Friday, 5 October 2007

a Presidential Debate solely on the subject of science

reposted from:,1703,n,n

A New Debate

by Matthew Chapman

I am advocating for a Presidential Debate solely on the subject of science, and I hope you will join me in trying to bring this about.
Had such a thing occurred during the election in 2000, perhaps we would have discovered that George W. Bush believed "the jury is still out on evolution."
In this election, we have been provided with an excellent reason to ask for a scientific debate by the fact that three Republican candidates for president, Brownback, Huckabee, and Tancredo indicated that they do not believe in evolution. For them the jury seems not to be out, but to have rendered a verdict against the theory.

A publication of the National Academy of Sciences states: "The evolution of all the organisms that live on earth today from ancestors that lived in the past is at the core of genetics, biochemistry, neurobiology, physiology, ecology, and other biological disciplines. It helps to explain the emergence of new infectious diseases, the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, the agricultural relationships among wild and domestic plants and animals, the composition of the earth's atmosphere, the molecular machinery of the cell, the similarities between human beings and other primates, and countless other features of the biological and physical world. As the great geneticist and evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973,
'Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.'"

Given the above, one is faced with two explanations of the three men's statements of disbelief. They are either honestly ignorant of the true scientific status of evolution, or are dishonestly pandering to the genuinely ignorant in order to get their votes. As a matter of politeness, one must accord them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are honest, which leaves only the first and more terrifying option, namely that they are genuinely and profoundly ignorant.

Is this level of ignorance shared by other Presidential candidates, both Republican and Democratic, in other scientific matters? If so, we have a right to know.
We are, after all, in a completely new situation. To quote entomologist Edward O. Wilson, human beings are "the first species in the history of life to become a geophysical force."
Through industrial pollution, the destruction of our rain forests, over-fishing, over-hunting and so on, we can destroy just about all life on earth. This is a problem that cannot be solved without an understanding of science, most specifically biology.

An American president who does not understand science - or worse, disdains it - is no longer just a fool, but potentially lethal.

The debate should be held in some august and inspiring place such as the American Museum of Natural History, or a great university, and should be attended primarily by people in the sciences.
The format of the debate should be simple. A panel of four or five scientists, specializing in a range of disciplines from microbiology and medicine to the composition of the earth's atmosphere, would ask the candidates questions. These might be on matters of opinion, such as whether stem cell research should be encouraged, while others would be purely factual.
Should a candidate respond incorrectly to a factual matter, or be incapable of responding at all, the scientist would provide the answer. If the scientists were famous, the event would be more persuasive and attractive (a Nobel Laureate or two would be good), but you would also need a scientific populist, someone like Gina Kolata, who writes about many aspects of science for the New York Times. Her job would be to translate and moderate if the scientific lingo became too arcane or the questioning too intense. In order to expand the debate, and perhaps clear up matters where educated audience members disagreed with scientific statements made by the panel, questions would be taken from the floor.

None of the candidates should know in advance what questions they will be asked. This would force them to study as much science as possible, and this in itself would be a marvelous thing. (To be fair to them, however, a statement would be read at the start saying that no one expects a politician to understand every aspect of the many scientific disciplines, just the basic ideas.) The debate's tone would not be adversarial, but cordial and educational. It could even be fun, almost like a quiz show. Indeed, if the event was sponsored by an influential scientific organization, there could even be a prize: the best informed of the candidates would win its endorsement. This would have the double benefit of promoting the idea that science is important, and also that it can and should be influential in the political process.

There is a secondary, but perhaps equally important reason for this debate, which is that
no discussion of science can really occur without understanding the scientific method. This would inevitably lead to reflections on the value of evidence, reason, and logic in the making of political decisions versus the uses of faith.

There is, of course, a chance that some of the candidates would refuse to attend, but an RSVP in the negative would beg the question: why on earth would a candidate turn his back on the opportunity to learn more about science?

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