A group of science advocates are circulating a public statement calling for a presidential candidate debate on science and technology. Considering that one of the serious contenders for the leader of the world's most powerful nation does not believe in evolution, I share their desire that the next president not only understands but actually agrees with basic scientific tenets. But the framing of the issue thus far does not make me optimistic that the right questions would be asked.
Much of the emergent "pro-science" political movement seems to mistake differing beliefs for bad science. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research, disbelievers in evolution, and backers of Terry Schiavo's life support generally reached their positions through deeply-held - and often religious - worldviews, not by relying on faulty data or poorly-designed experiments. Granted, once in this position, these believers often highlighted distorted pseudo-science, such as David Prentice's list of the dozens of cures from adult stem cells. The real substance of the disagreements are ethical, philosophical, or religious. The question that is often implied by science advocates - Are you for or against science? - is not only ridiculous, but it misses the point. The unfortunate result of this approach is the casting of science as a polarized, all-or-nothing issue.
Regardless, a debate on science and technology policy would be a welcome development. From a political perspective, it would put candidates who rely on a reactionary base in a difficult position. And from a policy perspective, questions about the appropriate oversight of science are deeply relevant. For example, would the candidates support the return of the Office of Technology Assessment? How would they consider the precautionary principle in the face of powerful new and untested technologies? Do the candidates agree with a current senator, "that science ought to be unfettered?" Or do some research methods and technological applications, due to potentials for the exploitation of vulnerable groups or large-scale unforeseeable consequences, warrant effective societal oversight?
Unfortunately, when science is framed in such a partisan manner, these questions are likely to go unasked.
Posted in Biopolitics, Parties & Pundits, Jesse Reynolds's Blog Posts
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Comment by Roger, Apr 25th, 2011 5:03pm
It's about time for the next debate. I quote from my scienceblog at sciencedebate.com, "Despite ... challenges, man emerged victorious with each new discovery and invention." History tells us that scientists can be optimistic.