"Good luck with that!"
This is the most common response we get when we talk about ScienceDebate.org, the non-profit founded to try and persuade the presidential candidates to attend a debate solely on science issues, including technology, the environment, and medicine. Given the enormous opportunities and consequences of science both in America and the rest of the world, it seems like it should already have happened.
So why the cynicism?
People assume candidates will be intimidated by science and not want to make fools of themselves. First of all, we won't make fools of anyone because we want this debate to become a permanent part of the electoral process. Secondly, candidates are happy to go to economic or "faith and values" debates though few are economists or theologians, so why not discuss the policies they'd apply to science and technology issues?
The cynicism then narrows to: "You think the Republicans will come to a debate on science?!"
Well, yes. And Wednesday night's Republican primary debate bolstered our optimism. The debates, part one and two, contained more discussion of science and technology than any preceding debate in recent years, including Democratic primary debates and certainly the final candidate debates of the last two cycles. Trump and Fiorina, at least, clearly knew how crucial scientific research and development are to the American economy.
The problem was that both candidates and moderators seemed a lot of the time to be unaware they were talking about science, and no one on the media side, or in the post-debate analysis group, was equipped to judge the veracity of what was said.
Just look at the list of issues raised in the two back-to-back debates:
1. ABORTION AND STEM CELL RESEARCH. Rick Santorum's second sentence mentioned "partial birth abortion," and there was much talk of "selling baby parts." This raises (or could have) scientific questions about when life begins, when life is viable, and what stem cell research can do for us.
2. NUTRITION. Jindal mocked Obama for having declared war on trans fats while negotiating a truce with Iran. "Think about that. He's more worried about Twinkies than he is about the ayatollahs having a nuclear weapon." It's an amusing remark, except according to the CDC, "reducing trans fat consumption by avoiding artificial trans fat could prevent 10,000-20,000 heart attacks and 3,000-7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the U.S."
In a science debate one might explore the comparative lethality of ayatollah nuclear attacks on Americans (zero) and ingestion of Twinkie-like food items that have blown up hundreds of thousands of American hearts -- probably a majority of them in the deep-fry south where Jindal comes from.
3. SEXUALITY AND GENES. Jindal was also at the forefront of an attack on gay marriage and a defense of Kim Davis (the county clerk who refused to marry gay couples) along with the caterers, musicians and florists (florists?!) who don't want to have any part of such a thing.
This could raise serious questions on what science has learned about sexuality, genes, and the concept of sexual choice. The growing consensus, entirely derived from scientific study, is that sexual orientation is as little a matter of choice as skin color. A valid question in a science debate might be: "Do you believe that science has shown that sexuality is not a matter of choice and if so, how would you react legislatively?"
4. ROBOTS, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, AND WAR. Lindsey Graham, a single gentleman of 60, was happy to pick up on the gay marriage issue and run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. "Well, you know, Kim Davis, I'm not worried about her attacking me. I am worried about radical Islamic terrorists who are already here planning another 9/11." Graham wants to put more American fighters into the Middle East (a lot more), beef up the army, navy and air force, and update their machines and weapons. There are dozens of scientific and technological question in this, not least the ethics of drones and the ethics and dangers of using robots and A.I. in warfare. (See the recent letter opposing the use of such devices in warfare signed by, among others, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Steve Wozniak.)
5. ANTI-SCIENTISM. The only direct mention of scientists was a quote from Santorum by one of the moderators: "I want to quote Rick Santorum. 'We should send a very clear message that if you are a scientist and you're going to work on a nuclear program to develop a bomb for Iran, you are not safe.'" As far as I know, no American scientists are working in the Iranian nuclear program, so perhaps this is more indicative of a general suspicion of scientists than a real security concern. Mistrust of scientists is worth debating because it may at times be deserved. Do scientists sometimes take research money that's as tainted as certain campaign contributions? Do scientists sometimes bend to government pressure and distort their findings?
6. DROUGHT. In the main event, Marco Rubio immediately set the tone (his tone) for discussion about climate change by waving a plastic bottle of water at the crowd and saying, "And I'm also aware that California has a drought, and so that's why I made sure I brought my own water." As drought-engendered fires raged nearby, with attendant loss of life and property, the laughter was tepid. Talk about a tin ear... Droughts, wildfires, (and indeed plastic bottles) would be excellent subjects for a serious science debate.
7. BORDER SECURITY AND TECHNOLOGY. Illegal immigration was a large part of the conversation with Trump saying it costs America 200 billion dollars a year and offering to protect us by building hundreds of miles of wall. Apart from the technological challenges of building a long wall that's impossible to climb or tunnel under (something Mexican criminals seem rather good at), doesn't it seem a little archaic? Might there not be more advanced technological ways of dealing with the problem?
8. FETUS & SOTUS. Huckabee would like to ask Supreme Court nominees if they "think that the unborn child is a human being or is it just a blob of tissue?" I believe this is an absolutely valid ethical and scientific question. If Republicans would like to see it discussed in a presidential science debate -- and they clearly would -- I'd be wholly in favor.
9. SCIENTIFIC MERITS OF MARIJUANA. Rand Paul advocated legalizing medical marijuana and got mixed reactions from the other candidates, none of whom, it seemed to me, knew much about scientific studies on the subject. Like most Americans, I'd like to know the true benefits of non-recreational use as determined by science. This discussion triggered the next science-related issue.
10. THE SCIENCE OF DRUG ADDICTION. This vast and vital subject was barely explored at all, perhaps out of respect for Carly Fiorina who spoke about the death of her stepdaughter from drug addiction. The science of addiction -- why people want to get high, why some people become addicted while others don't, how people slip into addiction and the best way to get them out -- were only superficially dealt with.
11. MENTAL ILLNESS & BRAIN RESEARCH. What was not mentioned in the discussion above was that Fiorina's daughter was not just an "addict" (as if that were an isolated condition) but mentally ill. To quote Ms. Fiorina in an interview in National Review: "I have thought often since then how poorly we deal with mental illness and addiction as a nation. Like Lori, those who are ill frequently fight against help. Medical privacy laws, although perhaps well intentioned, make it easier for an addict to continue down a destructive path. These laws make it very difficult for those who worry that a loved one is a danger to themselves or others to get the help so desperately needed. They also make it difficult for concerned physicians to raise a warning flag. And criminalizing addictions, or minimizing the devastating impact of mental illness on friends and communities, only makes these problems worse."
Most families have been touched by mental illness in one way or another and Carly Fiorina's tragedy could have raised the huge scientific issue of how brain research might offer relief in many forms and save lives. Untreated mental illnesses cost America over 300 billion a year and cause excruciating pain to the ill and their friends and families. President Obama's BRAIN initiative is a step in the right direction, but many people in the field believe that given the societal costs and human suffering, more money should be spent in this area. Is this because there's still a stigma? How much would you as a candidate spend on this? None of these questions were asked.
12. MENTAL ILLNESS, GUNS, AND VIOLENCE. The discussion of mental illness really only came to fruition (and very briefly) in relation to how to prevent guns falling into the hands of deranged individuals, and then came to a sudden dead end as if (a cause for optimism?) all the candidates had agreed not to go down this dark path. But there are all kinds of scientific and technological challenges and solutions to gun violence that ought to be discussed, from finding better ways to report mentally ill gun owners to the authorities, how to keep databases that make more sense, or the simple matter of engineering safer guns.
13. CLIMATE CHANGE. The moderator, Jake Tapper, said CNN had received "a lot" of questions about climate change from the public. I won't go into all the arguments on this (or lack of them), but suffice to say no other area of the debate more clearly highlighted the need for a dedicated science debate organized by us.
In the CNN debate, however, statements about scientific evidence went unchallenged. Rubio -- the bottle waver in the flaming drought -- said regulations would change nothing and "we're not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do. We're not going to... We are not going to make America a harder place to create jobs in order to pursue policies that will do absolutely nothing, nothing to change our climate, to change our weather, because America is a lot of things, the greatest country in the world, absolutely. But America is not a planet. And we are not even the largest carbon producer anymore, China is. And they're drilling a hole and digging anywhere in the world that they can get a hold of."
Perhaps climate change is a hoax or a mistake. Maybe time will prove the "deniers" right. Stranger things have happened. But meanwhile, doesn't such an epic conjecture supported by so many experts deserve more serious exploration and examination than this? Is it acceptable to simply let unsupported statements fly by unchallenged? We at ScienceDebate.org don't think so. We have nearly 30 Nobel laureate signatories and the support of just about every scientific organization in America, and we and our partners will take all of these questions seriously, this one no more nor less than others.
14. VACCINES. Donald Trump still apparently believes in a connection between vaccines and autism. His eerily tranquil but well-informed rival, Ben Carson (who is trained in medicine), explained there is not a shred of scientific evidence supporting this. None. In a science debate, it would be interesting to ask why people go on believing things like this when they have been so comprehensively disproved. What could a president do to reduce this? Credulity isn't just irritating, it kills.
15. MEDICAL RESEARCH. Last but not least, Huckabee twice raised the issue of medical research, saying the first time, "Why doesn't this country focus on cures rather than treatment? Why don't we put a definitive focus scientifically on finding the cure for cancer, for heart disease, for diabetes and for Alzheimer's, a disease alone that will cost us $1.1 trillion by the year 2050." Jake Tapper cut him off, so he took another shot at it in his concluding remark: "The next president ought to declare a war on cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's, because those are the four things that are causing the greatest level of cost. John Kennedy said, 'We'll go to the moon in a decade and bring a man back,' and we did it... Why doesn't this country focus on cures rather than treatment? Why don't we put a definitive focus scientifically on finding the cure for cancer, for heart disease, for diabetes and for Alzheimer's, a disease alone that will cost us - "
"Thank you, Governor," said Jake Tapper, the moderator, cutting him off yet again.
In our science debate, he would not get cut off, but rather encouraged to develop his ideas and discuss the costs and benefits of such a grand and worthwhile initiative.
I may not personally agree with many of their views, but I salute these Republican candidates. Contrary to what the cynics say, they are clearly not afraid to talk about science.
To make a true presidential science debate between the two final candidates a reality, please visit ScienceDebate.org, sign the call for a science debate, and donate generously. We need to kick this up to the next level -- and we can with your help. Be a part of something huge.
We have already achieved a lot and we're about to achieve far more with a brand new ally we'll be announcing soon, and in the future we intend to become a vibrant ongoing resource for politicians wanting to improve their science policy credentials and any group in America or elsewhere that wants to put on a debate about... reality.