Houston, we have a problem
"Whenever the people are well informed," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "they can be trusted with their own government." But what happens now, two centuries later, when science has become so complex and so powerful that it influences every aspect of life, while most politicians' last science class was in high school? Are the people still well-enough informed to be trusted with their own government?
This is the subject of my new book, Fool Me Twice. But it's also the subject of a larger conflict over the nature and role of government, and the role of science as the best basis for determining public policy that is fairest to all Americans.
Every major policy challenge the United States is facing today is either wholly or partly driven by science, and yet this year in particular we have seen every mainstream candidate for president adopt one or more positions that run contrary to the best available evidence science has to offer.
This isn't just a Republican problem. The current president has also taken policy positions that run contrary to advice from scientists on bipartisan panels, such as his position restricting the over-the-counter sale of the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B.
Many of the campaign season's most memorable moments - from Michele Bachmann's campaign-ending assertion that HPV vaccine causes mental retardation, to Rick Perry's comparing himself to Galileo, to Mitt Romney' flip-flop on global warming, to Jon Huntsman's tweet heard round the world, to more by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, all seem to be pivoting on science.
Why? The conventional political wisdom is that Evangelical voters and Tea Party libertarians, who form large portions of the American voting block and even larger portions of the new Republican base, are increasingly anti-science, in the words of Jon Huntsman. In other words, you can't run from anti-science and hope to get nominated or even elected president, as Huntsman himself seemed to demonstrate.
A Science Debate?
Democratic campaign operatives seem to agree with this view. Stunningly, in 2008 the candidates for president twice turned down a nationally televised science debate, but twice participated in nationally televised faith forums - one at Messiah College in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, between Clinton and Obama, and one at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, between McCain and Obama.
At the time, campaign operatives told me that they thought science was a "niche debate," with few voters interested in it and too much to lose. I explained that we weren't interested in whether they could name the third digit of pi - we wanted to know where they stood on the big science issues that affect everyone's lives. Still they wouldn't do it. But when Obama and McCain did eventually answer our questions online, it made more than 850 million media impressions - hardly a niche topic. But they wouldn't do it on TV.
Even born agains prefer they debate science over faith and values
So this year I and my colleagues at ScienceDebate.org decided to test the prevailing political wisdom. We worked with our friends at Research!America and commissioned JZ Analytics, with Senior Analyst John Zogby, to do a national poll on American's attitudes about faith and science (PDF). The results were stunning.
It turns out that the presidential campaign staffers have it completely, one hundred and eighty degrees wrong when it comes to science - maybe because most of them skipped science classes in college and went into things like law and journalism.
Overwhelming majorities of American voters want the candidates to debate the big science issues facing the country. In fact, overwhelming majorities of religious voters want the candidates to debate these big science issues. For Pete's sake, even overwhelming majorities of born again religious voters want the candidates to do this, and rank it as even more important than their debating faith and values.
How could this be? It's possible that many in journalism and the political class, who largely come out of the humanities and ducked college science classes, believe Ameicans aren't interested in science because they themselves aren't interested. This is called the confirmation bias. But it's just simply wrong.
Or maybe it's because scientists have been silent in the public dialogue for so long - about two generations - that politicians wrongfully assume the public doesn't care about American science or engineering as public values or part of our national dialogue. Wrong again.
And not only wrong - but bad for America. To arrive at balanced public policy, America needs a plurality of voices in the public dialogue: foreign relations, business, religion - and science, and the overwhelming majority of likely voters want the candidates to engage on the topics of healthcare, climate change, energy, education, and innovation and the economy.
Sick and tired of authoritarian policies
They also say they want public policies to be based on the best available science, not the personal opinions or beliefs of elected officials. This indicates a certain willingness to tolerate views one might not fully personally agree with in order to achieve the fairest outcome for all Americans. That used to be a cherished American value, but these days it's something you don't hear very often in the press.
These same voters say it's wrong for elected officials to hold back, alter, or disregard scientific reports if they conflict with their own views. Surprisingly, eighty-three percent of Republicans feel this way, while just seventy five percent of Democrats do. This suggests mainstream Republican voters may be unhappy with Republican politicians who deny the conclusions of mainstream science on topics like climate change, HPV vaccine, and the like.
Getting off oil
Americans also seems to be heavily weighing alternative energy and want the federal government to be spending more on alternative energy research. Fifty-three percent of all likely US voters rank developing alternative energy as a top US spending priority, second only to paying down the federal deficit. This is about twice the number of voters that think the government is not spending enough on national defense. Funding science and math education came in fourth, just behind investing in roads and bridges, and scientific research was fifth.
Getting back on top or slipping back
The survey reveals deep concerns among Americans about their country's ability to maintain leadership in science. Just forty-two percent of likely voters believe the United States will remain the world leader in science just eight years from now. Isn't that worth a debate? Eighty-five percent of voters are concerned that an uncertain future for science funding in the US will cause scientists to leave their jobs or move to other countries, but the candidates aren't talking about it much.
Voters also think candidates for congress should participate in science debates - this would seem to be a no-brainer since this is where the legislation to tackle the country's major challenges is supposed to originate.
TJ had it right - almost
Thomas Jefferson thought it would require "no very high degree" of education for voters to discern their own best interests. In 1787 he wrote to James Madison:
And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government, or information to the people. This last is the most certain, and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.
Today, we live in a different world. Science has grown so advanced and its ability to amplify the power of the individual has grown so profound that there is a much higher burden of education and responsibility placed upon the individual than there was in Jefferson's time. Both democracy and the environment are threatened by this gap.
The voters are ahead of the candidates
US voters seem intrinsically to recognize the importance of such a discussion. The least the candidates for president could do is submit to the will of the people, and participate in a nationally televised presidential science debate to discuss the real challenges facing the nation and, directly or indirectly, affecting the lives of each of her citizens. Such an historic recognition could be just what the country needs to climb out of its tailspin of loudly asserted rhetoric and reengage in evidence-based problem-solving, the way Jefferson envisioned it would.
Sign the call for a science debate
Sign the petition to ask the candidates for president to participate in a televised US science debate.
Make a tax-deductible donation.
Get Shawn Lawrence Otto's new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Starred Kirkus Review; Starred Publishers Weekly review. Visit him at http://www.shawnotto.com. Like him on Facebook. Join ScienceDebate.org to get the presidential candidates to debate science.