As Iowans prepare to go caucusing, the journal Science offers a ten-page special report* on four Democrats and five Republicans’ views on science and science policy; the introduction laments that, “So far, with the exception of global warming, [these issues] are not getting much play” in the press. The journal’s editor, Donald Kennedy, spells out the reason they deserve more in the issue’s editorial: r-e-l-i-g-i-o-n. It’s a reactive position, but understandable.
The latest round in the age-old religion-v.-science debate began a little over a year ago, more or less when Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins published “The God Delusion,” advocating a strict brand of atheism. Since then, the debate has become “uncomfortably combustible,” Kennedy writes in his editorial. Although the “new atheists,” as other publications have called Dawkins and his brood, have gained certain ground, faith has pushed back. The press and public have given more than ample attention to the uncertain role that evangelicals will play in the election. Once a key GOP voting bloc, these “values voters” have grown disenchanted with the Republican Party, and though they have not necessarily swung left, Democrats have worked hard since 2004 to court their support. Indeed, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards all speak very comfortably about their faith, something that rankled Science’s Kennedy:
Given this new focus on religious disclosure, what does this U.S. election have to do with science? Everything … We need to know the candidates’ qualifications for understanding and judging science, and for speaking intelligently about science and technology to the leaders of other nations in planning our collective global future. I don’t need them to describe their faith; that’s their business and not mine.
Of course, one might note that Democrats are speaking more about religion at the same time that evangelicals are espousing environmental protection, or “creation care,” as they prefer to call it, with a particular emphasis on thwarting man-made climate change. Any journalists covering this unique political intersection, then, must ask themselves: are liberal politicians embracing faith because conservative voters are embracing the environment, or vice versa? It’s hard to knock the candidates’ faith-based rhetoric if it is encouraging skeptical voters to heed environmental science. It is difficult to say, however, how much Democrats are actually influencing evangelicals (the latter group insists that the “creation care” movement is more organic) and besides, global warming is not the only important science-based issue of the campaign.
Science, which, along with a handful of other top journals, sets the gold standard in the world of peer-reviewed scientific literature, is also known for its robust front-of-the-book news section. Because of this, it is perhaps better placed than many other publications to tease out candidate positions on science other than hot button issues like climate change, stem cells, and evolution. Unfortunately, as Science’s editors point out, none of the campaigns gave them direct access to the candidates themselves. This closeting has plagued all journalists who have sought to press the presidential hopefuls for specifics about scientific issues. Thus, as one might expect, Science’s roundup mostly keeps to the same topics that candidates have been comfortable discussing all along, though it does manage to touch on a few that are less conspicuous. The real strength of the report comes from its reporters’ success in digging up original sources, knowledgeable about the scientific industry, to comment on the candidates’ current views and past behaviors.
It starts with Clinton. The article describes her speech on the fiftieth anniversary of Sputnik’s launch as “the most detailed examination of science policy that any presidential candidate has offered to date.” None of the pieces offer endorsement, however, and in fact, after the initial praise, Clinton’s write-up turns out to be one of the driest of the nine entries, perhaps because of her relatively forthright platform on science.
The dirt on other candidates is crunchier. The piece on John Edwards revives a stinging allegation that surfaced during his 2004 vice-presidential campaign, but has not seen the light of day since. In July of that year, The Washington Times accused Edwards of using “questionable” science to win a number of medical malpractice suits in the 1980s, and the GOP used calls for tort reform to lean on Senate Democrats ahead of the election. This might seem moot in 2008 (many defended Edwards and the argument has simmered), but Science quotes Peter Agre, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, saying that he knows people who would “never” vote for Edwards because of his track record on malpractice litigation.