Many Americans oppose any science debate by presidential candidates

May 13, 2008 | By | 5 Replies More

The results are out at Science Debate 2008:

A new poll (charts, pdf, 3.1mb) shows that 85% of U.S. adults agree that the presidential candidates should participate in a debate on how science can be used to tackle America’s major challenges. The poll found no difference between Democrats and Republicans on this question. A majority (84%) also agree that scientific innovations are improving our standard of living.

The poll, commissioned by Research!America and and conducted by Harris Interactive®, shows that 56% strongly agree and 29% somewhat agree that the presidential candidates should participate in a debate to discuss key problems facing the United States, such as health care, climate change and energy, and how science can help tackle them.

So here’s my initial thought: How can 15% of Americans oppose any debate by the presidential candidates on the relevance of science to solving key issues such as health care, climate change and energy? Who are these incredibly ignorant people? Americans have been shown to be incredibly ignorant. Maybe the 15% don’t know enough to know that they are ignorant? Don’t they realize that science has much to offer to analyzing these issues and potentially solving some of these problems? How can anyone be against having an open discussion on these issues?

I must admit, however, that in light of the bizarre questions forced on candidates during many previous “debates,” I am reluctant to watch any further “debates” on any topic. I wonder, then, whether the 15% are mainly anti-science or whether they are anti-debate . . .


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Category: Politics, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. John says:

    Hello, it has been a while since visiting dangerous intersections. I hate for this visit to be somewhat of a devil's advocate role, but there are a few things I noticed with the survey. I am not going to address the statistical side of the survey much, other than we should notice that the sample number was just over 1,000 and it appears that the response rate is just under 10% (highest number of responses for any given question listed is n=99). Also, I think the link to the results/methodology in your blog did not work for me, so here is the link again for others Research!America study.

    I wonder if the term "scientific research" does not skew the result some. There is a lot of discussion in linguistics (or so I understand) and in philosophy (the route I have generally taken) regarding the influence of terms on the image-in-mind that results, the impression or the idea. I have little doubt that most people have slightly different ideas of what "scientific research" connotes – with a lot of overlap, of course.

    One of the questions that I could see people diverging with regard to that image-in-mind notion is on the question "Impact of scientific research on quality of life." I could imagine at least some people being confused by this simply because not all people think in terms of how science impacts this or if they do. Additionally, there may be a diversity of notions of what constitutes "quality of life." There are questions that may counter some of the criticisms I have of the study such as a list of topics that science has the most impact on.

    The big thing though, the 85% result or conversely, the 15% result you focus on; I am surprised and perhaps relieved in some ways that the latter is not higher given the hold of fundamentalist christianity in America. Of course the sample may have missed this demographic for the most part too. I would be a little skeptical for a presidential candidate to discuss science in a debate unless that candidate has a distinct background in the physical sciences. This comes from concerns that the candidates become convinced of a scientific panacea and in turn the general public who is not necessarily scientifically oriented attaches themselves to that perceived cure-all. Many of the problems that the physical sciences are working on require "solutions" from many sides of the issues. Case and point, ethanol in Iowa. The governor appears to wholly support it (last I checked) and corn ethanol is touted as "better for the environment and for Iowa's economy" – yes in some ways, but the discussion too often neglects that there are implications on water resources, more land put into intensive production, more land taken out of conservation, and more petroleum and other chemicals used to raise those crops. Perhaps I am a little bitter regarding how simplistically the general public things of science and the impact of science on daily life though.

    What I am shocked about that you did not make any comment on the result that 19% of the respondents thought that it is acceptable for elected officials to withhold or alter scientific reports because they conflict with their own views! This is the point that concerns me far more than who in the public wants to see presidential candidates debate how science can be utilized.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    John: Thanks for the detailed comment. I hadn't noticed that 19% of respondents think it's OK for elected officials to LIE about the scientific findings. That's horrific . . . depressing. This percentage really makes me want to talk to those folks to see what they were thinking. I want to know more about what motivates such a disturbing answer.

    It is one of my articles of faith that it is always better to know than to not know. Apparently one out of five Americans disagrees.

  3. Erika Price says:

    When I mention the call for a science debate to people I know, they tend to look puzzled at me and wonder why anyone would want such a thing. "What would they talk about at a science debate?" these people ask- even pretty educated people.

    It's disturbing that these people fail to see science in current events- stem cells are science, climate change is science, health care involves science, research on new energy sources, too, is science. These are all weighty, current issues, but for some reason some Americans apparently fail to see the science in them. Science has a weird, removed image in a lot of people's minds, I think- it calls up lab coats and frizzy-haired antisocial types, holed away in basements, researching minutiae, not issues meaningful to the average person. Unfortunately that image and the reality lie tragically out of step. I think a science debate would help people realize that science does have relevance to everyday life.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    I've had discussions with people who argued that technology and science are unrelated things, that scientific discovery is inherently subordinate to technology, and technology is independent of scientific understanding.

    Their feeling is that we would have all of today's technology, from the industrial revolution onward, without ever having to resort to naturalist investigation. I can't see how that would have been possible. Nor can I conceive of a way to convince people who have that point of view that they are mistaken. These are smart people; I don't bother arguing with dullards.

    Where do they get these unshakable and patently absurd ideas?

  5. Thanks to each of you for such intriguing commentary. John — Research!America has been commissioning public opinion polls for 17 years in an effort to better understand public "perception" and awareness. We fully acknowledge that their is no unbiased question and that no one responds from the same frame of mind.

    What we have learned is that Americans generally, even if they do not understand science, do appreciate its value in their day-to-day lives. Just ask anyone who has faced cancer or some other dread disease and you will find a person who suddenly wants answers and becomes dramatically supportive of greater freedom and funding for science.

    I am a scientist myself and turned to to my current career out of frustration with the lack of effective advocacy for all scientific disciplines. The scientific community is notoriously absent or even bad at communicating the value of their own endeavors.

    I would encourage all of you to visit to tell general election candidates that you expect them to state their positions on a broad range of funding and policy issues. You can also send a message about participating in which is not intended to be a debate about science itself but about how scientific evidence and advice will be valued (or not) in their prospective administrations. Science has met hard-core ideology in the current adminstration and it is time to breathe fresh air again.

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