Unfortunately, There’s Nothing in the First GOP Debate Not to Discuss

NCSE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so we can’t endorse candidates. Exactly what that entails is tricky, but it means we generally don’t jump in on campaign events. What happened at last week’s first Republican primary debate is so important as to make that moot.

Because they simply didn’t talk about science.

If they had been asked about climate change, or evolution (as in this classic moment from the 2008 campaign), we would have some hard choices to make. Would criticizing some candidates and praising others for getting the science right really cross into the realm of endorsing their election? Would IRS auditors come knocking? (My take would be: “no” and “I hope not,” respectively.)

But in the event, the question wasn’t asked, and when science-adjacent questions were raised, the candidates didn’t take the bait. In the pre-debate debate among the 7 lowest-polling candidates, Lindsay Graham was asked: “You worked with Democrats and President Obama when it came to climate change—something you know is extremely unpopular with conservative Republicans. How can they trust you based on that record?” Graham insisted he would distinguish himself from the Democratic nominee on the basis of policy, not by fighting over the science. That would be a welcome change from past presidential campaigns, to be sure, and is far more helpful than the noxious “I’m not a scientist” talking point.

In the main event, Mike Huckabee brushed up against science when asked how he’d appeal to the majority of Americans who disagree with his views on abortion and marriage equality. In the course of his reply, he took a digression into embryology, claiming that a zygote is “a person at the moment of conception…because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on.” My geneticist friends on Twitter were in utter confusion at that terminology, and it isn’t simply a debate tongue-fumble. He repeats it on his website, writing: “Life begins at conception, the science on that is actually settled. At the moment of conception, 23 male and 23 female chromosomes create a new DNA schedule. The DNA that is created at conception is the same DNA that will exist in each human for the rest of his or her life.” It still isn’t clear where this “DNA schedule” phrase comes from, or how it would address the metaphysics of personhood, but at least he counted the chromosomes correctly.

Neither incident really speaks to the candidates’ appreciation of science, how they would grapple with new scientific findings, or how they would evaluate conflicting scientific claims (how will they tell whether there’s a real scientific dispute? If there is, how will they proceed given that uncertainty? If there isn’t, how will they break a tie?). Given that none of the candidates are scientists (and even if they were, that wouldn’t make them experts on all sciences), where would they turn for guidance? While I have preferences about how I’d want my candidate to answer, this is an issue where voters would learn a lot about a candidate from a few good questions.

As an example of the critical importance of this sort of question, consider the Iranian nuclear proliferation treaty which the US and its allies negotiated. US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz was at the heart of the negotiations, because the treaty rests on the technical details of the verification program. Whether the inspections and monitoring would be sufficient to prevent development of nuclear weapons involves intimate understanding of fissile materials and how they are manipulated and engineered for weapons as opposed to energy production, and how to detect the end-products of that work. In the end, the President can’t be expected to evaluate those details, but must rely on the judgment of specialists and make an informed policy choice.

Decisions about education and public health, energy and innovation, trade and the economy, justice and national security all require a similar ability to draw on scientific and technical expertise, to understand and assess scientific disagreements (and refer them to the right specialists, separate scientific disagreement from ideology, etc.), and an ability to make decisions when scientific information is incomplete.

How the next President will choose such specialists, assess disagreements among them at critical moments, and move forward if the science is ambiguous (or even seems to conflict with their values) is critical for voters to understand. We deserve a science debate.