And What About A Science Debate?

The Democratic candidates for president felt compelled to attend a public forum on religion. The two biggest controversies about Barack Obama involved religion. Because Obama has been falsely accused of being a member of a religion that is disgustingly demonized in this country he is nearly required to talk publicly about being a member of a more accepted religion. Because her husband offended the delicate sensibilities of some sexually repressed middle Americans, Hillary Clinton has to talk publicly about her own religious beliefs. In the third century of this nation’s existence, the constitutionally enshrined concept of separation of church and state is, in practice if not in fact, an anachronism. Does anyone else have a problem with all of this?

Jimmy Carter was openly religious and attempted to pursue a foreign policy based on respect for human rights. George W. Bush is openly religious and pursues a foreign policy based on vicious violence against those who are not compliant to his rapacious imperialistic greed. Why would anyone believe that a politician’s public blather about religion necessarily has anything to do with what that politician truly thinks or believes or would do with political office? All American politicians now feel required to tout their personal relationship with the divine. None have the courage to simply state that religion is intensely personal, and nobody’s else’s business. None have the courage to remind people of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution:

…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

To demand that politicians explain their religious beliefs is literally in violation of the Constitution. And yet, here we are, with one candidate who claims to have the experience to be ready to lead on day one, and another who claims to champion hope and change, and with neither able to stand up against the disgusting political expectation that they engage in public displays of religious demagoguery. What the hell does talk about religion have to do with the way people will run the country? Nothing. Of course. And this is to in no way disparage religion itself or those who are religious. It’s just that religion and politics should not mix. Neither is good for the other. And nothing any person says about their personal religious beliefs can be presumptively taken at face value. And yet, two nights ago, the two Democratic presidential candidates were in public, on national television, discussing their religious beliefs.

What makes this even worse is that there has never been a night when two presidential candidates were in public, on national television, discussing their beliefs about science. To anyone not overly cynical, it would be astonishing: in an ostensibly rational nation, among ostensibly rational people, religion takes precedence over science. Despite the fact that so many of the problems that actually will decide humanity’s future and fate have to do with science. From global warming and climate change, to biomedical research, to whether or not our education system trains our children to be ready to compete and help our nation compete in an increasingly technologically competitive world, there are few broad political themes as important as a candidate’s understanding of and relationship with science, and few that receive less attention both from the candidates and from the corporate media.

In the April 11 edition of Science, Sheril R. Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney of the superb science blog The Intersection are joined by Shawn Lawrence Otto and Matthew Chapman of ScienceDebate2008, Austin Dacey of the Center for Inquiry, Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ),  and Lawrence Krauss of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics, Case Western Reserve University, in calling for a presidential debate about science.

In just a few months, many in the U.S. science and engineering establishment, along with members of the business community and journalism world, have joined the ScienceDebate2008 initiative (1), a collective call for the U.S. presidential candidates to engage in a public debate on science and technology policy. The need for such a debate could not be more obvious; on issues ranging from the environment to medicine and health, reliable scientific information is fundamental to good policy-making (2). At the same time, scientific research and technological innovations fuel economic growth and ensure national competitiveness (3). It has been widely argued that climate change and economic competitiveness as they relate to science and technology are among the most critical challenges facing the United States (3, 4). However, we rarely hear any detailed discussion of these issues from the presidential candidates.

Which is more likely to effect your future- science, the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or the personal behavior of a former president?

Among the motivations we have heard for taking up this cause are the following: continuing inaccurate media coverage, poor science education, widespread public science illiteracy (6), flat funding and/or cutbacks to research funding and consequent contraction of opportunity, lack of credible public policy response to climate change and other environmental issues, and governmental suppression of science information. In a climate of declining support for science, the United States risks losing its competitive advantage to emerging science superpowers. Although science and engineering have been responsible for half of U.S. economic growth over the past half-century (3), by 2010, according to some estimates, 90% of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia (7).

Our economy depends on the ability to innovate, these supporters argue, which in turn relies on a strong foundation of government investment in research and education, yet such federal investments are shrinking as a share of the U.S. economy (8). Concurrently, nations such as China and South Korea are boosting governmental support of research by 10% or more annually. At the same time, the absent U.S. response to the overwhelming conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has caused widespread concern over continued planetary viability. U.S. science has continually found itself frustrated by developments at the intersection with politics and society and now appears ready–as demonstrated by the response to this initiative–for a far greater investment of resources in public outreach.

That response being a great deal of support by well-meaning people, yet how much coverage has this effort received from the corporate media? How many of you hadn’t even heard of it until reading this very post? Most of you are politically aware, which is why you read political blogs, but have the corporate media done anything to inform you about this?

A science debate among presidential candidates has not yet occurred. There are several dates when such a debate could take place; as of this writing, none have been agreed to by the candidates. After a decade of what could be seen as antiscience in our nation’s public discourse, and in a mainstream media culture more suited to sound bites than paragraphs, politicians are understandably reluctant to engage. But that reluctance is the very reason for this effort and for similar efforts. In an increasingly scientific world, science will become ever more intertwined with policy issues. Scientists must embrace every opportunity to engage in broader public discourse as ambassadors, popularizers, inspirers, educators, and, especially, policy-makers.

We just had what amounted to a debate about religion. I didn’t watch it. Had I attempted to, I doubt my television would have survived. Isn’t it time we had a debate that appealed to the intellect rather than to personal prejudices? Isn’t it time the medievalist trend of the last seven years was challenged by that which is most likely to end it? What better way to challenge and contrast the candidates? What better way to challenge the electorate? What better way to begin to wean politics from the trivial and irrelevant and ground it in what actually matters? Support ScienceDebate2008.


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    • TomP on April 16, 2008 at 12:14 am

    to suggest an understanding of the scientific method.  🙂

    I could not resist. (I’m not taking sides on the current debates.)  

  1. George W. Bush is openly religious

    I know he says he is.  I know he probably thinks he is.  But that don’t make it true: how many other things has he lied about?

    Your larger point is absolutely correct.  But whenever chimpy talks about being “Christian” I can’t help remembering the stuff about false prophets…liars…and wolves in sheep’s clothing.  Not to mention the part where Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the temple.

    I’m not sayin’…I’m just sayin’.

  2. on ScienceDebate2008.  The website has some interesting stuff and looks worthy of support.

    I think laziness in the media is one of the problems in coverage of science issues vs religious issues.  Writing a good story about technical issues is difficult.  Throwing a grenade in the middle of a religious debate is easy and is sure to draw attention.

  3. we’ll have some debate on global warming.  You’d think.

    • Edger on April 16, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    have to do with the way people will run the country?

    ‘We Could Control This Country’: 33 Extreme Reasons to Give Bush the Boot

       Of course, there are plenty more extremist groups out there, with plenty of clout. And in addition to sharing an incestuous relationship (Famed Reconstructionist Dr. George Grant, for example, is affiliated with Coral Ridge Ministries, which is run by former National Council for Policy member D. James Kennedy, who sat on the board of directors of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which was also organized by Tim LaHaye), they seem to be driven by a single-minded determinism. “There are forty million people who claim to have been converted. If every one of those would simply win one other person to Christ, we could control this country,” televangelist Kennedy once said.

       On the other hand, America is still the home of great thinkers who would surely fight back. “Our president is a Christian? So was Adolf Hitler,” Kurt Vonnegut recently wrote, proving that not everyone grasps the compassion of these conservatives.

       And that’s the thing. These folks are not promoting the promise of America at her best, but are instead advocating the ills the Founders tried to protect against. They are striving to remake American in their stark revisionist image, and in doing so, are aiming for what America could become, at her worst.

    Why is Iran so scary? Because they are a competing theocracy, probably.

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