Nor will I belabor my analysis of a second panel I attended—about the increasingly louder call for a presidential science debate—but it is worth a mention. I covered the petition for this debate when it was first released in January. The call has grown more vigorous since then. The petition’s organizers, which includes scientists, journalists, and captain of industry, have even set date—April 18 in Philadelphia—despite the fact that none of the candidates has agreed to participate. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton each sent a representative to the AAAS meeting, however, for what amounted to a pseudo-debate.
Despite the dearth of any substantive argument, the “debate” was wildly popular; the conference room where it was held was bursting at the seems with scientists and reporters, many of them sporting a “Science Debate 2008” button pinned to their shirt fronts. The talk also provoked a decent amount of coverage, but most reporters noted, correctly, that the candidates’ representatives offered nothing more than familiar platitudes. Many articles fell back on the most interesting facet of the “debate” — the strange discrepancy between the older, more distinguished-looking Tom Kahlil, who was there for Clinton, and the younger, more casual Alec Ross on Obama’s side. At one point, a Time magazine reporter turned to me in frustration and asked, “What’s the point of all this if they’re just going to keep pointing us back to [the candidates’] Web sites?” It was a good question, because the event seemed to indicate a combination of things: that demand for a real debate is high within the science an and media communities, but probably not elsewhere; that the Democrats care enough to send reps to AAAS (perhaps to avoid a real debate); and that Republicans, who didn’t send anybody to the Boston meeting, don’t seem to care at all.
As for me, I took away one, unifying message from both the global-warming and science-debate panels: the business of scientific inquiry and research gets messier the more it is politicized. But the more politicized it is, the more the press and the public seem to sit up and pay attention.