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Advocates Petition for Science to be part of Presidential Debate

Counting last night’s debate in Brooklyn, there have been a total of 22 debates this campaign season. And there is one area that has hardly been talked about at all: science. To remedy that, a group of science enthusiasts are trying, for the third election in a row, to organize a science debate. As Åsa Secher reports, 50,000 people have signed their petition so far – among them are Nobel laureates as well as celebrities like Johnny Depp. So will this be the year it actually happens?

SECHER 1 So we’ve heard a lot about scandals like this:

CLINTON 1 I did not send or receive any emails marked classified at the time. (0:05)

SECHER 2 Controversial proposals like this:

TRUMP 1 We need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly. (0:06)

SECHER 3 But not so much about topics like these:

CHAPMAN 1 …biodiversity, biosecurity and pandemics, biotech, climate change, drugs, environment, evolution and origins, food and agriculture, immigration, infrastructure, innovation.

SECHER 4 And this is where comes in. Matthew Chapman, is one of the founders.

CHAPMAN 2 Well, because when I started this thing in 2007, the reason I did it was I was watching all the debates, and I noticed after a while that nobody was talking about science. (0:12)

SECHER 5 The numbers this year bear that out. The media watchdog group Media Matters did the math: out of the nearly 1,500 questions asked in the 20 first debates, only 22 were about climate change. And the moderators were also twice as likely to ask a climate question to a Democratic candidate than a Republican one.

Now, Chapman is not a scientist, he writes screenplays for a living, but he does have science in his DNA. Literally.

CHAPMAN 2 I am Darwin’s great great grandson. (0:03)

SECHER 6 But you don’t have to be related to scientific royalty to have a question to ask. In fact, visitors to the website, have already submitted more than 432 questions on 33 different topics. Like scientific literacy.

FARBER 1 That’s a really good one, because that’s where I think we could do much better. (0:06)

SECHER 7 Donna Farber is looking at the questions submitted on the website. She’s an immunologist at Columbia Medical School.

FARBER 2 When I say scientific literacy I don’t mean do they know about all these biological pathways and processes or do they know about physics or something, but it’s really just understanding in a very fundamental way what science is. (0:12)

SECHER 8 She says if people knew more about how science works, like what a control group is or how you know if a study was done well, they could listen to the politicians, look up the facts and then judge for themselves.

If there was gonna be a science debate, Farber wants scientists to ask the questions. That’s not exactly Chapman’s plan — journalists would still moderate the debate, but there would be a scientist on the panel to push back if the candidates made scientifically false statements. So, if a candidate says humans aren’t to blame for climate change…

CHAPMAN 4 …they would be asked to produce evidence for it, and if they couldn’t, they would… their view of this would be questionable, wouldn’t it? (0:09)

SECHER 9 Monika McDermott is not so sure that’s how it would play out. She’s a political scientist at Fordham university.

McDERMOTT 1 …first of all, they would never move from their position, the argument would become about how you interpret facts or which facts you use, and that’s not a necessarily a very productive debate. (0:14)

SECHER 10 Chapman says it would still be better to put the issues on the table, than not bother at all. And they have had some impact. The Obama & Romney campaigns did answer questions about science in writing, during the 2012 election season. But despite 50,000 signatures and support from scientists, university presidents and celebrities around the country – there still hasn’t been a science debate on tv.

CHAPMAN 5 Nobody really ever says no. It’s just that you kind of don’t get an answer. (0:06)

SECHER 11 And when I reached out to the presidential campaigns for comment… neither did I.

Åsa Secher, Columbia Radio News


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