Sep 10 2012

Science Debate 2012 Answers

Published by under General
Comments: 20 is a group dedicated to promoting the discussion of important scientific issues in American politics. They formed around the idea of holding a science-themed debate in the 2008 presidential election, and have continued since then. They were never successful in getting the two campaigns to agree to a live debate concerning scientific topics, but they did agree to submit written answers to questions. This time around, in the 2012 presidential election, it also appears that there will be no live debate, but both campaigns have submitted written answers to science questions.

The idea behind ScienceDebate is this – from their website:

“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”

Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking.

I remember Carl Sagan hitting this theme often, in Cosmos and in his interviews. He said, for example:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

There are many important topics faced by society and relevant to presidential politics that are, as Sagan said, “exquisitely dependent on science and technology.” There are many critical policy issues that are mostly a question of science. Science cannot determine all political questions, as there is often a value judgement or matter of governing philosophy involved, but science does inform most if not all questions. Some issues are almost purely a matter of science.

There are more than enough science-dependent issues in presidential politics to warrant a live presidential debate focused on those issues. A live debate would be much better than simply submitting written answers to questions. Read the answers the two campaigns submitted and you will see why – they only sort-of answer the question, and as quickly as possible turn their answer to their campaign’s talking points.

During a live debate we can see how the candidates think and what they know and believe about scientific issues. They can also be pushed on specific points if they give evasive answers.  My hope is that some of the questions asked by ScienceDebate will find their way to one or more of the presidential (and vice-presidential) debates. In this way, even without achieving their ultimate goal of a debate dedicated to science topics, ScienceDebate can serve a very useful role of raising the profile of scientific issues in the presidential election, and all of politics.

There isn’t space here to give my detailed thoughts and analysis of all the questions answered by the two campaigns, but I will give some tidbits that caught my eye, and you can read their full answers on the website.

The first question on innovation was largely an invitation to spout their respective economic vision, but some interesting points emerge. Obama mentioned doubling funding for “key research agencies,” but didn’t name any specifically. He also repeated his goal of creating 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade.  Romney mostly laid out his economic philosophy, but did say at the end that he believes the government should not pick winners and losers in industry, but support broadly applicable science and technology development so that the private sector can take it from there.

Perhaps the biggest hot-button issue was that of global warming. Obama took the basic Democratic position that global warming is happening and we need take is seriously, but then launched into campaign talking points about what he has already accomplished.

I was very interested in Romney’s answer, coming from the partly that largely (but not uniformly) denies global climate change. He acknowledged that global warming is real and man-made, but then tempered that opinion by saying their is no consensus on the extent of warming or human contribution. I would have preferred a caveat-free endorsement of the science. I thought the rest of his answer was reasonable, however, especially the “no regrets” approach – developing technology that is a win-win, by improving quality of life while reducing carbon emissions. This opinion exactly matches the one expressed by Bill Nye when we interviewed him on the SGU.

The most disappointing answers from both campaigns came from the vaccination question. Neither seemed to have anything thoughtful to say on the issue, and just reverted quickly to standard talking points. At least there were no gaffes about autism, which I guess is the best I could have hoped for.

It is worth reading through the rest of the questions and answers. There were no shockers in there, and both candidates were, for the most part, reasonable in their answers, which reflected their basic governing philosophy, that of their respective party, and the points they have been hitting on their campaigns.

What we need now is growing public support for and their mission. We need to force the campaigns to take these questions seriously and to increase the number of science-themed questions in the live presidential debates. These are among the most important issues we face as a society and directly involve public policy. Further, I think a basic scientific literacy should be considered a prerequisite for any important public office, let alone the highest office in the country.

20 responses so far

20 thoughts on “Science Debate 2012 Answers”

  1. Marshall says:

    I always find these questions of Presidential scientific merit amusing, because, as a scientist, I usually consider myself far more well-informed than the President.

    This feels kind of weird, because this is the guy running the country, and I feel like I’m a judge on a qualifying exam committee, and the President is answer the questions.

  2. nybgrus says:

    I had made the argument, and then Richard Dawkins stole it and published it in the Washington Post:

    that science literacy is a necessity for a presidential candidate and that evolution is an excellent litmus test. I do not expect a president to actually be a scientist (though that would be nice!) but at least be able to tap the correct people for an actual scientific answer, assimilate it, and utilize it. Evolution is the perfect litmus test because it is so visibly public and there is absolutely zero scientific controversy about it. Denial of evolution at this point can only mean one (or both) of two things: personal ideology that trumps scientific evidence or a willingness to ignore scientific evidence to pander to the masses.

    Either way this is not something I would want in a president. The former demonstrates a willingness to let personal ideology trump hard and clear evidence. My concern is that we simply cannot predict at what other juncture and on what other topics will such personal ideology trump evidence again. The “worst case” scenario in that line of thinking is a president who believes that the second coming of christ will happen in Jeruselem and sees a particular situation in the unstable Middle East as an opportunity to hasten that coming with military intervention. He may choose to go ahead and bring the full force of the American military – perhaps even nuclear – despite being advised otherwise due to that strong personal ideology. The mere possibility of that is truly frightening. And Romney has already openly admitted that he has come to policy decisions based on rational thought and evidence and then changed his mind after prayer….

    At least he seems in agreement with evolution, though he does claim it is a theistically guided one:

    But he goes on to stress that “true” science and “true” religion are never in conflict. Well, I am pretty confident that I can surmise what he believes the “true” religion is and that there is little doubt in his mind about its veracity. Which leaves him wiggle room to call something directly contradictory to his religion not “true” science.

  3. Simon says:

    What I don’t understand is why isn’t there any mention of teaching evolution in the questions? I’d love to think that things had progressed so wonderfully over the last few years that this is now a non-issue, but I don’t think that that is so. It is glaring in its omission- why?

  4. nybgrus says:

    I agree Simon. I noted that ommission as well. I think a point blank question about the candidate’s stance of the evolution “debate” and the standards of science curriculum would be valuable.

  5. They detail the process they go through to decide on questions. While I would be interested in this as well, Romney was governor of a northeastern liberal state, and creationism is usually not a problem there.

    Also – while interesting, there isn’t really anything on the line federally when it comes to this issue. This is mainly an issue for the states. This comes up federally about once a decade with a supreme court case, therefore overall judicial philosophy would be most important to assess.

    I suspect, for this reason, they did not want to spend an entire question on this, and figured it would be covered in the education question.

  6. Kawarthajon says:

    I’m not sure what it is like in the US, but up here in Canada, a party’s stance on the environment is meaningless – they all do nothing to confront global warming once they are in office, regardless of what they have said during the election campaign. Furthermore, our current party has been constantly attacking its own scientists and removing their funding.

    It would be interesting for me if you were to compare/contrast the state of science and scepticism in Canada and the US. The SGU often comments about the state of science and scepticism in the UK and Australia and gets regular updates from people in those nations, as well as stories from other areas of the world, but rarely has anything to say about Canada, despite our proximity and the fact that we Canadians make up a substantial number of your non-American listeners.

  7. PharmD28 says:

    Hasn’t romney answered the quesiton of global warming before without such caveats?

  8. nybgrus says:

    I suppose you are correct Dr. Novella. Politically it is better for them to leave that specific topic alone since the ultimate decision is at the level of state school boards. However, I think it would still be telling to hear an answer on that.

    Perhaps a federal level minimum standard for public education is a reasonable thing to go for. After all, we have federal minimum wage and states can add (but not subtract) from that as they see fit. Currently most of the loopholes around proper science education vis-a-vis the evolution “debate” is at the level of the local school boards and sometimes state school boards. Having a unified federal minumum declaring unequivocally that there is no debate and enforcing the rulings of cases such as Kitzmiller v Dover could be useful.

  9. BillyJoe7 says:


    “The SGU often comments about the state of science and scepticism in the UK and Australia…but rarely has anything to say about Canada, despite our proximity and the fact that we Canadians make up a substantial number of your non-American listeners.”

    Well, that’s your own fault isn’t it. We have Ken Ham and Tim Minchin forcing people to take notice. So don’t bitch about it, do something.


  10. etatro says:

    I think it’s easy to get an assessment of a politician’s views on science. But I don’t think that would change my how the electorate would view them. If 51% of the population does not believe in Evolution; and we organize a “debate” where the candidates pound their views on Evolution home — we may end up with the least scientifically palatable candidate being elected. “Be careful what you wish for.”

    Rather than watching politicians debate science, I would rather see scientists debate policy.

    In a democracy, our experts should be called upon to participate in policy debates and the electorate should see this unfold.

    Scientists are unlikely to do this because they are afraid of making policy proscriptions based on values or political philosophy, but I say: embrace them.

    Say: “I believe that government should play a role in slowing climate change, and these are some policy solutions to achieving that goal.” The rebuttal could be different policy solutions. Evidence could be marshaled to support the positions. The next topic: “What if government did not play a role in slowing climate change? What policy solutions would achieve that goal and why?” … And so-on.

  11. Kawarthajon – there is no agenda or bias to ignore Canada. We simply report the news that we find. It may be a bias in the media, or in my news sources.

    I will pay more attention to that, however. Also – I will give you the same suggestion I give everyone who complains that we don’t cover enough X news – send me news items. Send me relevant skeptical Canadian news and I assure you more of them will find their way onto the SGU.

  12. Mlema says:

    I support what etatro is saying above.

    I took note of Romney’s stance on net neutrality. Wonder if I would have stumbled upon “the skeptical movement” if this site had been buried under sites that ISPs found more profitable?

    I also saw:
    “A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities. I will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions. ” my translation: Romney doesn’t think NASA needs more money, and, in spite of repeatedly decrying government involvement in various enterprise, Romney sounds like he wants to be the one to decide what NASA missions should be?

    REgarding economy: Romney touts cutting government regulation and oversight. Historically, regulation spurs innovation and economic growth, while also improving safety. This is observable in almost any industry you care to examine. It also lends to quality of life for anybody who works for a living.

    And I noted Romney’s education policy, which is in keeping with his anti-labor agenda: further cuts for teachers, and hopes for further union-busting. Not in keeping with world-class national educational systems that treat evolution as scientific fact.
    I think skeptics have to ask themselves: do we really want a well-educated population? If we’re always griping about “critical thinking” then I think this might be an important question. I know there’s a big debate here about what contributes to a good education system – but supporting that local communities make the decision on what and how they’re going to teach, would be a step backwards – encouraging the kind of environment where creationism can become valid curriculum.

    climate change:
    from Mitt Romney book “No Apologies”: “…climate change has been going on from the beginning of the world; it is certainly not a new phenomenon. Even the apparent unity among scientists is not a sure indicator of scientific fact.”

    and what I’m almost sure will convince any as-yet-unconvinced skeptic to vote for Obama:

  13. raylider says:

    Personally, I could care less about the scientific literacy of the President. Science is a private, not public, matter and the government should stay out of it. What I would prefer, is a President that is more economically literate and actually defends the constitution, which is his principal responsibility.

  14. BillyJoe7 says:

    “Science is a private, not public, matter and the government should stay out of it. ”

    So, no action by governments on climate change?

  15. raylider says:


    I’m stemming from the philosophy of a very small government, so by default I would think probably not – the government should stay out of climate change. The government should be focused on other issues and protecting our environment should be left up to the people. I’m thinking for the same reason a lot of the green technology should not be supported by the government – seems like a poor track record: gov’t starts picking winners and losers, takes your money, gives it to someone else, largely with out your knowledge – seems like a recipe for people doling out favors for their friends using your money.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:


    So you don’t think government should take action on scientifically derived conclusions, even if they concern the fate of the planet? Private enterprise will exploit the environment for all its worth if left to its own devices. Is that the preferred outcome in your opinion.

  17. raylider says:


    To answer your first question: certainly not, especially if they concern the fate of the planet. And no, in my opinion, that is not the preferred outcome. To arrive at my opinion, you would first have to convince yourself that tiny is the correct size for a government (in contrast to a big government of today). I’m going to leave the convincing up to you, but for those same reasons, government should not have a hand in global warming prevention.

  18. BillyJoe7 says:

    Tiny government gave us the subprime fiasco!
    Governments should take scientific facts and consensus opinions into account.
    And if governments don’t take action on climate change, who will?

  19. raylider says:

    Regarding your first statement: It was actually big government that gave us the subprime fiasco. The financial industry was/is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, to say we had a tiny government is simply not true. You must be referring to deregulation of Glass-Steagall, but really that act was in place because gov’t was already so involved that it had to counteract the moral-hazards caused by its involvement. For instance, thanks to the FDIC, the banks get all the benefits, and the risk is spread to the taxpayer. That does not sound like tiny government to me. That is of course the start, and there are many more reasons such as Fannie and Freddie being the biggest buyers of subprime, helping to legitimize the whole operation, the CRA, the leadership helping fuel the housing bubble and bestow the notion that American dream = homeownership and that you can get rich by buying a home. The biggest culprit of all may have been the Fed that pumped air into the bubble. There is no chance that you can call that a tiny government. Anyway, I’m no expert on this topic, but the people that predicted the bubble, were pointing to these factors BEFORE the bubble burst. So I tend to listen to that.
    Regarding your second statement: again, you have to convince yourself that a tiny government is the right size of government. You have not done that, so how am I going to convince you that it should not meddle in climate change? Anyway, once you give the power to the government to regulate business and meddle in your personal life in the name of a better environment, how are you going to take that power away in case the government screws up, and it will. Just think, you’re going to have the likes of GWBush, Obama, Romney talking to you, deciding what is good for the environment and what isn’t. How are you going to police them? How will you know what they are telling you is the truth? Did you believe that Bush waged a war in Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction? Were there any repercussions when they didn’t find any?
    In regards to who should take action on global warming – you should. Saying the government should is like saying, “hey, I think global warming is a problem, you should pay for it.” In my opinion , global warming is a very important issue, and due to the stakes – the fate of the planet, it may be the most important. You shouldn’t be continuing business as usual and leaving it up to Rombama to solve, we already did that with the economy, and look how far that got us. You should be out there walking around with posters, warning people that this is a serious, life and death issue. We had people doing that for the second coming in May a couple of years ago – and they were crazy. And you have the truth on your side, near 100% certainty that is verifiable by scientifically based conclusions.

  20. BillyJoe7 says:

    The banks lent money to people who they knew could never afford to pay them back. They even provided low interest rates for five years to suck them in. That happened because of poor regulation.

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