Actually, this election it’s still the economy, but that’s no reason to not worry about where the candidates stand on scientific issues. Jennifer Ouellette has combed through statements by both Barak Obama and John McCain and produced a nice summary. She finds pluses and minuses for McCain: e.g. he supports increased funding for alternative energy, R&D tax credits for companies, but at the same time he supports off-shore drilling and makes no mention of the importance of basic research. (Note that a number of the pluses are related to statements on climate change, a stance which is considerably weakened by choosing a running mate who denies that climate change is caused by humans.)
One big problem with getting at all excited about McCain’s science policies is summed up in Ouellette’s opening comment about Obama:
Unfortunately for McCain, the soundest of his science-based policies are also addressed by Barack Obama — in far more detail, and in far more sweeping, forward-thinking ways.
Indeed, go take a look at his website, or his answers to the questions from Science Debate 2008. It seems clear that, for Obama, science and technology are integral parts of the issues that need to be addressed by the president, while for McCain, they’re an afterthought; something he’ll talk about if he has to.
Now, as I said at the top, the economy is much more of an issue than, say, basic science funding. So why is it important that the president understand science issues? One answer is that, while it isn’t the most important issue, it is still important; and that is certainly true. A better answer, though, is that economics is, itself, a science; the dismal science, perhaps, but still a science. Understanding what can and needs to be done about the current economic crisis requires one to use many of the essential pieces of the scientific toolbox: empirical data, modeling, criticism of ones own ideas, attempting (and hopefully failing) to disprove a hypothesis. Obama shows that he understands not just scientific results but also the process through which they are attained. He may or may not be able to turn around the economic problems we’re facing, but from the point of view of this scientist, he has a much better chance than McCain.
As just one example, consider their views on sex-education. From Obama’s website:
Barack Obama is an original co-sponsor of legislation to expand access to contraception, health information and preventive services to help reduce unintended pregnancies. Introduced in January 2007, the Prevention First Act will increase funding for family planning and comprehensive sex education that teaches both abstinence and safe sex methods.
While a statement from the McCain campaign says (I couldn’t find a statement on this issue on McCain’s website):
Senator McCain believes the correct policy for educating young children on this subject is to promote abstinence as the only safe and responsible alternative.
Sean Carroll, at Cosmic Variance, sums this up:
I don’t especially enjoy constantly bashing the modern Republican Party and contrasting them unfavorably with Democrats. There certainly is a respectable intellectual case to be made for small-government conservatism, and even if I didn’t agree with all of the particulars, it would be interesting and worthwhile to engage in policy debates from the perspective of mutual intellectual respect. Nor do I especially think that Democratic politicians, as a group, are anything to be that excited about. But at the current moment, the Republicans have so cheerfully given into anti-intellectualism and cultural backwardness that there isn’t much to have a debate about.
So, while it maybe be true that it’s the economy; it’s also true that the economy is the science, stupid.
Note: Another nice collection of information about McCain’s views on science was collected by Thomas Levenson in his post “Does John McCain Hate Science?”.