Pushing for a Science Debate

Journalists join effort to convince the candidates

The day after the New Hampshire primary, the CEO of Clean Air-Cool Planet, an environmental group, contributed an op-ed to London’s Daily Telegraph in which he asserted that, “The press hasn’t reported on it but the real story from last night’s election may be how important global warming was for the voters of New Hampshire…”

As appealing as the claim may be, it’s hard to believe - not only because it’s not born out in exit polls and other reporting, but also because the press has clearly taken a new, if tentative, interest in how climate and energy issues are affecting voters. Take the editorial published by The Detroit Free Press on Sunday outlining the candidates’ various positions on science and environmental issues. It was nothing ambitious - at least a dozen other outlets have published such breakdowns, and the Freep’s was shorter than most. Nevertheless, the mere presence of such an editorial in the Motown paper - which supports a carbon tax, but loves its auto industry and opposes strict fuel economy standards - says something about the nascent import of global warming, and science generally, to this presidential election. And the paper’s climate concern raises an even more intriguing question about whether the press has done due diligence with regard to global warming and the campaign.

The Free Press didn’t break any news about candidates’ opinions on these issues. But since Grist’s early work cataloging this information, which included interviews with almost every candidate, even the most determined of recent efforts (such as this one from Science) failed to gain access to the hopefuls themselves. Most publications have relied on the candidates’ official Web sites, campaign lackeys, and former colleagues for material. Recently, however, as if fed up with going it alone, some members of the press have begun to team up with other professionals-politicians, scientists, academics, and captains of industry-who also think this campaign needs a more specific and extensive discourse on science and environmental issues. (It should be noted, however, that most of the journalists who have signed on are top editors, rather than beat reporters covering the campaign, and their participation comes more from a genuine belief that these issues are vital to the nation’s future, than from the journalistic pursuit of new intel.)

“Candidates are awfully careful in that kind of situation,” Science’s editor, Donald Kennedy said, referring to news outlets’ attempts to profile candidates’ positions on science. “I think there are good reasons for wanting to have it in debate format, like pressure from other candidates and the presence of a moderator. Hopefully, that would get candidates to come forward with some views that they might otherwise be reluctant to express.”

The levee of frustration broke, so to speak, in early December, when eleven Nobel laureates, two dozen other distinguished scientists, the leaders of a number of pre-eminent scientific organizations and universities, business leaders, writers, and elected officials from both major parties released a petition demanding a presidential debate devoted to science. Underpinning the call is the argument that the U.S. is falling behind in the global economy by not investing more in scientific research and innovation. Among the early signatories were Science’s Kennedy and Scientific American editor John Rennie, who is also on the group’s steering committee. Since then, a number of other journalists have attached their names, including the editors of Nature, The New Republic, The Scientist, and Skeptical Inquirer, and Ira Flatow, from NPR’s Science Friday. The number of signatures has now grown to 6,223, according to a “partial” list on the group’s Web site, www.sciencedebate2008.com.

Despite the inclusion of such illustrious science journalists, however, the press has hardly covered the petition in the news pages. Instead, it has been left to some of the signatories to promote the cause on opinion pages. Varying renditions of the argument for a science debate have appeared in the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, New Scientist, and Salon. For the most part, reporters have avoided this story. Lawrence Krauss, an astrophysicist and Case Western University and Shawn Lawrence Otto, a screenwriter, (both steering committee members) have written most of the op-eds.

“It hadn’t occurred to me that any of the press figures involved in the science debate petition might be strategic and an attempt to get more leverage,” Rennie wrote in a an email, responding to an inquiry from CJR. “I suppose that’s possible, but at the risk of sounding naive, my own motives and those of the other journalists and writers involved in the drive seem disconnected from any particular journalistic ambitions to pry more information from the candidates. We want to do it because we sincerely think it would be good for the sake of the country for the voters to hear the candidates hash out their positions on matters of science and technology policy.”

There have been a few example of news coverage. The most thorough report came from Wired in early December, just days after the petition was released online. Stressing the difficult, if not impossible, goal of convincing the candidates to engage in such a debate, Sarah Lai Stirland called the petition a “quixotic, last-minute effort” in her lead, although farther down in the piece she acknowledges the increasingly robust list of signatories. John Tierney and Cornelia Dean wrote short posts about the petition on two New York Times blogs, but they probably didn’t get a lot of attention because they were published on Christmas eve and Christmas day, respectively. MSNBC.com’s Alan Boyle also gave it a nod in his own recent round up of the candidates’ scientific track records: “A debate focusing on those issues is so needed … and so unlikely to happen,” he wrote. Three days after the Iowa caucuses, Elizabeth Sullivan wrote a long and thoughtful column for the The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Despite the petition, she wrote, “the nitty-gritty of science policy and technological change that could impact Americans decades from now continues to take a back seat on the campaign trail.”

Finally, last week, Ira Flatow conducted an extensive interview with Shawn Otto, the screenwriter who authored a number of the newspaper op-eds, on NPR’s Science Friday. (Flatow was careful to disclose that he, too, signed the petition.) “The funny thing is, most of the people organizing this are not scientists.” Otto told him. “Because science and technology lie and the center of almost every major policy issue that we’re facing, we feel it deserves a debate of its own, especially since many of the candidates haven’t been able to articulate any kind of position about science policy.”

Otto also told Flatow that the group had fixed neither a date nor a venue for the debate, though it is currently talking with a number of potential sponsors and contributors, including the National Academy of Sciences, which may, he said, serve as host at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. The group does not plan to approach the candidates with the petition until after Super Tuesday (February 5), when twenty-four states will hold their primaries.

This is not the first time in this campaign that somebody has tried to get all the presidential candidates’ together to discuss climate. In mid-November, Grist magazine and the League of Conservation Voters helped organize a presidential forum on global warming and energy. It was not a debate, however; candidates each had ten minutes to make a statement and then took questions from moderators and the audience. The event drew a bit of coverage, but only Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich participated (though all candidates from both parties were invited) and it was not televised. Oddly enough, the League of Conservation Voters justified the forum by saying that the press had not thoroughly pressed candidates on climate and energy issues, even though candidates themselves (the Democrats at least) seemed to be looking for opportunities to bring them up. The league was speaking specifically about television reporters, however, so its thesis does not contradict the argument that the print press has been impeded by a lack of access to the candidates.

Many people, petition signatories and otherwise, clearly think that a science debate is a long shot. Though the press has not always applied itself in as much as it could have in covering the intersection of politics and science, there have been a number of concerted efforts to make the candidates say more, and they met silence. Even thousands of journalists, scientists, academics, politicians, and businesspeople calling in unison for more answers might not be enough.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.