Science and the 2012 Election – Shawn Otto and Matthew Chapman

October 15, 2012

In this show, we talk to two founders of ScienceDebate, a nonprofit organization that in the last two election cycles has pushed to get the presidential candidates to talk about and debate science policy.

So far, there has been no actual presidential science debate. But this year, ScienceDebate got Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to answer 14 top science policy questions, leading to some revealing results. And with the election less than a month away—an election whose winner will guide science policy at a time when international research competitiveness, climate change, and other science based issues demand attention… it’s hard to think of many things more important for voters to pay attention to.

The media feel otherwise, unfortunately. The first presidential debate and the vice-presidential debate have ignored science almost entirely. But that’s precisely why we’re here, and why ScienceDebate is here—to try to shine some light on the issues that matter critically, but aren’t getting their due.

Matthew Chapman is a screenwriter, author, and great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. When not working on ScienceDebate, he recently wrote and directed The Ledge, a thriller whose central character is an atheist.

Shawn Otto is also a screenwriter and author, most recently of the book Fool me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. Among other accolades, he also wrote and co-produced the Oscar nominated film A House of Sand and Fog.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

Today’s episode of Point of Inquiry is brought to you by Saigon, the conference dedicated to science and skeptical inquiry happening this October 25th through the twenty eighth in Nashville, Tennessee. Visit CSI conference dot org for more information. This is Point of inquiry from Monday, October 15th, 2012. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney one of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. I’m feeling pretty psyched about this show because it features not one, but two of my favorite people. Matthew Chapman and Shawn Otto. We’ve had each of them as guests individually. And now I want to talk about a really important combined exploit of theirs. It’s called science debate, and it’s a nonprofit organization that in the last two election cycles has pushed to get the presidential candidates to talk about and debate science policy. Now, so far, there has not been any actual presidential science debate. But this year, science debate did get Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to answer in writing 14 top science policy questions. And that led to some pretty revealing results. Now, with the election less than a month away, an election whose winner will guide science policy at a time when international research, competitiveness, climate change and much more are really important issues dominating the agenda or they should be. I don’t think there’s anything more critical that voters could be paying attention to than this. Now, of course, the media feel otherwise. The first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate have ignored science pretty much entirely. But that’s precisely why we’re here and why science debate is here, to try to shine some light on the issues that matter critically but just aren’t getting their due. Matthew Chapman is a screenwriter, author and great great grandson of Charles Darwin. We’re not working on science debate. He recently wrote and directed The Ledge, a thriller whose central character is an atheist. Shawn Otto is also a screenwriter and author most recently of the book, Fool Me Twice Fighting the Assault on Science in America. Among other accolades, he also wrote and co-produced the Oscar nominated film, A House of Sand and Fog. 

Matthew Chapman, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you for having me. And Shawn Otto, welcome to Point of Inquiry as well. Thanks. Happy to be here. 

It is great to have both of you guys on. You are. You’re my favorite screenwriters doing science policy. So I just I celebrate you for that. 

And you’ve been you’ve been behind science debate for two elections now. I helped you with it in 2008. I was completely a wall in 2012. What. 

What have we learned after two elections of trying to get the candidates pinned down on science, getting their written responses, not getting an actual in-person kind of debate yet? What have we learned about this process? 

Well, I think that what we’ve learned is that the candidates probably their last science classes in high school, they’re not very comfortable talking about it. 

And because they’re not, they assume that most of the general public is not as well. We did some national polling both cycles and found that that’s absolutely not true, that eighty five percent of both Democrats and Republicans alike think that this is important and in fact, deeply religious people ranked the candidates debating the big science issues as more important than them talking about faith and values. So I think it’s it’s a. It’s part of a paradigm shift that we have to achieve. 

We’re pushing a ball uphill. A big boulder uphill. But I think we’re nearing the top. And once we become accepted a little bit more broadly, and I think we gained a lot of credibility so far this cycle, again, much more than we had last cycle. 

We’ll move the ball that much further forward and hopefully have a runner on base to mix metaphors here at us or next time around. 

How many people? And maybe I can I can direct this to Matthew, buddy. You, Sean, can answer as well. How many people do you think it need? At least, no. I’ve come across. Somehow I don’t know if there’s a way. 

I’ve come across somehow this really rich list of science policy question responses that the candidates have given. 

Well, I mean, the last time we did this, I think we made eight hundred and fifty million media impressions when we released the list. So it’s a lot of people. I think it’s. I suspect it’s sort of in a way more. More keenly, observed Bruel, than it is perhaps in America itself. But I don’t know. Sean would have other figures on that. 

I think that that might have been true last time this time. We’ve gotten a lot of mainstream coverage there. We don’t have any metrics done on it yet, but we’ve had much more mainstream coverage of these topics than we did in 2008. So I count that as one of the ways that we’re making progress. So I would expect the number would be higher than 850 million this cycle. 

Well, but that is now. Now, to be clear, 850 million. That is not people. 

That’s correct. That’s media impressions, which is basically somebody reading an article and they run across one of these questions or a reference to science debate or the answers. 

But let’s face it, there is not. There wasn’t in 2008. And I think it’s fair to say, you know, as we know, elections getting close and there’s not going to be in 2012 either an actual airing of these issues with the candidates themselves. No one can say that. 

I mean, I don’t mean to be negative or anything, but. 

Well, I. I’ve got to say, the Romney campaign has, in fact, turned us down on that possibility. So unless we change their mind, that’s that’s that’s going to be the case. We had some great hope that Jim Lehrer was going to tackle one of the questions. 

We had spoken to his producer the day after or the day he was announced as the moderator, and she said that she would get these questions in front of him and thought that they were interesting and important. So it was unfortunate that that his whole focus seemed to be on taxes, health care and the economy. And he didn’t make room for the vast or have other really important domestic issues, particularly climate change. You know, he that was one of our questions. And he got a list of a petition was signed by some one hundred and sixty thousand people requesting him to tackle climate change in the debate. 

We’re pretty disappointed. Thought, frankly, that was pretty irresponsible that he did not bring it up. 

I’ll just back that up, actually, I mean, you know, of all the things that have been thrown at Jim Larra for bad moderation of the first debate in Colorado, and that’s one that maybe hasn’t been been thrown enough, it might have actually helped his moderation job if he’d gotten some science in there. 

I think it would have, because it would require the candidates to think a little bit more and get them a little bit off of their their short term talking points and paint a broader vision about where we’re going to go as a country. 

And even even in a debate that’s about domestic policy and the economy and all of that, it’s strange how people don’t seem to connect the importance of science to a modern economy. And education and all of these other things that are science issues. The rules are highly involved in economics. 

Well, let’s get let’s get into the candidates positions. And you guys have displayed them prominent online. They’ve gotten a lot of attention at the Web site science debate dot org. So you ask them 14 questions and let’s sort of pass some of the things that they said. First of all, how did you decide what to ask? 

OK, well, what we did is we we crowd sourced it in a different way. 

We crowdsource in 2008 also mostly through our sign-up process and through a lot of science bloggers. 

This time we we e-mailed our all our supporters. We’ve got about forty two thousand supporters. And we reached out through science blogs. We reached out through social media, through Facebook. We’ve got a Facebook group. And we asked them we had a facility at our Web site where people could submit questions. And that’s also where they could grade or rank the questions, giving them a vote up or vote down. That had already been submitted by others and comment on them. So that helped to kind of bubble some of the more important questions that people that the general public felt and that our supporters felt were important to the top. Then what we did is we took all of those. And we reached out to America’s leading science organizations, people that are experts in dealing with science policy and brought together a group of 15 organizations, including groups like the National Academies, the Triple J. S, The Eye, Tripoli, USA, the American Physical Society, lots and lots of terrific U.S. science organizations. And we went through all these questions in several lengthy conference calls and e-mail exchanges. And slowly began to clump them into categories and then to boil down the most important aspects of each question in each category and then to work them into language that was fair and nonpartizan. And that really we felt captured the essence of where we were stuck on these issues. And it was a really cool process because we built a universal consensus. We agreed that we would get everybody to sign off on these. And the fact that we achieved that with such amazingly disparate science organizations, each with their own views of things in their own territories, is a pretty strong testament to how important everybody felt. These questions were. 

Matthew, let me ask you and direct this question to you. So then the questions, the responses come in. Anything strike you? Anything? Anything surprising about what they said? I mean, I, I was surprised at Mitt Romney’s answers were longer than Barack Obama’s. 

Yeah, I was surprised by that, too. I thought it was very interesting. I am I can’t say I was surprised by any of the answers, really. But, um, you know, the thing that surprises me about this, I mean, Sean speaks about how how supportive the big organizations have been and how supportive most scientists have been. But it’s also surprising to me how there are a number of people in our community, in the science community who raise objections to this. 

And that that I find odd because I think there’s so many good reasons for doing this other than just what those particular answers are. Just in the in the matter of raising the profile of science and this is this is that the occasional nit picking about why the presidential candidates would never do that? Never doing probably debate I find difficult to take sides. 

Well, it’s maybe because people are just kind of congenitally addicted to contrarianism. I mean, what is the what is the argument that actually people are making that the people knock this effort? 

I mean, what’s wrong with putting more information about science policy out there? I don’t know. What was the argument? 

Well, the argument is that they don’t know anything about science. And therefore, what’s the point in listening to them talking about science policy towards both Sean and I have often replied, well, they don’t know any about economics. They’re not economists. They don’t when they’re about religion. They’re not pastors or philosophers. But they’ll talk about religion, all the lesson this time. So, you know, they can do this. And then, of course, there’s the other argument. The voters aren’t interested in science, which they which, as Sean has mentioned, we we did a poll very much showed that wasn’t true. I think the politicians are lagging behind the public on this. 

The question that I think drew the most attention, not surprisingly, was Mitt Romney’s answer on climate change. It seemed to signal maybe a change in position and maybe showing you can address this. He said humans are contributing to global warming, but he also said there’s a lack of scientific consensus on the issue. What was the what was the reaction on that one? 

Well, people did feel that he had changed position because in late 2011, October 2011, think Progress had caught him at a at a Pennsylvania public event where he was saying, we don’t know what causes climate change. And the idea of spending trillions of dollars on something like that where we don’t know what the causes is, not the right path for us. So this which in itself was a change from what he had said in June of last year where he was saying, we do know that the climate is changing. We know that humans contribute to it. We just don’t know how much. And you’ll probably remember four days after that, he got slammed by Rush Limbaugh, who said the whole thing is a hoax. So last year’s establish that the idea of manmade global warming is a hoax. So by buying nomination, Mitt Romney. So I think that that Romney was moderating his rhetoric as he went through the nomination process. And it’s probably not a surprise that he waited until the day after the RNC to give us his answers on that and take a pivot on it. And once again, now acknowledge that humans are causing climate change, but still try to straddle the line and go back into a.. Science when he says that there’s no consensus, which is just not true. 

Are there any issues? And I’ll direct this to Matthew. But either of you can take it. Are there any issues where you think the contrast between them is very sharp? 

Because I noted that certainly they both talk very positively about innovation. Let’s talk very positively about education. When you get on to those kinds of topics. 

So where’s the real. You know, if you’re voting on science, if you’re a science voter, which I am, I don’t know how many people are what would be the issues where you really would distinguish the candidates? 

I think should be better. John’s like, you don’t mind, just sit someone close it. 

No. Well, for me, the difference is more philosophical. 

Obama tends to take an approach that government investment in research, as we have over the last 50 years, will produce economic growth because it will take the risk that private industry can’t afford to take. And then private industry can come in and capitalize on those new discoveries and commercialize them and move the economy forward. Sort of like we did, for instance, when particle physicist invented the World Wide Web. Romney’s approach throughout most of the questions thematically has been regulation is bad and really some regulation is good, but a lot of times is bad and that the best way that we can stimulate scientific innovation and economic activity is to unburden corporations from excess regulations so that they have the time and ability to invest in research. And once we unfetter the private industry, we’ll see a lot of advances. He even uses that answer in areas like his answer to water quality, that we have too many regulations protecting water quality and we need to deregulate. And I’m not sure how that’s going to get us better water quality. But it’s show it’s a good example of kind of his thematic approach. So I would say that that there are two philosophical differences are the sharpest contrasts because they flow throughout each answer. 

See, I knew Sean should answer that question. 

So let me let me let me go further on that, because I think that’s really important. Reading the questions, I didn’t find Romney ever saying, okay, I did find I agree with you, Obama saying that, you know, science investment produces all these wonderful dividends for society, more than probably more than Romney. But I didn’t ever find Romney saying, you know, don’t invest in science. I actually I found him knocking Obama’s clean energy investments. But on the other hand, Romney doesn’t seem to be against clean energy either. 

He just seems to be against what he calls 90 billion that Obama get. So it’s not like he’s he’s not going to, like, defund science. Not according to anything that he says here. 

No, not a card. Anything says here. There’s a lot of questions about the Paul Ryan budget, which he says he endorses, which does defund a lot of discretionary spending. Ryan, particularly, he he values basic research, but not applied. And that’s an issue that scientists are concerned about. But in these answers here, no, Romney seems like he is very supportive of science. He’s very clear. And and in some cases, quite visionary in his answers about how we should tackle some of these questions. 

Were there any other Matthew over there near that were controversial? 

I mean, I was I was tipped off by both of their responses on vaccinations where they completely dodged the issue of the fact that, you know, people are kind of creating a public health risk out there when they’re not vaccine their kids. And at some point, if that gets bad enough, I mean, it might end up being an issue that has to be addressed nationally. 

You know, that is that is shocking. I agree that they didn’t give their full support to that. Yeah, it it’s it is a sort of a general thing, as Sean was saying, that there’s just a slight philosophical difference about what I would say is that this what were in this conversation, what we’re what we’re really talking about is the need for a debate, because it’s very easy to give these questions, which are fascinating. 

And one hopes, one, that we’ll be able to hold them to their positions and question them later. One would hope that the debate moderators would take their answers to our questions and ask them to to, you know, to go into more detail. But until you have a debate, it’s very hard to really. You know, clarify and show the contrasts beyond mere statements. And that’s why I think Sean and I are very eager to plan for a real face to face debate in the midterms, in the congressional budget, but in the presidential elections and next time around. 

Matthew Yaara, I know I said this last time I interviewed you or if I didn’t, I was incredibly remiss. You’re actually related to Charles Darwin. Why no evolution question in here? I mean, I know behind the scenes, you must admit, asking that of yourselves. 

It is true. 

We did ask ourselves that question and where there were other questions that had to do with religion. I think one of them was. What will you do if your faith comes in conflict with scientific evidence? 

I would have been a great question and I think there was a sort of a diplomatic decision to avoid that because it might be so difficult for the things that certain elements of the candidacy tend to address it without upsetting people. 

I would hope the next time around we could have that in partially depending on who the candidate side. 

Sean, you want to add anything there? 

Well, when we started talking to the science organizations, too, they they felt pretty strongly that we should really be focusing on policy. And there is a good argument to be made that that has to do with a candidate’s approach to policy questions. And that’s what democracy is supposed to be about, is faith in decisions on evidence. 

But overall, especially with the evolution question, we felt it would produce predictable answers. And that being a state level question, there was little that the president was going to be doing to solve the evolution debate. So we decided that we wanted to really focus on those policy areas that the president really dealt with. And I did want to back up one of Matthew’s points about how they dodged some questions. And I was particularly disappointed that they both dodged the second half of the climate change question, which everybody involved in science debate and all the science organizations felt was the most important part of the question. And that was what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries? Because so many of the big policy challenges that we are facing have to do with this conflict between individual, the power that science is given to individuals and the collective effect that those individual actions are having on the planet. And those effects cross national boundaries. And we are constantly getting stuck on that because we have no real forum for solving them. So it was unfortunate that they dodged that in Matthew’s point. That live debate would allow follow up on something like that I think is critical. 

You know, it’s very interesting. I love that Sean brought that up because I think that this is something that is unique about science to me, is that it’s it is a domestic issue. It is a foreign issue. And it is both. I mean, it’s a global and a global attitude has to be adopted to solve a lot of these problems. And I think that there’s no bigger issue in in the world today than how people cooperate globally to these big issues. 

So I think what Sean said was beautiful. 

And again, let me just remind our listeners, in case they haven’t seen him yet, a case they haven’t gone yet. Go to science debate, dawg, and you can find the candidates actual policy positions on science on 14 questions that were produced to this process that Matthew and Sean and others organized. 

OK. So I understand and this is new. We didn’t do this in 2008. Right. There’s going to be some sort of grading of their responses. I read that somewhere. Does that mean that the science community is effectively giving kind of candidates scorecards? 

Yes, in some ways. I mean, we are we’re a five or Wannsee three. 

So we are being very careful with that process and we’ve outsourced it. We’ve we’ve we’ve offshore to to to two Scientific American who we recruited as our media partner for this project. And that was one of the reasons that we did it, because it actually gave us a very nice check and balance with. They had no role in developing the questions or or asking them of the candidates. And we are not getting involved in grading the answers except to the extent that we are going to be talking about the grades. And in several science experts that happen to be members of some of the organizations, from my understanding, were part of the science advisory group that Scientific American put together to answer this or to great these questions. So it’s good. That’s going to be pretty interesting that those are going to be coming out on October 16th, which is the date that the November issue of Scientific American comes out and just right after this show airs. 

So we can’t have our hand about that. But that will that will create clearly another news blip maybe for all of this. So that would be good. You knew that? Of course. 

And Sean, maybe I’ll ask you this, too, because I saw you wrote about at Huffington Post, you asked Congress questions. I don’t know if you asked them the same questions. I didn’t really quite understand that. But, I mean, here it they flunked in their response rate, at any rate. 

Right. I mean, you got very little feedback. Yeah. 

Well, that’s that’s sort of maybe predictable from the kind of difficulty that we had launching just the idea of a science debate in 2008. Now we’re moving into a new venue, Congress. We asked the chairs and ranking members every committee in the House and Senate that has to do with science to answer a subset of the questions, just eight. 

So those questions are the one that most had to do with Congress. And out of the 30 or 35 people, roughly three dozen people that we asked. Ultimately, we got eight responses and the rest either ignored us. The vast majority of them ignored numerous calls and e-mails. 

Some of them, like Speaker Boehner, turned us down outright. 

Mm hmm. So this is odd to me, though, in the sense that if they’re on these committees, they must have already made statements or are done a lot of things on a lot of these issues. Right. 

Well, you’d think so, and you’d think that it wouldn’t be that hard, because not only are they on the committees, they’re chairing the committees. These are leadership. These are the people that are running the U.S. science enterprise because they control the purse strings to the NSF, to the d.A. We to NIST, to all kinds of, ah, science investment. They constantly get debriefed by scientists and by administrators. They have access to all the science information that the country generates. 

So you would think that it would be that difficult for them to do this. But then again, you know, there’s only nine people with a professional background in science or engineering in Congress right now. There’s two hundred twenty two lawyers. 

So score for the lawyers. Score for the lawyers. Right. 


So, you know, I guess, you know, this is this is enraging enough that maybe I should ask you to just let’s give kudos to the eight that did respond. 

Who were they named? At least some of them. 

Well, we’re actually going to be releasing all of that on the 16th as well. 

I see. OK, fair enough. Well, then I won’t make you tip your hand. So let me let me let me just, you know, wrap up here by asking what I think is the big picture question. 

And maybe maybe you can both take a crack at it. 

No, let let let me backtrack there. I guess I can tell you I can tell you who, because we’re not going to publish their answers. Some of their answers are actually very fascinating. But the people that did respond are. Senator Feinstein. Congressman Bishop. 

Senator Harkin. Congressman Hall. Congressman Mica. Congresswoman Pelosi. Congressman Van Hollen. Congressman Waxman and Senator Rockefeller. 

So it cuts across party, which I was very happy to see because we’ve had a tendency among many in the Republican Party these days to be on kind of the wrong side of science and a lot of issues. So I was very happy to see that maybe we’re moving away from that, but we just need to have more conversation and more response from some people. 

So in conclusion, this is what I wrote about this in Unscientific America with Cheryl Kernot. You know, to make. And I want you both to take a crack at this to make candidates talk about science. At least I argued. But I don’t think you disagree with me. 

You can’t say it’s a moral obligation. You should because it’s for the good of the country. And very smart people in this country say that you should you have to say you should do it because it’ll like help you win votes. 

In other words, make it in their self-interest to do it, because that’s obviously what really politicians are responding to, especially when they’re campaigning. So can we really make that case at this point that it helps politicians to talk about science? Because I think that that remains the hurdle. I mean, there’s one thing. Do they believe it helps them another? Nothing. Does it objectively help them? But I don’t know that they think either is true. 

If I may take up the issue, indubitably have a better answer, they should go laugh. I think the question isn’t whether, you know, whether they feel they ought to or should or they’re going to profit from it. 

I believe the one science debate has to do is create a situation where if they don’t don’t have the questions, it’s going to reflect badly on them. And I think that our poll showed this tremendous interest in from from from the people to wanting to hear this conversation about science. If we can make that clear to them at some point in the future, become impossible not to talk about these things, because it’s it’s absurd not to be talking about the most important issues that are going to affect people and their children. Last I would like said, I believe it’s possible, perfectly possible, because the science is can be a great deal of fun and very interesting to make a debate that is actually kind of entertaining. You will want to go and be a part of a celebration of scientific achievement and advances in health and technology and so on. So it should become not just the debate, but a celebration. And I think that would be a hard thing for politicians to refuse to to celebrate the achievements of the scientific citizens. 

It’s got to be a hell of a lot better than the first debate this time. Well, I think to echo what Matthew said, it can be exciting. 

And and it’s about painting a big vision of leadership for the future where we need to go as a country. I think you’re absolutely right that politicians will only do what they think is going to get them elected or keep them all good witness when they’re in a campaign. They don’t have time or resources to spend on anything else. And anything else is a risk. Their one job, if they’re doing it right, is to get elected. But that said, there is a lot that we can do. That poll is one of them that shows that voters actually are interested in this and think the candidates should debate these topics and would make a decision based on this. I think there’s a lot of confirmation bias going on since so many politicians were away from science class in their life as best class was in a little. Nobody’s interested just like they are, but our polling shows us not true. 

And I think that part of what we try to do is to build more public interest in this question. And to the extent that we can do that, we’re actually helping the conversation in a lot of ways. And even if we don’t get into it, we’re getting people talking about these issues and why science is important. And that is critical as we go forward, because everybody’s life is affected by all these big science issues. 

And that’s only going to get more and more affected as we go forward into this science dominated 21st century. 

Well, I couldn’t agree with that more. And so on that note, I mean, that’s why I wanted to have you on. That’s why I want to raise consciousness about this as much as possible. 

So I want to thank you both for what you’ve done. And I hope that there will be more in the future. Actually, let’s ask one last question, Matthew. What is the future? What are we going to see in the next campaign? 

Well, I think I was going to say it would be remiss of me not to mention this, that, as you may remember from the 2007 2008 campaign, the way this was put together was by completely a volunteer group of people. This case largely shown tremendous amount of work’s gone into it. 

I think if we could find someone to finances so that we could spend more time on this and employ people full time to promote the cause, we could really genuinely achieve a presidential debate in the next election. I think that that’s the that’s the real truth of the matter is, you know, we get closer and closer and closer. We get so much more respect this time than last time. And I always say that, you know, if you imagine what the presidential candidates must have thought when they were first invited to have debates on religion, imagine what a minefield that must have seemed to them. And yet they did it because they had to. And there is a way to frame this so that they really have to do this, because these are real, real, really important issues that are going to affect everybody. 

Well, you guys have come a long way with, you know, spit and sealing wax. So I congratulate you need some heavy dollars. 

OK. So I’ll end with the ask. Okay. Well, maybe that we have a listener who can accommodate you. 

So, you know, guys, great work. 

And let’s see if we hear any more about science in these next couple debates. Thanks for everything that you do. Great to be here talking with you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join the discussion about today’s show. You can visit us at point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

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Chris Mooney