Flatow’s Folly

I’m a huge fan of NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow. But, I’m sad to see Ira once again pursuing an idea that should have been abandoned four years ago.

I’m talking about the so-called Science Debate. The idea is to bring together the major party presidential candidates and get them talking about science. After all, science underpins many of the critical issues of the day, from investments in the National Institutes of Health to NASA funding; from embryonic stem cell research to energy independence; from global climate change to statistics.

So, it would seem to make sense to get the candidates to demonstrate their scientific proficiency. It is, indeed, a laudable goal. But, a “science debate” is a terrible way to do it.

As Matthew Nisbet wrote four years ago in “Performance Issues: Science Debate Still a Bad Idea,” getting candidates to talk about science will only obscure important issues, not elucidate them. Candidates will twist science to their political ends. Worse, we can expect them to misrepresent what science actually tells us.

We’ve already seen this. In the Republican primary debates, the only candidate to put his faith in science was Jon Huntsman. Look where it got him. Granted, it wasn’t only his position on science that sunk his candidacy, but it sure didn’t help.

Those behind the science debate say such an event is important because “America can be a leader in finding cures for our worst diseases, inventing the best alternative energy sources, enjoying the most pristine and biologically wealthy environment, and graduating the most scientifically literate children in the world – or we can cede these economic and humanitarian benefits to other countries.”

That’s a position, not a rationale. If the goal is to determine where a candidate stands on issues, a far better solution would be to present them with a questionnaire. This happens all the time. Just ask a candidate what, if anything, he or she would do about climate change.

But, to ask scientific neophytes/political heavyweights to debate climate change strikes me as foolish beyond measure. As Nesbit points out, “having a Republican and Democrat stand on stage discussing science policy would send the strongest signals to a miserly public that these issues can easily be re-interpreted via the mental box of partisanship. Moreover, it’s unlikely that the candidates would actually discuss science, instead their remarks would be carefully framed to evoke ideology or emotion, and to make small differences on policy into openings for attack politics.”

Indeed. So, Ira, drop the push for a science debate. Focus instead on what you do best: helping the public understand science and how it relates to public policy. Ask candidates for their views, but don’t let them hijack science and further obfuscate the important issues we face.

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