What do the Presidential candidates think about science?

ScienceDebate.org recently posed 14 questions to President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and just a few days ago, the candidates answered all 14.  Can we learn what they actually think about science from these answers?  Well, maybe just a little bit.  

My first inclination, on going to the ScienceDebate2012 website, was to look for the candidates' positions on the two biggest scientific topics in the political arena today: evolution and global warming.  Somehow, ScienceDebate2012 only asked about one of these, which I'll get to in a minute.

The ScienceDebate2012 organization calls its list "the top American science questions: 2012", but the questions themselves are a disappointment.  They're what you'd expect from a committee: lots of nice-sounding, polite questions, but nothing that really challenges the candidates.  I guess SD2012 was afraid that the candidates might get all offended, or maybe that fewer scientists would sign their petition.  But if you read the answers, you'll see that the candidates just answered the question they wanted to hear, as politicians love to do.  Most of the answers describe policies we already know (for those who are paying attention to the campaigns), but an interesting surprise popped up: Mitt Romney has no fondness for NASA.  Jump to the bottom to learn more.

Most of the questions are big fat softballs, starting with the first one: "What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?" http://www.sciencedebate.org/debate12/   Good tough question, guys!  We only have 14 questions, and you waste one on this?  Unsurprisingly, the answers to this one just repeated campaign talking points.

Before looking at some real answers, let's start with the howlingly obvious question that ScienceDebate2012 failed to ask.  
The Un-asked Question: do you believe that evolution should be taught in public schools, and that it should be presented as the only explanation for how species arose?  
This question has only one right answer, as any biologist worthy of the name knows.  Evolution is the foundation of all of modern biology, genetics, infectious disease research, you name it.  And the U.S. is one of the few advanced countries where a significant number of its citizens don't accept evolution, opting instead for an archaic religious position that claims Earth is only a few thousand years old.  

We should know the candidates' answers.  In 2008, ten Republican presidential candidates were asked if they believe in the theory of evolution.  Only 7 said yes--but one was Governor Romney.  Back in 2007, he told the New York Times that "the science class is where to teach evolution," and that intelligent design was "for the religion class or philosophy class."  President Obama also supports evolution, and opposes teaching creationism in the science classroom. 

So the candidates agree on this one - at least they did in the past.  But Romney's fellow Republicans don't all agree. In particular, we need to ask Governor Romney: do you support the crazy religious extremism of your fellow Republican, Congressman Paul Broun from Georgia, who just announced that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory are
 "lies straight from the pit of hell"?  
And Broun also stated that the Bible - and his wacko interpretation of it - should be used to run our government.  Any candidate for president should denounce this call for theocratic rule.

And by the way, if a Democratic Congressman said anything like this, I'd throw the same question at President Obama.

Now on to one of the real questions, on global warming. ScienceDebate2012 posed the question this way:
"The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?"  
Obama's short answer acknowledges that "climate change is one of the biggest issues of this generation," and goes on to say he will "continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions."  Vague generalities, and nothing he hasn't said before, but consistent at least.

Romney's answer, though, tries to have it both ways.  He first says that global warming is indeed happening and then says, basically, we need more research because it's controversial.  Here's how his lengthy answer begins: 
"My best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences."  
But then he pivots in the very next sentence and claims 
"there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue ... and I believe we must supported continued debate and investigation within the scientific community."  
So there you go: yes, global warming is a problem, but let's study it rather than do something.  At the end of his answer, Romney recovers a bit by saying he supports "robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technologies."  So it appears he would support some action on global warming.  But his answer offers a troubling false claim about a lack of scientific consensus: the consensus is rock solid.

Now, I promised one surprise: a bit of new information.  Question 12 covers space exploration and is another softball: 
"What should America's space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?" 
I expected some vague answers about how great America is (and both candidates did indeed deliver on that), but Romney surprised me with his answer.

Here's the surprise: Romney comes right out and says he will probably cut the NASA budget.  What he actually said in his answer was: 
"A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities."
In Washington-speak, this means "NASA has too much money and I will probably cut it."

So at least we know where Romney stands on space exploration.  He wants to downsize it and, apparently, outsource it to other countries.  Here's how he puts it later in his answer: 
"Part of leadership is also engaging and working with our allies and the international community. I will be clear about the nation’s space objectives and will invite friends and allies to cooperate with America in achieving mutually beneficial goals."  
If I worked for NASA, I'd be worried.  

1 comment:

  1. What troubles me most about Romney’s approach is that it expects a student to go from biology class to philosophy class and not be confused. Only muddled thinking can result from this approach and that is why I pulled my kids out of the practice of a Mormon pediatrician many years ago. Nor do I select practicing Catholics as ob/gyns for myself or have surgery done at any hospital that starts with St. in its name. I don’t think I can be assured that I am getting science based medical practice from people who actively participate in religion. Refusing to prescribe or perform a tubal ligation on religious grounds is not practicing medicine in my best interests. I have serious doubts about the mental health of people who can “believe” in the absolutely fantastical and complex details of the Mormon faith and then supposedly separate those beliefs from their practice of medicine.

    I know this sounds intolerant, and therefore possibly un-American, but so be it. I’m an atheist, so tolerate that.


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