Why Does Science Remain a Non-Issue in Presidential Elections… Again and Again?

Today, on NPR’s Science Friday, host Ira Flatow and guests Shawn Lawrence Otto (CEO/Co-Founder, ScienceDebate.org), David Gergen (Senior Political Analyst, CNN), and Michael Lubell (Professor of Physics, City College U of NYC) discussed the issue of science’s absence among nearly every Presidential Debate—past, present, and most likely for the foreseeable future.

You might have guessed, especially given the present context of stifling heat waves, erratic storm patterns, and devastating drought conditions, that climate change arguably took center stage during the program. However, the issue at hand was not so much scientific evidence supporting climate change, or its scholarly justifications, more than it was the lack of attention paid to science in general by presidential candidates.

As the caller from Denver pointed out, a discussion of scientific topics in a presidential debate—particularly that of the General Election—runs the risk of a given candidate embittering their base, regardless of a study mentioned by Dr. Lubell showing interests in science as transcending political barriers across the spectrum.

To an extent, the caller was exactly correct. We will most likely never hear issues of this kind during the General Election because of the divisive nature of scientific matters and the socio-political baggage they inspire among Americans in general, but the caller merely scratched the surface. To understand why science will remain a non-issue in presidential elections, one must first understand the nature of presidential elections and their attributable goals.

General and primary presidential elections could not be much more different, principally because the target audiences are just as different. Primary elections draw the politically in-tune (even those marginally informed) and issue perceptive voters that eventually comprise a given party’s base. These are the voters, as one panelist argued, that reside at the further ends of the political spectrum, whose vote is rarely in question under partisan terms during the General Election. However, a given candidate can lose these votes, not necessarily to the benefit of an opponent, but lost nonetheless.

General elections assume decided loyalty among the base and focus attention on the central spectrum, including moderates both liberal and conservative, centrists, and other Libertarians in general. Therefore, the primary objective of a presidential campaign is to address the known concerns of this demographic while avoiding their unknown apprehensions—i.e. gun control, abortion, global warming, etc.—balanced against alienating the partisan base. This is why we heard Jon Huntsman, Jr. mention scientific issues during a number of Republican Primary Debates, and Sarah Palin tip-toe around ‘man-made” climate change in the 2008 Vice-Presidential Debate, but we will not hear them in the General Debates because it is political suicide.

It is not that Americans hate or are unappreciative of science. We love science! Yet, as disheartening as it is, a given candidate will not risk the loss of votes, whether targeted or base, at the cost of scientific issues, which at present cannot compete with that of the economy among undecided or centrist voters. If suddenly President Obama attributed the Colorado shooting to the existence of gun-free zones, he would lose a portion of base support and could hand votes to his opponent. If Mitt Romney suddenly assumed a pro-climate change posture, he would indefinitely lose some support among the Moral Majority and could force the undecided voter into an early decision. Whatever the case may be, including scientific issues in the Presidential Debate carries political consequences that neither party will risk. Look for either candidate to dodge these types of questions…

What do you think?


P.S. As an afterthought, I want to address Mr. David Gergen’s assessment of the Right’s stance on global warming. Although he is correct that the present Republican Party moved further right than it arguably ever has, his assertion that as a result Republicans “pander” to a base that views science as hokey, “illogical,” “made-up,” lacking merit, or “running from reality” is mostly an incorrect oversimplification—Michelle Bachman and Pat Robertson not withstanding. In the process, he commits the same mistake as those on the Right when analyzing many on the Left’s critique of capitalism.

It is not necessarily that a majority of liberals find fault with capitalism in general, as much as it is a dissatisfied view of capitalists specifically. To be sure, capitalism has enormous potential for bringing out the absolute worst in the human condition, but a system is only as pious as the person controlling it. Hence, the issue is not one of economics, but more of an argument in human nature.

Similarly, the stance that conservatives take issue with science in general also contains an inherent flaw because it ignores the same key component. It is not necessarily “science” that many on the Right dispute—although those kooks do exist—more than it is the scientist specifically, especially when wedded to political contexts. In this instance, the correct question should be: what reason do conservatives have not to trust the word, work, or motivations of scientists regarding climate change? The reasons are as abundant as the reasons not to trust the word, work, or motivations of capitalists regarding profit.

For example, a scientist’s income greatly depends upon the outcome of their studies; meaning that if a scientist works for years toward a result contrary to the interests of their employer, it stands to reason that said employer would cut further funding of the project. Do you want a scientist with an impact on public policy to have this on their mind? Would you bet your civil liberties on it?

Therefore, we should not ask why does the Right take issue with science, we should ask what empirical evidence does any one have that questions the integrity of a given scientist.

Any Thoughts?


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