Tuesday, September 16, 2008

John McCain, Barack Obama, and ScienceDebate 2008

As many readers are likely aware, there has been a large-scale attempt by prominent scientists and science organizations to have a Presidential debate focused on science issues.[1] Thus far that has not happened. However, the Science Debate 2008 project was successful in getting Barack Obama to provide written answers to a list of questions that had been deemed most important. Now McCain has provided answers to the same questions.

The answers can read found here. I’m still thinking about them in detail but here are my first thoughts about McCain answers. I have three points and a question to readers.

First, even here he feels a need to bring up his military experience, as if it were somehow relevant. In answering the very first question, McCain, says, that "I am uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technological revolution. While in the Navy, I depended upon the technologies and information provided by our nation’s scientists and engineers with during each mission" (in fairness this is only part of his answer). The question he was answering was: “Science and technology have been responsible for half of the growth of the American economy since WWII. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?”

This is irritating. McCain is a war-hero by any reasonable definition of the term. That doesn’t make him at all qualified to make decisions about scientific issues. We all rely on technology every day. That doesn’t make the man on the street who uses a cell-phone and an Ipod at all qualified. Indeed, if we consider McCain’s prior admissions about his complete inability to use computers, and his past poor record of understanding science issues if anything McCain is a counterexample to the claim that prior reliance on modern science and engineering makes one qualified to lead during a technological revolution.[2]

And lest you think this is the only example of McCain harping on his military experience, in a later question about oceanic research and environmental issues he says “ As a former Navy officer I was constantly reminded of the power, wonder and complexity of our world’s oceans. “ We get the point Senator. Really.

Second, when discussing funding for scientific research McCain says that “We must also ensure that basic research money is allocated to the best science based on quality and peer review, not politics and earmarks.” This raises a series of questions: McCain has repeatedly used as his primary example of porkbarrel spending a study which by all accounts but McCain’s was useful and a good way of spending money. Is McCain able to tell what constitutes quality and peer review? Does he even care?

Third, McCain discusses how military research has helped the general public. He lists four technologies, “Internet, email, GPS, Teflon”. Now, for the internet and GPS McCain is correct. However, email originated at MIT as a civilian technology before ARPANET existed. At best, that is a sloppy mistake. And it leads in to my question to readers: It is not clear to me that the 4th technology listed, “Teflon” came from any military use. Teflon was discovered by DuPont. The only reason it is associated with the military at all is that it was used first primarily by the military although other early uses also existed. Indeed, the official DuPont history of Teflon does not even mention the military at all. So my question to readers is: Does this count as another sloppy mistake by the McCain campaign? The email mistake alone demonstrates poor research and care with the campaign’s answers to these questions. For anyone who cares about science related issues, the campaign’s lack of effort and sloppiness here should give pause.

[1] For one interesting discussion about this see this piece by Lawrence Krauss and the Presidential Debate Blog.

[2] I don’t think we are undergoing a “technological revolution.” However, the claim that we are is so widely accepted and such necessary boilerplate for any politician at this point that I don’t blame McCain for using the phrase.


Etienne said...

I'm not particularly disturbed or surprised by McCain's answers, as the very sloppy research indicates to me that he tossed the questions off onto some aide without a second glance. His answers thus reveal only that he doesn't care at all about science - which, sadly, does not put him out of tune with the American zeitgeist.

I do believe we are witnessing a technological revolution. I feel that, with the possible exception of the dark ages, progress is advancing exponentially, or alternatively, that history is logarithmic. Take, for instance: (yes, I am playing fast and loose with dates here)
20 years ago: the Internet
70 years ago: television
200 years ago: telegraph
2500 years ago: postal system,
and a similar pattern arises in most fields of science. It is therefore reasonable to assert that this decade will see more progress than any previous decade - that we are continually in a scientific revolution.

Joshua said...

A few remarks. First, an exponential curve is not a technological revolution. That's a general pattern. If something is occurring on a regular basis but speeding up that isn't a revolution.

Second, if one looks at precise dates for many technologies one finds that in the last two hundred years there have been actual revolutionary periods. For example, in 1900 or so you have radios, airplanes and cars all coming along in a very short period.

People are fond of giving lists like the one you give but in order to create them one must make careful decisions about what constitutes distinct technology and how to group it.

Overall, it is clear that on average the pace of technological advancement is accelerating but that is a distinct claim from a revolution.

I also agree that McCain's priorities are sadly in line with those of many Americans.