Some of you who follow the Dynamic Earth blog have probably already taken notice of this, but I figured I would add a post here as well. Science Debate 2008 is a grassroots program designed to get the presidential candidates of 2008 to debate scientific issues. You can sign the online petition (as I have done) if you want. However, in last months Nature, there was an editorial, a column, and a few letters all addressing this issue.
They focused on both sides of the concept of politicians debating sciences. Some of the benefits are obvious. Science is better represented in political circles which could mean easier funding and less restrictive legislation. Not to mention it would be nice to not have a president who "hasn't made up [his] mind" on the whole evolution thing. They also raise some concerns. Most notable is that science is not a democracy and having politicians debate science could perpetuate this misconception. They also discuss how claiming that science and technology "may be the most important social issue of our time" is a bit disingenuous. Primarily because science itself is not a social issue. It can be a defining factor to inform political debate, but by itself it isn't a social issue.
One of the pieces rightly asks "what will this debate change?" The answer most likely is not much, it will be fun to watch, but it would most likely not be a major factor of consideration for most of the populace. The key factor to look at here is scientific literacy. One of my profs. once informed our lecture hall that maybe 2% of his students will continue on to become scientists or engineers. While the optimist in me thinks that is low, and I don't know where he got the statistic, I have to concede the point that most Americans remain blissfully ignorant of the scientific happenings around them. As reported by the New York Times and the Public Library of Science, a large majority (80-83%) of the population are scientifically illiterate. These reports were published in 2005 and 2006. This statistic is evidenced in the constant repetition of the "only a theory" argument of fundamentalists.
The best way to combat this problem of the publics lack of understanding would be to educate them. Unfortunately, speaking from experience, most people when they reach college do not need to take many science courses. A freshman level introduction to a science may very well be the last course of science that a student is exposed to. After that, any interest in science might be fulfilled by whatever the discovery channel decides to show (which for some reason keeps airing programs about ghosts, sasquatch, cloning dinosaurs [to study behavior], and other pseudo-scientific shows). I understand the purpose of these programs is to entertain, but the harm they are doing is immense.
People who think like this should not have an input into what goes into science. They need to be educated as to what is science first and foremost. This job falls on faculty at universities. There are two problems with this though. First, introductory level science classes come at a part of a students life when they are distracted by recent changes (ie they are free to do what they wish, getting ready for their "real" lives, study what they want). This leads students to find a lot of introductory classes outside their subject areas to be boring, or a waste of time. (I once had construction technology students complain that they don't need to know geology to build a dam! I explained case histories to show them the error of their ways, but a week later they were complaining about not needing to know about landslides... needless to say I failed to show them the importance of geology to building things on earth). Which leads to the second problem, a lot of the faculty (at least here) have odd ideas about teaching introductory level courses. I have seen the whole gamut of craziness, from profs. who try and condense a 4 yr program of study into 16 weeks (complete with final exam questions involving constructing structural cross sections through the Basin and Range) to demonstrate "Rocks for Jocks" is a misnomer, all the way to profs who just teach about shale (most boring labs ever... don't get me wrong shale is neat, but 16 weeks where that is the underlying focus of lab wears a bit thin).
What there needs to be, is a science class for non-scientists. There have been programs that have done this on a small scale (class size ~30 students), and it seems to work. The whole point is not to feed students facts and theories about a particular science, but to show them how science operates. Beyond that, specialization in a particular science may be in order (like a friend and I have discussed what an ideal curriculum would be for the aforementioned construction technology students. Labs and problems directly related to those fields, like: I would like to build a dam and here is a stratigraphic profile of the area, where should I build it?) An added benefit to this would be to integrate the earth sciences with other departments. This could be critical in keeping earth sciences programs intact (ie relevant to the university), especially considering typically small student populations majoring in earth science.
In the end, a scientific debate would (in my opinion) not necessarily enhance the scientific literacy in the country (on the contrary it may hurt it). But I think raising the issue is the more important objective of Science Debate 2008. If politicians become aware of this problem, it could be a first step in addressing the overall problem of scientific illiteracy in this country.
Nature article: Best Tests for candidates (subscription required)
Nature column: A Debatable Proposition (subscription required)
Nature letters: Both letters are on the page (subscription required)