The presidential campaign season is in full swing, and Mitt Romney and President Obama are both loudly declaring that their vision for the future is the one that’s best for America. Meanwhile, you and I are stuck trying to make a decision, in what may be the most consequential election in a generation, based almost entirely on news reports and editorials from a media obsessed with horse race analogies and the latest gaffe de jour. In such a substantive vacuum, it’s little wonder that science gets short shrift.
Of course, neither candidate is a scientist or has any significant scientific background, and they don’t claim to. Each is also surrounded by campaign staffs more knowledgeable about swing states than states of matter. When they talk “spin” it has nothing to do with the properties of subatomic particles. The next president of the United States, however, will be making decisions over the next four years, on scientific topics ranging from global warming and alternative energy sources to cancer research and our future in space. Those decision will fundamentally affect the lives and well being of not just the current electorate, but of our children’s lives and their children’s children.
We could rely on reporters to ask the candidates questions about science and how their proposed policies would affect it, but most reporters don’t have much in the way of a science background either. For many, it’s been years, if not decades, since they took their last science class. They frequently aren’t up to date on recent discoveries or facts buried in scientific journals, and so when one campaign makes a scientific claim, the reporters accept it, because they don’t have the knowledge base needed to challenge it. Instead, they frequently try to conceal their scientific inadequacies by giving coverage to an “expert” from both sides of the controversy, even when there is no controversy among qualified scientists in the field. Take the recent “debates” over the safety of vaccines or climate change as examples.
What that all means is, that it’s up to us. We have to educate ourselves about science, so when one of the campaigns makes a claim, we can tell what’s real science and what’s hokum. If the reporters are unable to unwilling to ask tough questions related to science, then we need to do it for them. Mr. Candidate, what do you think is the best way to reduce carbon emissions and what will your administration do about it? How will your policies affect funding for basic scientific research? Do you believe students should learn about evolution? Should we continue exploring space?
To get the process rolling, the Mad4Scienc blog will be spending the next several weeks exploring some of the scientific issues that are important to Americans. I’ll be looking at the issues and wherever possible each candidate’s positions on them. One thing to keep in mind though is that the universe is big, and there’s a whole lot of science out there. To do this job right, I need your help. What scientific issues do you think are most important? If you had the chance to ask each candidate a question, what would it be? You can leave questions in the comments section of the blog or tweet them to me on Twitter at mad4science. Remember, science is all about asking questions and methodically looking for answers.