Oh, yeah, good debates are hard to come by.
Still, wouldn’t you like to see the final presidential candidates debate science issues seriously?
Lawrence Krauss got through the muddle at the generally science-averse Wall Street Journal to make the case.
The day before the most recent Democratic presidential debate, the media reported a new study demonstrating that U.S. middle-school students, even in poorly performing states, do better on math and science tests than many of their peers in Europe. The bad news is that students in Asian countries, who are likely to be our chief economic competitors in the 21st century, significantly outperform all U.S. students, even those in the highest-achieving states.
While these figures were not raised in recent Democratic or Republican debates, they reflect a major challenge for the next president: the need to guide both the public and Congress to address the problems that have produced this “science gap,” as well as the serious consequences that may result from it.
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Almost all of the major challenges we will face as a nation in this new century, from the environment, national security and economic competitiveness to energy strategies, have a scientific or technological basis. Can a president who is not comfortable thinking about science hope to lead instead of follow? Earlier Republican debates underscored this problem. In May, when candidates were asked if they believed in the theory of evolution, three candidates said no. In the next debate Mike Huckabee explained that he was running for president of the U.S., not writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book, and therefore the issue was unimportant.
Apparently many Americans agreed with him, according to polls taken shortly after the debate. But lack of interest in the scientific literacy of our next president does not mean that the issue is irrelevant. Popular ambivalence may rather reflect the fact that most Americans are scientifically illiterate. A 2006 National Science Foundation survey found that 25% of Americans did not know the earth goes around the sun.
Our president will thus have to act in part as an “educator in chief” as well as commander in chief. Someone who is not scientifically literate will find it difficult to fill this role.
Chris Mooney makes the case in Seed Magazine.
Science is too important, too big a player in too many issues, to not have a major focus of its own in the final debates. Failing to have such a discussion is tantamount to failing to ask whether the candidates are capitalist or communist in economic policy (as if such a question could be unanswered by a wealth of other campaign material).
Science Debate 2008 argues for a science debate, lists supporters of the idea (it’s an impressive list, really), and offers advice on how you can help the campaign for science discussion at the presidential level. You can track the issue at the Intersection, or at Bora’s place, A Blog Around the Clock.
If nothing else, a science debate might make it clear to the candidates that we need to revive the Office of Technology Assessment, in addition to making the candidates aware that the president needs to have a strong, independent science advisor to whom the president actually pays attention.
Science literacy is to important to leave it up to chance, or partisans alone — in the case of our kids in school, and in the case of the person we elect president.