadly aimed at one of three single subject areas—domestic policy, the economy and foreign policy.  

For the last several election cycles, a consortium of Nobel Prize winners and American scientific associations has been pushing for a fourth separate debate devoted entirely to science issues. (Newsweek covered this effort in-depth.) They argue that in our rapidly advancing, high-tech world, with the greatest global challenge being man-caused climate change, voters need to understand where candidates get their scientific information, and where they stand on the many science-based challenges and policy issues they will face. The organization, ScienceDebate.org, didn’t get its debate again this year, but the candidates did answer 20 science questions posed to them last month, on topics ranging from climate change to nuclear power to space exploration and women’s health care.

In advance of the first debate, Newsweek posed 10 questions to Shawn Otto, chairman of ScienceDebate.org, and author of The War On Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It.

You and a host of influential scientists have been pushing for a presidential science debate for several cycles now. Why?

Two reasons. First, we’ve watched as science and evidence in general have become devalued in politics, and we want to push back on that. Evidence is the surest basis for fair, just and effective public policy. The United States isn’t going to remain a world leader if its political leaders stop dealing with the facts. Second, these issues we are asking about—science, engineering, technology, health and environmental issues—are affecting voters lives at least as much as the economic policy or foreign policy or faith and values candidates often talk about. Voters deserve to hear their views on them—not only to see how they would tackle them, but also to judge the relative role they give to evidence versus ideology in their decision-making.

We are on the eve of the beginning of three presidential debates, and science isn't one of them. What happened to this effort in 2016?

The campaigns have so far avoided the idea of attending a televised debate or forum on these issues. Part of the problem is that most campaign operatives’ last exposure to science was probably high school chemistry and they didn’t like it very much, and in college they went into the humanities and wound up working in politics, and they mistakenly think the public is as disinterested as they are. Network executives have a similar attitude, thinking, without any evidence, that it is a boring, niche topic. Our polling shows they are wrong, and the public thinks a debate on these topics is a really good idea. But beyond that, it’s simply a responsible idea. Science is impacting everything and not talking about is, when you think about it, kind of crazy.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) in Palm Beach, Florida and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (R) in Miami, Florida on March 1. Reuters/Scott Audette

You asked and the presidential candidates answered 20 questions. Are you satisfied with the way they were answered and if not, why not?

They could have been more specific, but the answers do show their thinking. Consider climate change. (Hillary) Clinton’s response was broad, but linked to details of her Clean Energy Challenge, which avoids a carbon tax, instead using the Clean Air Act and other means to increase efficiency, and getting to 50 percent carbon-free by vastly increasing renewables. (Donald) Trump answered with, "There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of 'climate change,’” putting the term in scare quotes to cast doubt on it, then listing things he thinks may deserve more focus, without saying he’ll actually focus on them, either. (Gary) Johnson began by saying "We accept that climate change is occurring, and that human activity is contributing to it,” as if accepting the science is remarkable, but went on to note that we like the things that cause climate change and so the government shouldn’t do anything, we’ve got to wait for the market to correct. (Jill) Stein took the question more seriously, but her response wraps in a lot of social justice proposals like cutting military spending and supporting organic farming, without showing how she would get them through Congress.

You have written about an American culture of politicizing science and a war on science. When and how did that develop?

My book charts the history of the relationship between science and power, and why science has gotten into trouble. The public developed misgivings about science after we used nuclear weapons, associating it with the military-industrial complex. Then with the advent of government funding, scientists stopped making sales pitches to the public and went silent. Meanwhile, rapid bioscience advances were occurring around sexuality and reproduction that religious conservatives found objectionable. Similarly, new insights from environmental science showed that pesticides were damaging the environment, that lead, silica, asbestos and other industrial products are dangerous, that CFCs were harming the ozone layer, smoking causes cancer, high sugar consumption heart disease, and burning fossil fuels climate change. These industries found themselves in common cause with religious conservatives in casting doubt on the science that threatened their vested interests. This became a billion-dollar a year public relations effort, realigning American politics with the express purpose of sowing doubt and opposition to these advances.

And what is the status of this war on science in 2016? Who is winning it and why?

The jury is out. This isn’t a left-right war. Science is both progressive and conservative. What this is is a top-down war between anti-authoritarians driven by evidence and authoritarians using P.R. That’s the argument we see going on in the Republican Party: moderates driven by evidence, versus Trump, who is a master of media manipulation, and is running an authoritarian, “post-facts" campaign. The media enable this with their penchant for balance at the expense of evidence-based reporting. The journalistic mantra is that there’s no such thing as objectivity and the best you can do is be fair and balanced. The problem is there are such things as facts and objective knowledge from science that can inform a story or be brought to bear on public policy, and when a journalist leans too heavily on balance, he or she winds up dedicating half the story to a scientist or other expert representing all the knowledge developed on a topic, versus a passionate advocate with a contrary, unsupported opinion, and that elevates extreme or counterfactual views in what scientists call “false balance.”

Are there any nations where science is given the respect in policy-making that you think it is due and which ones are they?

Generally the Northern European, particularly the Scandinavian, countries do a better job of this. Finland does a good job in particular, as does Estonia. Canada is making moves back in that direction. I’ve advised science debate efforts in some of these places, and there is a growing realization that science and technology are advancing very rapidly and we need to make a more concerted effort to talk about the issues this poses in our political dialogue so that they don’t get away from us, and to do a better job of basing public policy on evidence. This isn’t to say that values don’t inform the process. The process is all about values. But the foundation of the value argument has to be evidence.

How can politicians, without advanced degrees, be expected to adequately debate science?

This isn’t about quizzing them on the fourth digit of pi or the details of cell mitosis, although that might be entertaining. What we’re really saying is that science is creating, driving, or presenting solutions to a lot of major issues where the politics are becoming stuck because we don’t talk about them enough in the nation’s political dialogue, which has gotten in some cases untethered from evidence, and we’ve got to get a handle on them. Politicians regularly opine about economics even though they aren’t often economists; they offer views on the military and foreign policy even though they are rarely diplomats or generals; so they also ought to be able to talk about the major science, tech, health and environmental challenges we are facing every day in a fact-based way if they want to be problem-solver in chief.

What can scientists do to help policymakers and politicians talk about science issues?

Get involved. Contact your members of Congress, or your state elected officials and ask them if they have a science advisor. Chances are they will say no. Volunteer. No matter what party they are, availing them of the even-handed evidence from science, when and where it exists, can help inform the process and lead to smarter, less politicized outcomes. Will this win out over well-financed lobbying efforts? Maybe not. But it will provide important back pressure while it builds trust and begins to repair the relationship between science and the political process. That’s what happened when scientists got involved to help Obama answer our science questions in 2008 and it arguably transformed his presidency as he appointed many of them to cabinet-level positions.

In your view, what is the most urgent science question candidates should be asked and answer in the coming debates?

The gorilla in the room is climate change. Human-caused climate change is supported by such an enormous weight of evidence from so many independent lines of experimental observation that it should be regarded as settled fact. Arguing with that is putting your head in the sand. It’s gutless, and candidates should be held to account. And yet, in the week after the Paris climate accord, where 195 countries forged an historic agreement to work on the world’s largest single economic, foreign policy, defense and environmental issue, both the Republicans and Democrats debated, and not a single journalist moderating either debate asked a single question about it. That’s malfeasant, and it’s got to be corrected.

How can voters, also without advanced degrees, adequately judge politicians on their views on science-based policy?

That’s an important question, and the danger is that voters will go strictly off tribalism. In this case science provides a unique way to counter that impulse. Were we ever to broadcast a science debate, we would have scientists on a panel with the moderator and in the post-game recap, talking about whether candidates based their responses on evidence or rhetoric. In the case of the candidates’ written answers to ScienceDebate, we are partnering with Scientific American, who is grading the responses based on the same criteria of evidence.