ScienceDebate2008 – Lessons Learned?

April 26th, 2008

Posted by: admin

No, it’s not officially dead, but with the recent cancellation of a North Carolina debate that wasn’t focused on science, and Senator Clinton’s challenge today for an unmoderated debate, the likelihood that the event ScienceDebate 2008 first thought would happen in Pennsylvania, then in Oregon, rapidly approaches zero.

ScienceDebate 2008 has already been criticized here for being confusing about the intended purpose. Others have supported the effort, suggesting that at least it got people motivated about the problem. But ScienceDebate isn’t the first groups to assemble a collection of dignitaries to prove the value of their message. Between them, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Scientists and Engineers for America, various groups of scientists for past presidential candidates, and the plethora of business and other consortia agitating for attention to science and technology, we haven’t gotten very far. Whether they like it or not, ScienceDebate 2008 happened in Boston this past February during the AAAS meeting.

ScienceDebate 2008 is another example of good intentions horribly executed. Some possible reasons after the jump.

Political Debates Are Ideal as Theater, Little More
If you want to watch a show, then I can understand the appeal of the debates. But that is not the goal of ScienceDebate 2008. From the website:

We believe a debate on these issues would be the ideal opportunity for America and the candidates to explore our national priorities on the issues.

There’s a good reason the League of Women Voters quit the debate game 20 years ago. The debates were already being scripted and molded into carefully crafted theater pieces by the candidates and their advisers. The coverage of these debates is not about comparing candidates priorities on the issues, but how answer A to question B would influence the votes of demographic C. Questions about character are no longer “who is your favorite political philosopher and why?” but opportunities to distance a candidate from disagreeable things said by other people. With apologies to Macbeth debates are full of sound and fury, but often signify nothing. I blame nobody for feeling debate fatigue, least of all the candidates.

One Step at a Time
Why start with a debate? Having sat in a few meetings with campaigns discussing their positions on various issues, I know that campaigns are willing to sit down with interested parties, be they niche or broad-based groups. Certainly the journalists in the organizing groups would have campaign contacts. With the strength of their supporters list, ScienceDebate could have held meetings with the various campaigns to better understand the candidates’ perspectives on campaign issues, and to communicate the issues of interest related to science and technology. They may also have had the chance to offer their guidance on scientific or technical issues, helping avoid the situation where all three candidates managed to support the dubious claims that vaccines contributed to the rise in autism.

I suspect the idea to start with a debate was the idea that the public needs to know why these issues matter, but my previous point speaks to why debates are lousy education forums. Yes, the science and technology communities have done poorly in convincing the public of the importance of their work. That’s part of the reason why candidates can deal with those issues by crafting their position papers and leaving it be. Most voters don’t know or don’t care.

Grow Your Base
Everything about ScienceDebate 2008 suggests to me an effort to craft a general purpose debate on science and technology. While that appeals to me as a generalist, it misses something politically. By engaging the various science and technology niches, ScienceDebate 2008 could have transcended the perception of a niche into a larger group worthy of attention. There are plenty of groups – inside and outside of science and technology communities – that have a stake in issues related to science and technology. Open government groups may respond to Senator Obama’s position on using technology to open government. Business groups will be interested in Senator McCain’s proposal to expense investments in technology. Construction groups will be interested in Senator Clinton’s proposed fund to support purchases of environmentally sound homes. And by engaging these groups, the message that science and technology matter can spread.

Should I be proven wrong and there will be a ScienceDebate before the general election, I still believe these criticisms are valid. I’m supportive of the goals. The methods leave much to be desired.

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