Do The Presidential Candidates Recognize What Science Can, And Cannot, Do?

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This election season, voters should be evaluating the presidential candidates' attitudes toward science.

ScienceDebate.org proposes a set of 20 science and science policy questions for all candidates, suggesting that "science impacts voters at least as much as the economic policy, foreign policy, and faith and values candidates share on the campaign trail."

Yet beyond questions about specific scientific issues are broader questions about how each candidate understands the value of science itself. Science is unique among human enterprises in its insistence on systematic observation and reasoning as a means of drawing generalizations about the natural world. Scientific claims are at the mercy of evidence, subjected to constant scrutiny and revised as we learn more. Scientific methodology gives science special authority when it comes to answering empirical questions, an authority that isn't shared by other human endeavors.

But is this an authority that the candidates recognize?

In her speech accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for president, Hillary Clinton affirmed her belief in science, an affirmation that an article in Slate derided as "bizarre," since science shouldn't be a matter of personal or partisan preference: "Science is a fact, and either people acknowledge reality or they do not."

Yet Clinton's affirmation makes sense in the current political context. It's no secret that not all politicians hold science in equal esteem. Republican nominee Donald Trump has offered little in the way of science policy and has questioned scientific consensus. Astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss writes that "for science, research, and their impact on the economy, the election of Trump would simply be a disaster."

When it comes to these attitudes toward science, it's not a straightforward matter of liberal versus conservative. Another article in Slate describes Green Party candidate Jill Stein as "a Harvard-trained physician who panders to pseudoscience." It's a mistake to deny scientific claims the authority they deserve (as Trump has done), but it can be just as deadly to confer that authority where it doesn't belong (on pseudoscience).

A related mistake comes from thinking that science — on its own — can settle questions of policy. As I've written about before, science can answer empirical questions that should inform policy decisions, but the policy decisions themselves aren't just a matter of science — they typically involve complex trade-offs between different risks and benefits, and evaluating those trade-offs is also a matter of values.

Vetting candidates on their views about specific scientific issues is clearly important — policies related to energy, innovation, education, water and beyond will profoundly shape the coming century. But the only constant in science is change. As science progresses, technology advances, and local and global issues take new forms, politicians will confront new challenges that science can inform, and we need to know that our future president will face those challenges with an appropriate appreciation for what science can — and cannot — do.

Some of ScienceDebate's 20 questions for candidates do get at more basic issues about the process of doing science, including scientific funding and how to preserve the integrity of science. But to complement their list, here are three more questions for today's presidential candidates, questions about the nature of science itself:

  1. Science is one of the most successful human enterprises. What do you think accounts for this success? What would you do to ensure the continued success of science during your term and beyond?
  2. Do you think science has special authority when it comes to answering certain kinds of questions? If so, what kinds of questions? How will you ensure that your decisions are based on the best answers to these questions? In particular, how will you differentiate good science from bad science and pseudoscience? (If this is a matter of having good scientific advisers, how will you select those advisers?)
  3. There are some questions that science cannot answer — either because it is insufficiently advanced or because the questions are, in principle, beyond the scope of science. Can you provide examples of questions of each type, and explain how science will — or will not — influence the way you approach those questions?

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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