It's Time for Presidential Candidates to Talk About Science

Evolution deniers often fall back on the retort, "I didn't descend from no monkey," when the topic comes up. Brad Wilson/Getty

When Charles Darwin set sail from Plymouth, England, on the HMS Beagle in 1831, the British biologist fell seasick almost immediately, and he remained nauseated for most of the next five years on that ship. Yet the journey, however arduous for Darwin, paid off for the rest of us in one of the greatest scientific theories of all time. After studying the South American coast for several years, Darwin made his way to the Galapagos Islands, where he grew curious about the finches and their various-sized beaks. How, he wondered, had these birds on a small archipelago hundreds of miles from the mainland come to differ so greatly from others of the same species? "We seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the appearance of new beings on this earth," he wrote in his journal. He solved the mystery of mysteries with his breakthrough theory. Today, evolution is settled science.

Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution after noticing that some finch birds on a remote island off the coast of Ecuador varied from those found on the mainland. Getty

Fast-forward 176 years, a British-born American author and screenwriter named Matthew Chapman was lolling on a couch in his Manhattan apartment, watching a presidential primary debate. It was 2007, and while Chapman wasn't exactly nauseated by what he was hearing, he was noting with dismay (not for the first time) that the candidates never discussed science—even though any future president's most vexing challenges, from Iran's nukes to global warming, Internet security and women's reproductive politics, are impossible to discuss without dealing with physics, math and biology.

That's when he had his own breakthrough.

Chapman's scientific bona fides were mostly genetic. He happens to be the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and he had recently completed a memoir about growing up Darwin—being the literary black sheep at the end of a long line of famed scientists. As part of his research for that book, he studied the Scopes trial, in which politician William Jennings Bryan faced off against lawyer Clarence Darrow on the teaching of evolution in public school, so the politics of science in American life were more on his mind than usual. "Everything in my family was assessed through some form of the scientific method," says Chapman, who moved from London to Hollywood in the 1980s to work as a director and screenwriter, and now lives in New York. "It was just really peculiar to see people we were going to give trust to not addressing either the scientific issues nor the method by which people assess truth in the best possible way."

Chapman's subsequent voyage into American politics has been not unlike his ancestor's on the Beagle—queasy and slow to produce results. His grand idea: Every four years, American presidential candidates should have one debate solely about science. He enlisted fellow author and screenwriter Shawn Otto, author of a book on the history of science in American politics, and together they founded Science Debate. They rounded up 28 Nobel laureates, 108 college and university presidents, the National Academy of Sciences and a long list of artists, writers and industry leaders, and commissioned research and polling to examine how presidential candidates talk about science. They also invited candidates to a debate in 2008 and got ignored, twice.

This election cycle, Chapman and his advisory board—which includes heavyweights such as Norm Augustine, a past CEO of Lockheed, and former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson—believe they have a better chance. They are working with the National Geographic Channel and Arizona State University to again attempt to stage and broadcast a presidential science debate. Darwin's descendant says he's not discouraged by previous failures to get the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to explain how they'd incorporate science into White House decision-making. "I believe that there will come a time when it will seem as odd for a candidate not to attend a debate on science as it would now seem odd for one not to attend a debate on foreign or domestic policy or the economy," he says.

But foreign policy debaters agree that a place called Iran exists, and domestic policy opponents don't differ on how many Americans receive Medicare. A science debate, however, would begin and end with a profound disagreement over facts that a vast majority of scientists say are irrefutable.

A Snowball in Senate Hell

None of the major candidates has yet agreed to participate in Chapman's debate. But none can deny that science is at the core of many of today's most contentious battles. Take the Iran nuclear deal. The international negotiating teams in Vienna this summer included not only diplomats but also physicists, without whose expertise the participants would have never gotten past chatting about where to buy Sacher torte. Everyone in the room, from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on down, had to be fluent in the arcana of uranium processing, understand the difference between an IR-1 and an IR-2m centrifuge, decode what it means to limit a reactor to " not exceed 20 MWth" and understand that "bake times" didn't refer to Betty Crocker's test kitchen.

Matthew Chapman, the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, speaks with a television reporter about the Dover Intelligent Design trial, in Harrisburg, Pa., September 29, 2005. Jason Plotkin/York Daily Record/AP

The anointed MVP of the American team was not Kerry, but Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, an MIT physicist instantly recognizable as a scientist by his slightly-tamer-than-Albert-Einstein's gray hair. Moniz is credited with having bridged one of the big divides by allowing the Iranians to keep a cherished, fortified nuclear research bunker called Fordo after persuading them to devote its centrifuges to medical isotopes rather than potential bomb fuel.

When Moniz returned from Vienna, he went on a congressional blitz, explaining the deal's intricacies to Republican hawks who want to kill it. The GOP has presented some valid scientific evidence to support its objections, but the spectacle has also led to some awkward moments. New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman, covering one Senate hearing, drily tweeted: "Now Sen. Ron Johnson is lecturing MIT physicist Ernest Moniz on electro-magnetic pulse weapons."

A bitter divide rooted in biology has provoked one of the nation's most intractable political conflicts: legal abortion. Last month's release of undercover videos of Planned Parenthood leaders discussing fetal tissue harvesting unleashed another round of political attacks on the organization. Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards apologized for the doctor's casual tone about crushing fetal skulls, but her organization maintains that gruesome discussions are typical medical talk. As congressional committees gear up to hold hearings on whether to defund Planned Parenthood's contraception programs in retaliation for the revelations, politicians plan to rely on scientists when considering standard operating procedure for organ donations from cadavers and fetuses, as well as the larger questions of fetal pain and when human life begins. Or not.

By far, the most contentious science issue of our time is climate change, pitting the global science establishment against the global—but far better-financed—energy industry. Almost every week, scientists reveal direr consequences of humanity's carbon emissions, including July's announcement from former NASA planetary scientist James Hansen and other leaders in the field that sea levels could rise 10 feet in 50 years, far exceeding previous estimates. Obama managed to get re-elected in 2012 without much talk of global warming. Safely into his second term, he now deems it of paramount concern, and in August unveiled an ambitious Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions by 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. "I'm convinced no challenge provides a greater threat to the future of the planet," Obama said. "There is such a thing as being too late."

Climate change skeptics and global warming deniers wave signs at a Tea Party Express rally in Detroit in 2010. Jim West/Report Digital-REA/Redux

On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders are acting now—by hauling in NASA scientists to explain why they are wasting taxpayer money on tracking rising Earth temperatures instead of flying to Mars (their observations found 2014 to be the hottest year on record). The chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, James Inhofe, tossed a snowball on the Senate floor to point out that the planet probably isn't warming. Senator Ted Cruz, who chairs the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, has pushed NASA to stop monitoring earthly temps and prefers to talk about science fiction, most recently assuring The New York Times that Star Trek's Captain Kirk was a Republican.

With few exceptions—Al Gore, Newt Gingrich—modern American presidential candidates rarely discuss science. The Founding Fathers, though, were devoted to the scientific method, and science was at the heart of the national idea. On July 4, 1776, as the Declaration of Independence was being adopted, Thomas Jefferson was recording local temperatures as part of a research project. Stories about Ben Franklin's experiments with lightning and the kite are well-known. The founder of the Smithsonian, America's greatest museum and first scientific institution, was a British scientist. Like many others in his field, he believed the new democracy across the Atlantic would produce great scientific advances.

America did become the global leader in science and technology. But 239 years after the founding, many Americans, and many of our elected leaders, suspect scientists and distrust their conclusions. We all know the Professor on Gilligan's Island or the grad students on CBS's Big Bang Theory, but few can call to mind a living American scientist. The one most Americans can name, Einstein, feared this obliviousness so much that in 1946, less than a year after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he tried to raise money to fund a national campaign to push for more public awareness of the science behind political decision-making, especially with respect to war and weapons. "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe," Einstein wrote. He didn't get his campaign.

There are many reasons Americans now distrust science, and the most valid is that all scientific research has an element of uncertainty and is subject to repeated confirmation. Then there are other causes: an anti-science strain among religious fundamentalists, as well as contrarian pseudoscience, financed by vested interests, like those now aimed at climate change and previously the safety of cigarettes.

Partisan sentiment toward science has shifted 180 degrees since the Cold War, when Republicans were the pro-science party and liberal Democrats distrusted its relationship to the military. Democrats used to be the party of astrology and the New Age. Certain that science's mushroom cloud doomed humanity, novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "Only in superstition is there hope." Now the pendulum has swung, and Republicans are more often distrustful of science. Of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 83 percent think government investment in basic scientific research pays off in the long run, Pew researchers found. A smaller majority—62 percent—of Republicans agree, while 33 percent say such investments are pointless.

The party shift dates to the early '90s, as more and more severe climate change predictions threatened the energy sector—a major GOP funding base. Today, 87 percent of scientists believe human activity is causing global warming, according to Pew, and 71 percent of Democrats say the Earth is warming because of human activity, while only 27 percent of Republicans agree with that statement. And just 43 percent of Republicans accept the theory of evolution, compared with 67 percent of Democrats.

To be fair, Democrats are not uniformly pro-science on many issues, including global warming. They can be found protecting coal interests and tend to be against nuclear power, even though it's a source of carbon-free energy that scientists tend to support. And like Republicans, their ranks include anti-vaxxers and a large cohort who think genetically modified organisms (GMOs) foods are unsafe—opinions at odds with most peer-reviewed science.

Modern science is based on a mode of inquiry developed by 17th century European thinkers that's sometimes called the scientific method, which Darwin's descendant refers to reverentially above. It entails observing the natural world, questioning what one sees and then conducting experiments to gather measurable, empirical evidence to answer those queries.

Children hold signs during one of many worldwide "March Against Monsanto" protests against Genetically Modified Organisms and agro-chemicals, in Los Angeles, California October 12, 2013. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

For laypeople, understanding any scientific issue—climate change, vaccinations, GMOs, cyberhacking and digital surveillance, to name a few—requires a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method and a level of trust that its results, when confirmed, are right.

The Pew survey found that on many issues, Americans don't have that trust. Americans respect but don't necessarily believe scientists, and that is true across the political spectrum. That distrust is at the heart of the call for a science debate. "Leading the national discussion requires some basic knowledge of what the important issues are, what is known and not known, and what new efforts need to be commenced," says physicist Lawrence Krauss. "Scientific data is not Democratic or Republican."

We Need to Talk About Sandy

In recent presidential elections, both parties have avoided speaking about climate change, and so have journalists on the campaign trail. The League of Conservation Voters ran the numbers and found that by January 25, 2008, journalists had conducted 171 interviews with the presidential candidates, and of the 2,975 questions asked, only six mentioned the words global warming or climate change, while three mentioned UFOs. In 2012, after a year of record-breaking heat, drought and Arctic ice melt, none of the moderators in the three general-election presidential debates asked about climate change, nor did the candidates broach the topic. The closest the candidates came to a debate on science arrived during their nominating conventions. Standing before fellow Republicans in Tampa, Florida, Mitt Romney joked about a Moses-like Obama promising to "slow the rise of the oceans" and "heal the planet." At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Obama stated, "Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children's future, and in this election you can do something about it."

And that was it, until Superstorm Sandy's inundation of lower Manhattan and New Jersey during the final hours of the campaign forced candidates to cancel scheduled activities and journalists to discuss extreme weather.

The current presidential cycle promises to be different. Whether or not candidates can be herded into a public science debate, they're already staking out positions. "There's clearly been an uptick in discussion [of climate change] in both of the primary fights over what we saw in 2012," says Brad Johnson, with the climate science campaign Forecast the Facts.

Most leading Republican candidates are on record refuting mainstream climate science. Cruz said in the last 15 years "there has been no recorded warming," Mike Huckabee has called global warming a hoax, and Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum have said the planet's getting hotter but doubt that human-produced greenhouse gases are contributing mightily toward it. Rand Paul said he believes the Earth goes through cycles of warming and cooling and he doesn't know why. Scott Walker has been a keynote speaker at the Heartland Institute, one of the chief anti–climate change organizations. After Sandy swamped his state in 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie declined to blame Sandy on global warming, but he has recently said "global warming is real." Senator Lindsey Graham accepts climate scientists' conclusions as fact and has said he wants to combat the issue in a business-friendly way. (This after Graham, John McCain and Hillary Clinton traveled to Alaska to see the effects of climate change.)

Johnny Adinolfi is comforted by neighbor John Vento, right, as he stands in what was once the living room of his home, in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, October 30, 2012, in Massapequa, N.Y. The storm caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. Jason DeCrow/AP

On the Democratic side, Clinton released a YouTube video last month talking about her responsibility for the planet as a grandmother and humorously depicting her potential Republican opponents as "mad scientists," complete with old-time Frankenstein movie effects. But the issue is almost as tricky for her as it is for the GOP. In July, she faced demands in New Hampshire for a "yes or no" answer about banning the extraction of fossil fuels from public grounds. "The answer is no until we get alternatives into place," Clinton hedged. Hecklers, scenting a waffle, started chanting, "Act on climate!"

'Doubt Is Our Product'

How would a science debate work? The way Chapman and his friends envision it, candidates would not be called upon to don lab coats and perform experiments before an audience of millions, as diverting as that spectacle might be. They want a debate like the domestic and foreign policy debates, in which candidates are not expected to explain the complex economics behind Social Security financing predictions or know the exact population of Tehran, the Iranian capital, but to demonstrate that they have consulted with experts and formulated ideas and opinions about policies.

"We don't expect the next president to know the seventh digit of power or even be a scientist," says Krauss. "But they need to have some fluency with what the issues are, who to turn to for expertise, and most important, demonstrate a willingness to base public policy, where possible, on empirical evidence rather than ideological prejudice."

Chapman believes it is possible to organize a debate that reveals a candidate's attitude toward science without requiring him or her to dive into eye-glazing technical details. For example, he says, some of the questions would be: "Here is a family that will lose the land they've farmed for generations if the sea rises. Why is this happening, and what will you do about it? Here is a family that lost their child to mental illness and suicide. What can science do to alleviate this problem, and what would you do to help?"

It's simpler to organize any presidential debate before the conventions, after which the bipartisan Presidential Debate Commission takes charge of the three 90-minute, commercial-free presidential mega-matchups that draw as many as 70 million viewers.

In 2008, Science Debate organized two pre-convention debates in Philadelphia and Corvallis, Oregon, to be recorded and provided to PBS affiliates. Both parties ignored calls and emails from the debate organizers, opting instead to attend debates organized at religious venues instead.

Obama agreed to answer online science questions in writing, and other candidates followed suit. Their answers to "The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America" received 850 million media impressions, according to Chapman.

None of the campaigns queried by Newsweek responded to a question about whether they would participate in a science debate, but former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich offered qualified support. "Republicans should participate in a science debate if they have some assurance that it will be about science rather than political science," he tells Newsweek. "If the purpose of the debate is to implement the anti-science views of the current editor of Science magazine—who has announced that the debate over climate change is over—no one should participate. That is anti-science propaganda on behalf of an ideology."

Gingrich was referring to Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt, incoming president of the National Academy of Sciences, and a vocal supporter of a presidential science debate. "We need to understand whether the candidates are using science to inform their opinions on issues, or whether they are selectively culling scientific information to support their already formed opinions on issues. This is a big difference, and one which should be quite apparent in a debate format," she tells Newsweek.

If candidates debate science, McNutt says, the public could assess whether they trust mainstream science or industry-funded research that looks like science, but is actually just public relations.

Journalists Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, in their book Merchants of Doubt, describe how industries and vested individuals have spent billions to fund fake or skewed research that conflicts with mainstream science on certain subjects. The most famous example was the tobacco industry's effort to keep cigarettes from being linked to illness and death. "Doubt is our product," stated an executive of tobacco company Brown & Williamson in a famous 1969 memo, as the industry began to churn out hundreds of pages of lab-style propaganda aimed at countering the now widely accepted fact that cigarettes cause cancer.

Vested interests have funded parallel science to support many public policy positions, from the safety of secondhand smoke, the harmlessness of acid rain, the effectiveness of a "Star Wars" defense shield (Strategic Defense Initiative), the permeability of the ozone layer and DDT revisionism.

The effect of these campaigns on government policies is insidious, and during lean times, when the government has fewer dollars to invest in nonaligned technical advice, they are even more effective. In the early 1990s, House Speaker Gingrich touted himself as an apostle—if not an architect—of best-selling futurist author Alvin Toffler's high-tech "Third Wave" society, a post-industrial Utopia. But during his budget-slashing crusade, he defunded the House Office of Technology Assessment, an act former New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, a Democrat and physicist and now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, compared to a "lobotomy" for Congress, because it left House members ever more reliant on political staff and industry lobbyists for scientific data relevant to policy.

The mother of all dubious science projects, though, is the one now aimed at the climate. It began just after the Clinton administration signed the (relatively toothless) Kyoto climate agreement. The American Petroleum Institute funded a Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan, with the stated chief goal of highlighting "uncertainties" in climate science.

Since then, hundreds of projects have been launched, conferences hosted, papers published and fishy expert analyses churned out by free-market, fossil-fuel supporters such as the Heartland Institute, all to mount a campaign against the 87 percent of scientists who believe global warming is caused by human activity.

The point of these well-funded missions is not to change the minds of scientists, but to influence voters. Mainstream scientists whose views are at odds with industry—for example, NASA's Hansen, who first alerted Congress to global warming, or Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann, who created the "hockey stick" graph showing that the rise of human carbon emissions tracked almost exactly with a global temperature spike—find themselves in the middle of a game of hardball politics, fielding personal hate mail, lawsuits, death threats and curtailed careers. A Climate Science Legal Defense Fund was created in the last few years to aid climate scientists caught in the political crossfire.

People listen in as Senators held a rally to call on the Senate to take action on global warming, in Washington DC, June 2, 2008. Brendan Smialowski/The New York Times/Redux

The doubt sown by so-called parallel science affects how people view climate change, but arguably also diminishes science generally, so that educated progressives now suspect GMOs are harmful and vaccines must be bad for kids—dismissing mainstream scientific opinion. Ultimately, faux science PR campaigns embolden candidates to deny settled science and engage in ideological decision-making that has, as Republican adviser Karl Rove once put it (approvingly), moved beyond the "reality-based world."

Arrogance Kills

"Look, first of all, the climate is changing," Bush said this spring at a New Hampshire campaign house party. "I don't think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you. It's this intellectual arrogance that now you can't even have a conversation about it."

One reason for the impossibility of conversation is the intransigence of both sides, and Darwin's heir, Matthew Chapman, insists that the public should be able to hear from candidates who accept settled science and those who reject it. "It is not necessary that candidates agree with current scientific orthodoxy, or even with the scientific method," he says. "What you can't argue is that the issues are trivial and not worth debating." Chapman insists it's possible for a debate to occur between politicians who believe scientists and those who doubt them. "I am absolutely 100 percent sure this will happen," he says.

Dan Fagin, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, tracks the public discourse as a professor of science journalism at New York University. He begs to differ. "There will never be a science debate, at least not anytime soon, but that's not because of the issues are complicated. It's because the triumph of the hard right is that they convinced too many Republicans that science is just anoth er partisan issue, another opinion. The solution is going to have to come from within the GOP."

As the GOP shows no signs of grappling with that issue, the endless—nonpresidential—debate grows ever more bitter. Climate scientists say Bush is flat wrong, that the issue is settled: Man is mostly responsible. They scoff at Inhofe and Cruz, labeling them "deniers." They also admit they have a communications problem. Few have been taught to sell the public on their work, and they survive only by persuading colleagues or government agencies to give them funding. Traditionally, scientists have had no incentive to talk about their work to inform, let alone inspire, the public. Now, when they do step up, many take the dismissive tone of an educated elite shepherding unschooled civilians who should trust the experts if they know what's good for them. The Pew survey found that education levels do not always correlate with trust in science, a fact scientists and their supporters might consider before assuming their adversaries are duped. "Science is not the sole source of wisdom, an oracle," Fagin says. "It's the most powerful tool we have for understanding the world, but individual scientists are only human and subject to error. A little more humility would do us all a lot of good."