The Presidential Candidates Respond to Science Questions, Weirdly Appear to Take Them Seriously

Obama, looking sciencey.

Though you won’t see the two major party nominees donning lab coats behind their podiums (podia?) hurling beakers at each other, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney participated in a “debate” on science-related issues. Well, more like their campaigns submitted written responses on science policy questions to the ScienceDebates.org organization, which were recently posted on their website.

The good news is that it looks like the campaigns took these questions fairly seriously. In fact, it is Romney’s answers that, on the whole, often provide a touch more detail and, at the very least, more raw verbiage in terms of word count. But generally these are not throwaway answers designed to talk about something else (mostly), especially notable considering the format and the American political attention span, represented here by this period:

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(Actual size.)

Of course, with its detail, it’s a pretty damned dull read, but I found a few choice bits that I thought the Friendly Atheist readership may find interesting (you guys like science, right?), and even a tad revealing.

The format was simple — ScienceDebates presented questions, and the campaigns answered them, and those answers were posted side-by-side in columns on the website.

The portion of the questionnaire that presented the biggest contrast was, not surprisingly, on climate change. Obama touted his administration’s various around-the-edges efforts to deal with emissions and the like, but failed to note (of course) the huge failure that was an attempt at cap-and-trade legislation, botched so badly a couple of years ago (and documented brilliantly here by Ryan Lizza).

Romney parroted the usual line about a “lack of scientific consensus,” though perhaps with less ignorant fervor than he might in the GOP primary:

I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.

Okay, fine. Then Romney takes the interesting tack of hitting the president, not for trying to deal with climate change, but for being unfocused and for not acknowledging the role of other economies:

Nowhere along the way has the President indicated what actual results his approach would achieve — and with good reason. The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. . . . I believe we should pursue what I call a “No Regrets” policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.

That “no regrets” line makes me cringe, but I have to think it might sell well with Americans who are not hardliners on either side of the climate change debate.

In terms of how the candidates would promote “innovation” in science and technology, President Obama made a specific commitment: doubling current funding for “key research agencies.” Which agencies are “key” is not explained. Romney, however, essentially throws out standard GOP talking points as his response (which was his biggest departure from an otherwise well-considered set of answers): The way to inspire and broaden technological innovation? Fix immigration, lower taxes, and cut regulations. Yeah, that should do it.

Later, Romney actually blames the president for holding back development of new medicines to prevent pandemics:

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has taken numerous steps that are stifling medical innovation. He has imposed new taxes on innovative companies. He has empowered bureaucrats to manage the marketplace. His FDA has slowed the drug development process and inserted requirements that drive up the cost of developing new antibiotics.

I have to wonder if this could be a thing later on: Stop Obama before he allows swine flu to destroy your family! He also weirdly accuses Obama of manipulating data, saying, “I will pursue legislative reforms to ensure that regulators are always taking cost into account when they promulgate new rules.” — which presumes that Obama does not.

The questionnaire turns to food safety (how often do you hear that come up?), and where Romney is vague, Obama makes some big assertions:

I signed the most comprehensive reform of our nation’s food safety laws in more than 70 years – giving the Food and Drug Administration the resources, authority and tools needed to make real improvements to our food safety system.

Interestingly, Obama then makes a big deal about encouraging organic farming (“I set the ambitious goal to increase the number of certified organic operations by 20 percent”), the importance of which has been called into question of late, as noted by Sharon Hill.

On space exploration, Obama restates his previous “commitments” to get humans on an asteroid by 2025, Mars in the 2030s, and to the Orion spaceflight project up and running by 2014. “That is progress,” he says. Romney, however, while touting the virtues of space exploration, declares, “A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding.”

. . . it needs clearer priorities. I will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions. There will be a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs.

So, get ready, NASA. Obama will continue to be unclear about his commitments, and Romney absolutely doesn’t want you to get any more funding than you already have. To the stars!

Oh yeah, and what presidential questionnaire would be complete without a shout-out to the development and manufacture of rare-earth materials? Can I get a what-what!

The President:

We are also launching a new, multidisciplinary energy innovation research “hub” to advance our leadership in manufacturing products that rely on rare earth materials and other critical materials. The hub — which will bring together scientists, materials specialists, and others – will aim to develop efficiencies and alternatives that reduce the amount of rare earths that we need as well as develop strategies to ensure that we have a reliable supply of rare earths and other critical materials going forward.

Now that’s my kind of hub.

Now, one thing I thought was an interesting omission, and I feel the questionnaire at least hinted at, was the problem of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. There was plenty of discussion about the benefits of immunizations, the scariness of pandemics, and the power of preventative medicine generally, but no one mentioned the specter of folks who are refusing to allow those immunizations to take place because of, well, a rejection of science.

As I said, it’s a dry read, but there’s quite a bit there, and you can read it all here.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Romney think cold fusion has been “solved”

    I do believe in basic science. I believe in participating in space. I
    believe in analysis of new sources of energy. I believe in laboratories,
    looking at ways to conduct electricity with — with cold fusion, if we
    can come up with it. It was the University of Utah that solved that. We
    somehow can’t figure out how to duplicate it.

  • SwedishLore15

    Romney generally has the longer answers, and some of his answers (specifically the ones relating to climate change) smartly try to appeal to the undecideds instead of taking a more exact position, but I think Obama did better here.  A lot of Romney’s answers, his talking point-full answer to the question of scientific innovation in particular, made me cringe, and his ridicule of Obama’s climate change initiatives at the RNC (“slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet”, designed for a cheap laugh like his birth certificate remarks) told me all I need to know about how seriously he takes that issue.  It doesn’t hurt that I think Obama’s policies are better than Romney’s overall when it comes to their respective positions on the range of issues discussed.

  • Revyloution

    You stand ON a podium,  It’s like a raised platform.

    You stand behind a lectern. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-A-Anderson/100000016895400 John A. Anderson

      Thank you. I logged on comments to say the same thing. Everyone gets that wrong.

      • Revyloution

        Pedants unite!

    • C Peterson

      Yes, but podium and lecturn are also synonyms, so the usage is correct (as would be either podiums or podia).

      • Revyloution

        Some people think they are synonyms in the same way that some people think that evolution is only a theory. 

  • DougI

    Multiple choice Mitt.  He used to be a huge advocate as governor for doing something about climate change.  He worked to try to organize states in the NE to push for standards to limit carbon pollution.  Action on climate change was popular in MA, but since he ran for President he flip-flopped and is now a denier.

    You can’t trust that guy for anything.  He could come out again and admit climate change is real, but he might change his opinion again later that day.

    • kagekiri

      Hey, that’s not fair!

      Mitt’s perfectly dependable if you expect him to a be a lying, spineless coward with values dictated entirely by political expediency. You can definitely depend on him to be a scumbag.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Yes I love puppies!

  • TheG

    What struck me throughout the responses is how Romney, with few exceptions, ruined for me whatever ground he gained on a question when he would turn around and start trashing anything Obama has done.  Obama’s responses showcased what he has done and what he plans on doing.  That seems much more classy.

    I’m a mostly undecided independent, but Romney’s kind of blame the other guy rhetoric really turns me off the candidate.  Especially considering this is the party that has spent the last 3.5 years yelling into any microphone that Obama needs to stop blaming other people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Was having the argument about organic food with my mom a couple days ago. She grew up on a farm and insists that organic farming is cheaper and healthier. That of course only being backed up by anecdotal evidence like “we drank raw milk when I was growing up and it was completely fine!”

  • Laurence A. Moran

    Excuse me?

    This ain’t about science. It’s about technology and innovation and how to keep America great.

    A real science question would be, “Do you accept the fact of evolution?”

  • Ritchie Annand

    I find the rare earth alternative comment intriguing – China’s supply and quotas seem to have been causing some issues already. From a NatGeo article, it sounds like China produces about 95% of rare earth minerals. That’s something you don’t want to be beholden to if you don’t have to be.

    Permanent magnets are one hot research topic. Apparently, the way nickel and iron are present in some meteorites makes for a permanent magnet, but this is particularly hard to duplicate.


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