THE BLOG

Faith vs. Fact

08/26/2008 12:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

OK. Sin is bad, and righteousness is good. What else is new? And what is it with this faith and values fixation in Presidential Forums? Recently Barack Obama and John McCain participated in a nationally televised forum to explain that they believe in God, motherhood, the American Flag, and also that bad things are bad and good things are good. Oh yeah, and they admitted to having moral failings, and answered the requisite questions about abortion and gay marriage. Big Deal. None of this is likely to make a bit of difference to truly important question, which is their likely fitness, or their possible success, as the next President of the United States.

First of all, history suggests that the stated faith and values of a President have little relevance to the actions they may take during their Presidency, from the Oval office antics of Bill Clinton to the sanctioning by the Bush Administration of the rendition and torture of prisoners under our care.

Moreover, even if they themselves act ethically or morally while in office (which one might have hoped would be a given expectation for a President, even if it has seemed a tad optimistic in recent times), that alone will have little to do with making the country a better place. Does it matter that Jimmy Carter merely 'lusted in his heart' when we evaluate the success of his Presidency?

I also want to steer clear here of the question of science vs religion that has become so popular in print of late, because whatever one's religious leanings, what will be important in determining the success or failure of the next Presidency will not be faith but ideas, most notably ideas that translate into policies on Health Care, Energy, the Environment, Economic Competitiveness, and National Security.

This is why an unlikely group including 2 screenwriters, a journalist, and a science blogger and I joined together last December in successfully mobilizing a broad base of organizations that represent over 100 million Americans, not to mention Nobel Laureates, University Presidents, Legislators, media figures, and CEO's, in a so-far unsuccessful effort to get the candidates to participate in a Presidential Debate on Science and Technology Policy. It is precisely this policy that will underscore how the nation addresses all of the issues mentioned above.

Our proposed forums would not have been moderated by an evangelical pastor nor held at a Megachurch. They would have been moderated by knowledgeable journalists, and supported by a panel of scientists experts who could have asked serious and probing follow up questions about difficult policy issues. This is just the type of information needed for the public to make informed decisions about the fitness of the candidates for the highest office in the land.

But despite of our invitations to have the candidates meet and debate under a variety of different televised formats, and in locations ranging from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, to the National Academy of Sciences headquarters in Washington, the candidates have turned a blind eye to this opportunity to address issues of substance during the Presidential campaign.

This will be the second faith-based forum in which Senator Obama has appeared. The first was in Pennsylvania, with Hillary Clinton, that was held the same week in the same very same state as our proposed Science Policy Debate at the Franklin Institute that the candidates decided not to participate in.

In one sense, it is easy to see why the candidates would prefer faith-based forums to science and technology-based forums. Not only are the issues warmer and fuzzier, as well as generally more vague and less tied to specific policy issues, but they can also reach out to the portion of the electorate that thinks in terms of single issues. A significant fraction of evangelical voters appear more likely to ignore the candidates' specific economic and foreign policy platforms in favor of concerns about gay marriage or abortion.

On the other hand, for example, the scientific community itself and more generally, those voters who want to know specifics about issues like economic competitiveness, scientific integrity in government, energy policy, and national security are less likely to reliably vote democrat or republican based on a single issue or sound bite.

Many people, including the candidates themselves at times, bemoan the current fluff that has replaced content in this campaign, from whether Barack Obama and Paris Hilton share a common and inappropriate celebrity, to whether the number of John McCain's houses should be an important factor to consider in his fitness for the Presidency. But as long as the media and the candidates continue to focus on feel-good opportunities to talk about what are essentially non-issues, instead of real policy forums, we should not be surprised if the shallowness of the government we elect matches that of the campaigns they wage to get our votes.

Lawrence Krauss is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University, and on the steering committee of ScienceDebate2008.com. He is the author of The Physics of Star Trek, and most recently, Hiding in the Mirror.