Friday, May 02, 2008

Science Debate 2008 or not

I posted this on the COPUS blog ( a few days ago, where I'm one of the group of guest bloggers, and thought it appropriate for cross-posting here:

My colleague Daniel Sarewitz, who heads up the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, at Arizona State University, argues against the idea of a presidential debate (ScienceDebate2008) in a recent letter to the journal Nature. Dan writes, “It’s hard to imagine anything worse for the cause of science than to subject it to the sort of high-profile demagogic posturing now reserved for immigration, medical care, social security, the economic downturn and the war in Iraq.

Science continues to enjoy a protected and privileged status in American politics, in no small part because of its absence from the national political stage…”

This is a powerful and thoughtful argument. Science issues don’t usually get resolved with 30-second sound bites. But I have to disagree with Dan’s underlying thesis. One can argue that science has become caught up in demagogic politics for some time now, and if we don’t take aggressive action, science and scientists will continue to be demonized and marginalized, to the long-term detriment of national economic well-being and security. Science in America is losing ground and the economy with it. The golden age Dan refers to following World War II and Sputnik, put science in that so-called privileged status, precisely because it was on the national political stage. Science won the war and was expected to protect us from the Communists as well.

Today there are groups attacking science for political ends. Unless the public and political leaders are re-engaged in understanding the scientific process and its benefits, the nation will lose the goose that laid the golden egg.

1 comment:

  1. One of the main ideas in science is that of considering all the facts we can deem relevant to the issue (and perhaps even some that we can't). In my mind, this really goes back to the idea of critical thinking -- not taking anything for granted, but pursuing issues and topics to their root in an effort to achieve a fundamental understanding. We can push science education (and science PR) as much as we like, but we may do better for the world in the long run if we get critical thinking into position as a primary cultural value. This can be done from an early age in the educational process, perhaps even earlier than science. Granted, science is "cooler" than critical thinking, but critical thinking is a fundamental of science and may not have the baggage attached as does science itself. As it regards the political debate, science may or may not benefit by its presence there. Critical thinking would likely just become another throw-away term in the arena of debate. Candidates certainly aren't as interested in critical thinking among the electorate as the effect of PR and wholesale uncritical consumption of their positions (in my opinion).