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Twelve Years and Three US Presidents Later, a Science Debate Is Still a Pipe-Dream

Twelve Years and Three US Presidents Later, a Science Debate Is Still a Pipe-Dream

Why won’t the two candidates vying for the most influential policymaking post on the planet not engage in a debate on the science that impacts America on a daily basis?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the first presidential debate. Credit: billy3001/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the first presidential debate. Credit: billy3001/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

On September 26, the American Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, met for the first of their three presidential debates in an event keenly watched and analysed all over the world. On the agenda was “America’s direction”, “achieving prosperity” and “securing America”, and moderator Lester Holt’s questions focused on domestic, economic and foreign policies of both candidates.

Two days later, Vice reported the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s findings that atmospheric carbon levels had irretrievably passed their tipping point of 400 parts per million – an event scientists all over the world have suggested could have disastrous consequences such as rising sea-levels, mass-extinction and accelerated ocean acidification. Simultaneously, the Zika virus’s terrible influence continues to expand worldwide – as does the insidiousness of cyber-warfare. But curiously enough, the science behind these developments continues to play truant in the questions posed to the two candidates vying for the most influential policy-making post on the planet. Why?

In 2007, Matthew Chapman, an American author and screenwriter (also Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson) launched a platform named Science Debate in collaboration with Shawn Otto. Science Debate invited presidential candidates for a televised fourth debate based purely on science for the first time, starting with Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008. The debate aimed to discuss how the candidates would incorporate science and a scientific approach to policymaking – beyond funding for NASA or the National Institutes of Health that usually inhabit the edges of scientific concerns in political campaigns.

The organisation had the backing of a slew of scientists, Nobel laureates, artists, writers and common people alike – but the offer was rejected by the candidates in 2008, and again in 2012 and now in 2016. Otto, the chairman of Science Debate, analysed the reasons for rejection while speaking to Newsweek in September, citing the candidates’ lack of exposure and distaste for science translating to a belief that the public is “as disinterested as they are”. Otto also blamed the television networks, saying they think “without any evidence, that [science] is a boring, niche topic” even though Science Debate polls suggested that the debate is “a very good idea”.

As a result, the invitation for a televised debate has fallen largely on deaf years – except the number of questions the candidates answered on Science Debate’s online questionnaire increased from 12 in 2008 and 2012, to 20 this campaign. And in 2016, it also sought to include the Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

Fact-free zone

The reasons for this reluctance extend beyond the disinterest of its politicians and media, and Otto and hinted at that as well. His book, The War on Science, deals with “politicising science” and waging a “war on science” perpetrated by industries “casting doubt on the science that threatened their vested interests”.

A clear example of the effects of this war was on brief display in the first presidential debate, when Hillary brought up Trump’s views on climate change. “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese,” Clinton accused, to vehement negations by Trump even though he had tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” earlier in 2012. He has also repeatedly claimed he does not believe in manmade climate change in clear defiance of what is near-undisputed science.

Such misinformed campaigns are sustained, Otto explained to Newsweek, “by a billion-dollar a year public relations effort, realigning American politics with the express purpose of sowing doubt and opposition to these advances.” enabled by the media’s “penchant for balance at the expense of evidence-based reporting”. This has enabled what Otto has called a “post-fact campaign”.

Even so, Otto believes the answers provided by both major candidates to their 20-question form provide insight into the candidates’ stand on topics of critical global consequence. Speaking to the Washington Post, Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, echoed Otto’s ideas: “When you look at the scope of the questions, they touch on so many issues that are important to our quality of life – things that are going to impact our health, our economy, our future resources,” and that it “certainly would be good for America to see the answers to these questions.”

Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also said, “Sometimes politicians think science issues are limited to simply things like the budget for NASA or NIH, and they fail to realize that a president’s attitude toward and decisions about science and research affect the public well-being.” In effect, he voiced the solidarity that Science Debate has acquired amongst communities like the American Chemical Society, the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and many others like them.

Binit Priyaranjan is a student of literature at the Delhi University and a freelance writer.

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