Thomas R. O'Donnell

To get candidates to debate science, ask the right questions

In Government on May 20, 2019 at 7:19 am
David Courard-Hauri, Dierdre Egan and David Kurns at Drake University for the March for Science Iowa "Science on the Stump" panel.

David Courard-Hauri makes a point at Drake University during the March for Science Iowa “Science on the Stump” panel. Dierdre Egan and David Kurns look on. Photo by Joe Sheehan.

Hordes of candidates are cutting across Iowa, touring ethanol plants and farms and chatting up voters in coffee shops and living rooms.

It’s to up us to get these would-be presidents to take science seriously, leaders in education and agriculture told an Iowa audience at a recent discussion, hosted by March for Science Iowa. We must demand that they support their views with solid research.

The session (which I helped organize) was designed to get Iowans – and, more importantly, journalists and candidates – talking about science, research and evidence-based policy, subjects that usually get little attention on the campaign trail.

It was illuminating discussion, illustrating Iowans’ diverging views on such science-based issues as climate change and water quality. One thing most spoke to: science advocates must change how they address the issues if they’re to gain support from other voters.

The big question is how to do it.

March for Science Iowa collaborated with the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication for the event, “Science on the Stump,” May 3 at Drake’s Olmsted Center. A grant from Science Debate, a nonpartisan organization that promotes political discourse on science issues, financed the discussion.

There were two panels: scientists, educators and experts on the first and Iowa political journalists on the second. (I’ll cover that one in a future post.) The experts were David Courard-Hauri, a Drake environmental science and sustainability professor; Dierdre Egan, a University of Iowa adjunct assistant professor in anthropology and rhetoric and a member of the Iowa City Darwin Day board; David Kurns, editorial content director at Successful Farming magazine; and Paul Lasley, Iowa State University sociology professor and co-investigator for the longtime Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.

I introduced the group and stated the event’s purpose: to put science and science policy on the agenda for the upcoming campaign season – not just for president, but all offices. As I noted in my last post, these matters don’t get much attention. Climate change, for example, was barely mentioned in the 2016 Clinton-Trump presidential debates.

But the moderator, Des Moines Register opinion editor Kathie Obradovich, had a different view. “It’s not just a question of science not being discussed,” she said. “It’s a question of people maybe not giving science the credibility” they used to. She asked the panel for thoughts on how to reverse that trend.

Scientists, Courard-Hauri said, ought not to get involved in particular debates, but to say what they know. Denigration of science makes it difficult to discuss solutions to problems, no matter what people think of them. “We have to keep doing what we’re doing and put things in ways people understand.”

That’s not necessarily the best solution, Egan said. Research has shown that “just providing people with more information does not actually change attitudes toward science or scientists” because they interpret information through the lens of their worldview and ideology. It’s why groups like the Iowa City Science Booster Club want to get scientists into the community, helping people see they aren’t strange, white-coated, ivory-tower dwellers.

“The political spectrum is really important here,” she added. We need the politicians and parties “to demonstrate for the public their trust in science and evidence-based research.”

For Lasley, the question is why “we allow personal values … to overrule or eclipse scientific knowledge.” That’s led to inaction on climate change and a national outbreak of measles due to falling vaccination rates.

“I think ‘keep doing what we’re doing’ has sort of legitimated people to say well, my personal values are more important than what the scientific community” says, he added.

Contributing to that, Obradovich noted, is the media’s declining role as information gatekeeper or filter, downplaying or discarding discredited views. Now anybody can find an audience for their outlying beliefs. That means social media consumers must be more wary of what they read, she added.

“I think ‘keep doing what we’re doing’ has sort of legitimated people to say well, my personal values are more important than what the scientific community.”

People’s tendency to choose media sources based on their political beliefs, Courard-Hauri said, also allows them to say “I’m on the side that believes this about science or I’m on the side that doesn’t believe this about science.”

“Anything we can do to tear down that political binary and actually allow for flourishing of other parties” can help dispel the scientific standoff, he said, letting people join a group that reflects their values but also accepts science.

Obradovich asked panelists how the people they talk with regard climate change. Farmers aren’t a monolithic group with a single position, Lasley said, but he sees climate change skepticism fading among many of them. There are fewer jokes about wishing for global warming during winter’s chill, for example. “My sense is producers are beginning to recognize” that climate change is leading to more extreme weather. “Farmers do want to hear about it, and especially what are we going to do to mitigate some of these very negative consequences.”

Kurns agreed. Most farmers see the effects of climate change, especially on their growing season. They’re losing days in the field to wet springs and more frequent flooding. “You’ve got to cover ground quicker” with bigger equipment to get a crop in over a short time, he said. “Not every farmer can do that,” perhaps forcing some to sell to larger operations. “There’s real financial impact on farmers because of climate change and they know that.”

That pressure can help climate change acceptance despite political winds, Egan said. Farmers are no different from others who feel they’re doing too little to reduce their carbon footprint. “How do we encourage people to make those small steps” when they feel inadequate given the problem’s size and they’re expensive?

The panel also discussed water and air pollution, another contentious science-based issue, and whether it’s a better subject for local, state or federal politics.

Water and air quality are easy-to-grasp subjects, Egan said, and therefore especially appropriate political issues. “Everybody wants to have clean air and everybody wants to have clean water,” she added, “and most people don’t doubt the results of the chemical tests that show your water is contaminated.” That opens the door to discussing environmental sustainability more generally – although the question of who pays to fix the problem remains.

“It’s fair game” for presidential politics, Kurns said. Farmers know water quality is an issue, but “I think they’re scared.” It worries growers that “regulation could be coming if nothing is done.”

“If we’re going to drop the phosphorus and nitrate loads in this state, it’s going to take some incentives to give farmers tools to do it,” Kurns added. “You can’t just say ‘go plant cover crops,’” he added. “That’s a great idea, but that’s going to take $15 an acre” when many farmers already are losing money.

“The question,” Lasley added, “is who should pay? And I think that’s not the question we should be asking.” Everyone has benefitted from agriculture’s current state, whether from cheap pork on our plates or ethanol in our tanks. “Rather than saying it’s a farm problem or a chemical industry problem, it’s all of our problem.” Politicians need to step up and address it that way.

“If we’re going to drop the phosphorus and nitrate loads in this state, it’s going to take some incentives to give farmers tools to do it.”

Meanwhile, Kurns said, farmers also are struggling with the concept of sustainability – the idea of agriculture designed to preserve resources and, thus, its capacity to produce. “Sustainability to farmers today is a little bit what climate change was 10 years ago” – a word with many different definitions, he added. “It’s starting to be a cloud that’s coming down on the farmer.”

In science, “I would like to ask the candidates, what does sustainability mean to you today? Because it’s going to mean something different in 2030,” Kurns said. It’s “a very spongy term that candidates love to throw around because it does have such high ideals.” Farmers need specific standards to aim for, he said.

While scientists typically avoid the political spotlight, Egan said more are getting dragged into debates over climate change, vaccines and more. They also acknowledge that selecting research questions and interpreting data can be a political act, she said, but they work hard to acknowledge and correct for their biases.

Courard-Hauri agreed. Americans aren’t necessarily locked into a partisan understanding of science. “We’re struggling with what is truth, what is evidence and those kinds of things throughout society,” he said, adding, “I strongly believe that long-term, science is not” a partisan issue “and I think we’re going to be moving back in that direction.”

It may require holding politicians accountable. Egan suggested rating politicians on whether their votes are based on evidence, much like the grades such organizations as the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association hand out. Politicians’ outlooks tend to be focused on the short term: winning the next election. Most science-related issues are long-term. Officials will listen to their constituents, so advocates should apply pressure when appropriate, hold politicians officials accountable and point out the economic consequences of their actions.

There’s not an obvious metric to grade elected officials on science-related issues, Courard-Hauri added, but one indicator that they’re using evidence to make decisions “is if they change their stance on things.” Voters often punish politicians for switching positions but one who does so because of new information is “a politician who’s making use of science and evidence. I think that should be strongly supported.”

Lasley sees the environment and science gaining prominence among voter concerns, but “it’s highly related to level of education. It’s highly related to age.” Younger citizens are more focused on climate change and other science-related issues than their elders. “The pendulum is beginning to … swing the other direction” with a recognition that Baby Boomers have failed to address many problems.

Courard-Hauri noted that some surveys found climate change is the No. 1 issue among Democrats. That means environmental issues and the Green New Deal will get some attention – at least in the primaries and perhaps in the general election campaign, too.

“I would like to hear politicians say about any issue … the evidence shows, or I’ve read the studies and the studies show…”

The environment may be the most important political topic for younger voters, Kurns said, but for the farmers he serves, economic issues, such as trade, top their list of concerns – although they recognize technology will have drive their futures.

The bottom line for Egan: “I would like to hear politicians say about any issue … the evidence shows, or I’ve read the studies and the studies show … or the statistics say – I would like that to become part of the language.”

“The danger is that we don’t bring everybody along – that it becomes so strongly associated with Democratic and liberal policies that we don’t make the ramifications or the benefits visible to people on the other side of the political spectrum,” she added.

In the end, it’s up to voters to inject science into the debate. As Lasley noted, regardless of the office candidates are seeking, “the question ought to be … ‘what is the scientific evidence? Why would you lean in this decision one way or another?’”

“It seems to me that, to inject science we really need to say what are your sources” for decision-making information.

So it’s up to us. If we demand candidates and policies that depend on the best data, we’ll get them. If we continue to accept generalities and platitudes, science and society will suffer.

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  1. […] and research in the public interest. I helped organize the event and previously wrote about the first forum, of scientists and science […]

  2. […] science issue questionnaires. As one of a handful of active members, I helped organize panels of science advocates and journalists to insert science into the Iowa Caucus […]

  3. […] in volunteer power and can’t continue to hold events like this, the Science Festival Trail and Science on the Stump without people dedicated to science in the public interest and evidence-based policy […]

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