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Nature drops the ball on Science Debate 2008

February 6, 2008

James Hrynyshyn highlights an editorial in Nature that offers luke-warm support for Science Debate 2008. Frankly, the criticisms are paltry and misconceived.

Well meant though it may be, the idea of Tim Russert or some other journalist-interrogator looking Republican hopeful John McCain in the eye and asking "What balance will you seek in federal science funding between major-programme project research and investigator-initiated basic-research grants?" is somewhat fantastical. It is also slightly disturbing.

But who is advocating "Tim Russert or some other journalist-interrogator" asking any questions? The "journalist-interrogators" have shown themselves incapable of participating in any meaningful debate regarding any issues, so why should the scientific community trust them to be able to moderate a debate on science policy? Why restrict ourselves to journalists? Why not get Neil de Grasse Tyson?

The editorial opines:

For all that it claims to be a ’grass-roots’ phenomenon, the proposed debate can be seen as an attempt by various élite institutions to grab the microphone and set the agenda from the top down.

Considering the movement was launched by our very own Chris and Sheril and received its initial support from bloggers such as my Sciblings and I, I think we can say that it is not "an attempt by various élite institutions to grab the microphone".

Really Nature, you can do better. You should do better.

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  1. Ryan
    February 7, 2008 at 2:28 am

    Your criticism of Nature is avoiding the actual substance at issue here. How about addressing the main thrust of Goldston’s piece (cited by the editorial), rather than these two very minor points? Goldston sets up his argument with the following assertion:
    “no one seems to have thought through whether such a debate would actually serve the cause of science.”
    He then argues convincingly (aided by the experience of many years as House Science Committee Chief of Staff working hard to support the cause of science) that this debate, should it come about, is unlikely to increase support of government funded science, or clarify any of the issues that may arise.
    Do you disagree with this portion of Goldston’s analysis? Regardless of who’s behind this thing (and yes, it may have started with Mooney et. al, but the scientific establishment including commentary by Kennedy in Science this week is now enthusiastically on board), and how it would be run, why the heck do we want it to happen?

  2. Zach
    February 7, 2008 at 3:37 am

    As a former student of yours, I find your too-easy dismissal of Nature’s criticism puzzling. The Nature Goldston piece, as Ryan points out, is quite thoughtful. And even if you don’t find Ryan’s comment convincing, I hope you’ll at least recognize ways in which a presidential science debate could be undesirable, even if scientists–as you prefer– are the moderators.
    Some, like Donald Kennedy, have proposed questions for the debate, to ask candidates “In view of public concerns about global warming, are you committed to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions? Would you choose a cap-and-trade program or a carbon tax? Why?”
    As Goldston points out, when you ask this question in a ScienceDebate, you make it seem as though the answer to that question must itself be scientific. There’s many layers to climate policy, though, and simple recognition that global warming is a problem doesn’t indicate what should be done. If you had a advocate for mitigation (probably not someone as extreme as James Hansen, but perhaps not too far off) as an interviewer, you could almost imagine the discussion becoming a challenge, to ensure that candidates hold to the political positions held by many in the scientific community. You might think that such a badgering of candidates by passionate scientists is a good thing, but that’s your individual political opinion, and not one we should necessarily force onto the political process.
    I hope you can imagine other undesirable outcomes. Kennedy broaches questions about government censorship of scientists. Goldston is exactly right to say that discussion of the politicization of science is a nuanced issue that can’t be answered in a sound-byte oriented debate. The ‘Science Debate” focus adds a new danger: Asking a question like Kennedy’s might turn the debate into a special-interest meeting, where candidates must seemingly pledge to pay special attention to scientists when making their policy decisions, or else seem unsupportive of science. There is a lot of nuance surrounding questions of government censorship, which is hard to articulate in a short debate, but the issue is not black and white: we surely do not want to allow scientific government employees (in their official capacities) to advocate policies that contradict the goals of elected political leaders. The science debate begins to look even more like a special-interest group trick to pressure candidates when you consider other possible questions, like Kennedy’s question to ask about NIH budget increases.
    In my opinion, asking important questions about science-related issues should be a part of existing political debates and discussion, but framing them within a “Science Debate” creates potentially undesirable consequences. A science debate might turn out to be a very thoughtful affair, but you can count me as initially skeptical.
    Goldston’s Article is located at: http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080206/full/451621a.html
    Kennedy’s article is located at: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/319/5863/548

  3. caynazzo
    February 7, 2008 at 8:57 am

    No, this post was spot on. Regardless of his ‘years of hard work,” Goldston didn’t provide a compelling argument. All he said was science and its sister technology are not the most important issue of our time, which is an opinion, not an argument. Perhaps Ryan can name these “greater concerns” outside the purview of science that should be considered when making reality-based policy decisions.
    Here’s a whopper: “The science of the Earth system is crucial to understanding climate change; that does not mean that climate is best debated as a science issue.” What? The impetus for denying global warming in the first place was an act of keeping science out of the debate.
    Then, in the following graph, Goldston trivializes the debates by assuming without evidence that “the elite” are playground petty children who only want retribution for an administration internationally known for squashing scientific debate. This is obscene and uninformed.
    I’ve weathered all the democratic debates and it’s nothing but slogans, health care, tax policy, international trade, treaty law and foreign policy. Science isn’t a part of the current debate.
    To end it all, Goldston’s red-blooded American “war game” alternative is childish and ignorant. His great thoughts on science and technology seem to have been informed by Pro Wrestling and too much time spent incubating in a think tank.
    I say it’s time we draw a line in the sand and force the candidates to either acknowledge what scientists are saying or publicly state their opposition to science before they enter office. Letting them off the hook is what got us where we are with the current administration.

  4. Zach
    February 7, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Caynazzo,
    I think your criticisms are of the Nature editorial, and not of Goldston’s article in Nature which I linked to and Ryan based his question on. This is to say, Goldston avoids the (i think silly) question regarding how important science is “to our time” and doesn’t make the war games analogy.
    Zach

  5. Ryan
    February 7, 2008 at 11:52 am

    caynazzo:
    First, go back and actually read the Goldston piece. Then, come back here and read this discussion again.
    Regarding your comment:
    “The science of the Earth system is crucial to understanding climate change; that does not mean that climate is best debated as a science issue.”
    Ok, let me explain (though I think Goldston explains it fairly clearly). We know climate change is happening because of science (and accompanying technologies etc.). But now that the warming is “unequivocal” (see IPCC AR4 http://www.ipcc.ch) debates over what policy action is desirable are about decidedly non-scientific issues. As Goldston says:
    “Is there a scientific position on whether a carbon tax is a good idea, or how to structure one? The increasing tendency to conflate science questions — Are we experiencing man-made climate change? — with policy questions — What, if anything, should we do about it? — has been a damaging trend. It has helped to turn science into a political football and has muddied policy debates.”
    You would be hard pressed to come up with a climate policy issue for which science was the sole driver of our decision making.
    As for your reaction to the claim about S&T not being the most important issue of our time, yes, that’s an opinion. The piece is an editorial – that’s kind of the point. But I think the statement is made to highlight the fact that so many (like yourself, apparently) view problems like climate change as primarily driven by science, when in fact the social, political, and cultural elements are at least as important and at least as complex.

  6. caynazzo
    February 7, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Zach, you’re right. The editorial was the target of my criticism, but upon reading the Goldston article, which is at least more nuanced, I’m still not convinced and strongly disagree with Goldston.

  7. caynazzo
    February 7, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Okay Ryan, what evidence do you have that science has muddied policy debates as you and Goldson claim? I can think of specific debates where more science was needed to clear the water from glad-handed political “framing,” such as uncovering ID as fraudulent, informing the endangered species watch list, superfund sites, mercury and birth defects, smoking and health, routine vaccinations, stem cell research…the list goes on. Science is how we access reality. If your policy isn’t based on, driven by, and supported by sound science then it’s bad policy.

  8. ryan
    February 7, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    For starters check this article entitled “How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse” (http://www.cspo.org/ourlibrary/documents/environ_controv.pdf)
    The argument here is not that DOING science necessarily creates problems or “muddies debate.” The problem arises when the role of science in policy decision making distorts the issue and distracts from the its non-science aspects.
    The climate change debate (as mentioned before) is a perfect example. Science cannot provide an objective answer to the question of whether or not we should limit carbon emissions. It also cannot provide an objective answer to the question of how we should limit them. No amount of climate science funding, increased model resolution, or reduced uncertainty will change this.
    So, when those two questions are framed as inherently scientific, we are very much on the wrong track.
    I should point out that this is only part of Goldston’s argument. The other part is focused on the pervasive assumption that raising the political profile of science is necessarily good for science. Goldston gives a couple of examples that suggest why this assumption should be reconsidered.

  9. John Lynch
    February 7, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    It’s amazing how some people are talking about the Goldston piece when it wasn’t what I was addressing in any way. I was addressing the Nature editorial and two of the points it makes. I was concerned with the journal’s editorial position not Goldston’s. I guess others had their own agenda.

  10. Zach
    February 8, 2008 at 1:39 am

    Dr. Lynch,
    You said “Really Nature, you can do better. You *should* do better.”
    Unless you were merely trying to be cute, this sounds like a strong criticism of Nature, presumably for their not supporting the Science Debate for foolish reasons.
    My point is that the Nature editorial cited Goldston’s intellectual critique of the Science Debate. I think its clear that Nature did “do better”–but your post just focused on two brief details that were mentioned in the Hrynyshyn highlight you linked to, and avoided assessing the argument. When you strongly criticize while avoiding the argument, it’s proper to point out what’s missing.
    Cheers,
    Zach

  11. John Lynch
    February 8, 2008 at 2:01 am

    Nope.
    I criticize the Nature editors for making two points that were not contained in the Goldston article. The first about journalists questioning, the second regarding the origins of the ScienceDebate 2008 movement. I stand by my statement that Nature should do better than make those arguments. I wasn’t being “cute” – I was criticizing two points in the editorial. Goldston’s arguments – such as they are – are something for another day.
    So let’s be clear – the post is about what I see as errors in the editorial. No one has yet succeeded in demonstrating that I am wrong in pointing out these two errors in the editorial. Ryan (@1) decided he wanted to talk about something else (the Goldston piece) and you seem to want to follow suit. Such is your right. It’s just not what I’m interested in.
    If people want to argue about the points I make regarding what Nature says in the editorial, fair enough, and I may answer (time permitting). Otherwise, I’m not going to be commenting again.

  12. February 11, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    John
    I’d contend that the idea of Neil de Grasse Tyson asking John McCain that question of Don Kennedy’s is pretty much as fantastical as Tim Russert’s so doing. And (while holding no brief for Mr Russert) I’m not sure that a science debate is best chaired by someone who can be seen as a spokesman for science; might it not run the risk of giving a “science judges the candidates” vibe?
    The question as to elites does not bear on who started the process, but rather on who is now driving and cui bono.
    Oliver Morton (chief news and features editor at Nature)

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