At some point in this endless process of selecting a president, I believe there must be a presidential debate solely on the subject of science. Nothing could be more important for the survival of our planet.
We have reached a stage in our development where, to quote sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, humans are "the first species in the history of life to become a geological force." Through industrial pollution, the destruction of our rain forests, over-fishing, over-hunting and so on, we can destroy just about all life on earth. This is a problem that cannot be solved without an understanding of science, most specifically biology.
A publication of the National Academy of Sciences states: "The evolution of all the organisms that live on earth today from ancestors that lived in the past is at the core of genetics, biochemistry, neurobiology, physiology, ecology, and other biological disciplines. It helps to explain the emergence of new infectious diseases, the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, the agricultural relationships among wild and domestic plants and animals, the composition of the earth's atmosphere, the molecular machinery of the cell, the similarities between human beings and other primates, and countless other features of the biological and physical world. As the great geneticist and evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, "˜Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.'"
And yet, three Republican candidates have said they do not believe in it. Even George W. Bush believes "the jury is still out on evolution." That someone this scientifically backward was elected to such a powerful position at such a critical time is perhaps the most astonishing anachronism in modern American political life. Such a thing must not be allowed to happen again. Given all of the scientific challenges that face us, we must elect a president with a basic understanding of 21st Century science.
The format of the debate could be very simple. I would suggest a panel of four or five scientists who specialize in a range of disciplines from microbiology and medicine to the composition of the earth's atmosphere. I think if the scientists were famous, it would be more persuasive and attractive. A few Nobel prizewinners would lend credibility to the enterprise, but you would also need a scientific populist, someone like Gina Kolata, who writes about many aspects of science for the New York Times. Her job would be to translate and moderate if the scientific lingo became too arcane or the questioning too intense.
None of the candidates should know in advance what questions they might face. Not knowing the questions in advance would force them to study as much science as possible, and this in itself would be a marvelous thing. However, a statement would be read at the start stating that no one expects politicians to understand every aspect of the many scientific disciplines. The debate's tone would try not to be adversarial, but cordial and educational. It could even be fun.
There is a secondary, but perhaps equally important reason for this debate, which is that no discussion of science can really occur without an understanding of the scientific method. This could not help but lead to a conversation on the uses of reason and logic in the making of political decisions versus the uses of faith.
There is, of course, a chance that some of the candidates would refuse to accept the invitation to this debate, but an RSVP in the negative would in and of itself tell us a great deal: why on earth (I chose those three preceding words with care) would a candidate turn his back on the opportunity to learn more about science?