Science Debate 2008: an incoherent idea at best

February 7th, 2008

Posted by: admin

A blogosphere movement/proposal for a “Science Debate” among presidential candidates has picked up considerable steam, gathering the support of institutions and individuals throughout the science community, and spilling onto the pages of Science (here) and Nature (here and here) this week. It’s worth looking at just what this group is calling for:

“Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.”

I won’t go into the various arguments for and against this idea, but I think it’s worth contrasting the title of this effort — “Science Debate 2008” – with what is actually being proposed in the above quotation. The issues listed span a political and cultural landscape of which science occupies only a very small piece. On the other hand, there are far more issues in which science plays a part (e.g. space, transportation, agriculture, …) that somehow did not make the cut. Why these issues in this particular debate? What is the goal of holding this debate?

Despite the title of this movement, what is advocated here is not a “science debate,” and as Goldston pointed out in Nature, applying such a name to it potentially does a great disservice to whatever discourse might emerge. One need only look at Kennedy’s suggested questions in Science to see why this is true. Some of these questions are about politics and values, others are about budgetary aspects of science policy, and still others are about criteria of scientific merit. While a sitting president could take a position on any of these example questions, few of them are high profile enough to reach that status.

Others are misleadingly framed to begin with. For example, no single person or entity determines the balance between “major-program project research and investigator-initiated basic research grants” and it is doubtful that it would be possible (let alone desirable) to alter this reality. (And I’ll leave aside the question of whether anyone at all in the general public would find this question interesting.)

It seems that the agenda of this movement is to raise the profile of a very specific set of issues. Why these issues should represented as inherently “scientific” is mystery to me. What should be clarified is the reasoning behind selecting these issues, and the overall goals of the proposed debate. Maybe then the supporters could make some progress in dealing with the issues raised by Goldston and others, and perhaps even make headway toward a truly useful event.

6 Responses to “Science Debate 2008: an incoherent idea at best”

  1. David Bruggeman Says:

    Ryan, for what it’s worth, the movement behind this is much more focused – at least right now – on having a science debate rather than advancing a specific set of questions. The issues listed on the ScienceDebate2008 website are more general than Kennedy’s questions, and I think some of your valid criticisms are better directed to him.

    I don’t think the organizers will focus on your concerns, because they aren’t particularly relevant to making a debate happen. They need to sell this idea more broadly to the greater public (which they haven’t) and perhaps more narrowly for buy-in from the scientific community (which strikes me as preaching to the choir). The very notion of having a “Science Debate” blurs the bright line between science and politics both you and Goldston appear to want to preserve – one that has typically been more porous than it appears. Trying to make this debate more ’scientific’ strikes me as idealistic as the notion that these issues can attract and hold the interests of the public and the candidates enough to hold a debate.

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  3. Femina Says:

    I agree with you!

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  5. Jim Arndt Says:


    Roger I think it is a bad idea for politicians to debate climate. They usually have no understanding to the basic forces involved. There should be a highly visible debate between scientist from both views. This being said ones political view can always cloud their science. Remember that 100 scientist signed a letter stating Einstein was wrong. Do you know how he answered that letter? You should read this thread from climate audit, Steve McIntyre was invited to Georgia Tech by JEG (Julien Emile-Geay) and Judith Curry. You should see their comments in this thread. It is condescending of the reads and contributors of that post. Typical “tribal” attitude.

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  7. Ryan Says:

    FYI, this discussion is also ongoing over at Revkin’s blog:

    Thanks for your comment. I hope my post did not suggest that I think there is an easily definable line between science and politics, let alone that we should strive to preserve it! It is the impossibility of separating science and politics that I think makes this debate so problematic – it becomes very difficult – perhaps arbitrary – to define the scope.

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  9. Jim Arndt Says:


    Sorry Ryan, thought Roger Pielke Jr. post this it should have said Ryan.

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  11. David Bruggeman Says:


    By talking about how certain questions included non-scientific issues and how other science issues were excluded, it was easy for me to think that you were complaining that it was not a strictly science debate, and there was some false advertising. Goldston agrees with this point, and without separating yourself from his interest in keeping the bright line (or at least keeping the executive out of ’snap judgments’ on this topic), I may not be the only reader to conflate your perspective with his. Looking at Goldston’s comments at Revkin’s blog, he’s particularly concerned about the blurring of this bright line, that it will backfire on scientists, causing more scrutiny and ‘interference.’ I’m disappointed in his attitude that certain aspects of scientific activity are better off kept separated from their political context. I don’t think that’s possible, and perhaps this debate might open the minds of others to that idea. Personally, I think linking science to the policy issues that it can contribute to is a realistic way to react to increasing budgetary pressure on federal support.

    Let me suggest that the scope of every debate is arbitrarily decided, and that this debate does not appear to be particularly different in this regard. These things are messy, and they aren’t so much about the issues discussed (if they are in fact discussed) as how things are discussed (format, rules and moderator matter way more than what is covered). I’m not keen on the current setup (about political debates in general), but I think arguing about having a neatly defined debate on a particular set of strictly scientific issues sidesteps the role and ascribed value of debates to begin with. Talking about how things ought to be is worthwhile, but talking about what is will attract the attention of the organizers and candidates.

    It is worth noting that I see the label of “ScienceDebate” as a shorthand for science policy and the value choices that inform it, much like a national security debate or foreign affairs debate is about policy and value choices in each of those areas. I don’t think everyone gets this (and the organizers haven’t been clear on this point – not that it’s in their best interests to be).