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Can We Ask Presidential Candidates about Science?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Back in December 2011, The Guardian USA and New York University’s Studio20 (see their Tumblr – note: I am associated with the program) announced a new joint project – US presidential election 2012: the citizens agenda. Here is some background information from that time:

The Guardian USA:

The citizens agenda: making election coverage more useful: We invite you to help refresh the media’s tired templates of campaign coverage to address issues people really care about

Studio 20:

Studio 20 Will Collaborate With The Guardian on How to Improve Election Coverage: On Dec. 8, Studio 20 and The Guardian US jointly announced that they will collaborate in the development of a “citizens agenda” approach to election coverage during the 2012 campaign for president.

Nieman Journalism Lab:

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012: Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel reunite for a project that aims to inject citizen voices into campaign coverage.

PressThink:

The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage: The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Nadja Popovich:

Re-thinking Elections 2012: As part of the Studio 20 graduate program at NYU, we’re partnering with the Guardian on a big question: how do we make election coverage more useful to the average user? So, today we launch the “Citizens Agenda”, an attempt to do just that.

What does that all mean?

The idea is for a media organization with a strong reputation, large audience, and necessary resources to team up with a group of smart, dedicated, innovative, tech-savvy and Web-savvy students of journalism to explore and analyze the questions posed by the media to the presidential candidates (most notably during the presidential debates), to see what questions are asked frequently, what questions rarely, and what questions not at all – and then to provide the citizens with the opportunity to have their own voices heard, adding questions they want to ask, inquiring about topics they care about the most:

Have the 839 GOP debate questions reflected the ‘citizens agenda’?: By studying the 20 Republican presidential debates of this election season, we can better see if the questions being asked correspond with the issues voters actually care about.

Some questions that may be of great interest or importance to the voters may be tip-toed around or completely ignored by the media, while other questions that are asked often may not be as informative to the public. For example:

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Mormonism mentions scant at GOP debates: Despite being the religion of two candidates, only three questions over 20 debates have dared to utter the M-word.

There have been 20 presidential debates so far this season, generating a total of 839 questions. The students have analyzed the questions, classified them and are starting to publish the details of the analysis – this is the first one, with more to come over the next several days:

The GOP debates: what questions do journalists like to ask? We looked at all the questions that have been posed to the Republican candidates in the 20 debates since May 5, 2011.

Interestingly, most of the questions were quite serious and substantial, but a small percentage could be characterized as “fluff” questions, designed primarily to entertain the audience, and secondarily hoping that a candidate may trip up or say something unusual or revealing:

The nine quirkiest questions from the Republican debates: There have been some strange moments over the last 20 debates involving the GOP candidates. Here are our favourites.

Interestingly, in some of the debates, the candidates were asked questions posed by the public, either by the members of the audience in the room, or from Twitter. Those questions were much different – they covered different topics, were often quite tough, and usually had a personal story as a starting point. By posing problems, the audience questions forced the candidates to abandon the talking points and put themselves in a “problem-solving mode”, which may be potentially much more useful to the television viewers at home:

At the GOP debates, ‘regular people’ didn’t shy away from tough questions: When the mic was handed over to audience members, they framed their questions around personal stories – and big issues

What was asked so far?

According to the first analysis (and more is upcoming), there are certain topics or types of questions that were asked at the debates very frequently. For example: on the economy and jobs (227 questions), the candidates’ lives and records (223 questions), fixing government and reducing the debt (188 questions), foreign policy and national security (160 questions), strategy and maneuvering among the candidates – the “horse-race journalism” focused on polls, electability and mutual criticisms of candidates, attempting to provoke a fight between them on the stage (113 questions), and the “How conservative are you?” type of question (104 questions).

Interestingly, concerning foreign policy questions, out of 200+ countries of the world, only a handful were mentioned in the questions, most frequently Iran and China, while many other countries, regions and entire continents were completely ignored (including very rare mentions of Iraq).

On the other end of the spectrum, restoring American greatness (“Are we still as powerful as we once were?” – 9 questions), human interest fluff (12 questions), education (12 questions) and religion (24 questions, but see above for lack of questions on Mormonism), were not often asked. There was nothing about, for example, women’s issues (apart from abortion), or about small-business owners.

In the middle are: immigration (61 questions to multiple candidates, 16 to Gingrich, nine to Romney, six to Santorum, six to Paul), healthcare (53 questions), social issues: abortion and gay rights (46 questions), and social spending: Medicaid, Medicare, social security and unemployment (42 questions).

Science and technology questions, including space and climate, were in the middle of the pack, with a total of 44 questions asked to date. Here are some examples:

On climate change:

John Harris (Politico): Governor Perry — Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

And a follow up: John Harris (Politico): Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that. [applause] Are there specific — specific scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling, as you? (both from September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On stem cell research:

Shannon BREAM: Alright, Governor Pawlenty, just days ago a Federal court struck down the ban on using Federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. You identify yourself as strongly pro life, but you don’t oppose government funding for research on existing stem cell lines already derived from embryos, but is that still spending tax payer money on elements that were generated by, at some point destroying an embryo. (MAY 5, 2011 | FOX SOUTH CAROLINA DEBATE)

On energy and environment:

Brian Williams (NBC News): Governor, time. Congresswoman Bachmann, a question about energy, back to that subject for a moment. Were you quoted correctly — and do you stand by it — as wanting to drill in the Everglades in Florida? (September 7, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, California)

On green energy:

Bret Baier (Fox News): Governor Perry, you — you have railed against the special treatment of Ford and Solyndra as have the other candidates here tonight. And particularly the tax code incentives for green technologies and allowances that have been made for this industry. But it’s nexus, governor you have afforded the same attention to the oil industry. Back in 2003, you signed a bill that reduced the tax paid by some natural gas companies that have helped them reap since, better than $7 billion in tax savings. So I — I guess what I’m saying is, are you guilty of the same behavior as governor, favoring an industry, that you claim this president has, favoring the green industry? (December 15, 2011 | Republican Candidates Debate in Sioux City, Iowa)

On the EPA:

John DISTASO: Speaker Gingrich, what exactly is an Environmental Solutions Agency? I don’t — I think a lot of people might not know or understand that — why you want to disband the EPA and set up — set up something that kind of looks like the EPA? (Republican Candidates debate in Concord, Hampshire January 8, 2012)

On nuclear energy and the Yucca Mountain:

Q from audience: QUESTION: My question for you is, do you support opening the national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain? ANDERSON COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, we’ll start with you. [crosstalk] ANDERSON COOPER: Sorry, go ahead. ANDERSON COOPER: Is Yucca Mountain that place? ANDERSON COOPER: You were for opening it in Congress, right? (Republican Candidates debate, Las Vegas, Nevada October 18, 2011)

On the space program:

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: We have a question. I want to speaker to weigh in as well. [applause]This question is related from — we got it from Twitter. Speaker Gingrich, how do you plan to create a base on the moon while keeping taxes down in eight years? [laughter] (January 26th, 2012 | Republican Candidates Debate in Jacksonville, Florida)

How to build a citizen’s agenda?

Next presidential debate will be on Wednesday, February 22nd, moderated by John King of CNN. Another four debates have been scheduled in case no clear candidate emerges in the meantime. After that, there will be general election debates between the candidates of the two major parties. As the year progresses, the program will evolve, adapting to the circumstances on the ground.

In this first phase, between today and the next debate, the citizens (both of the USA and other countries) will be encouraged to post their questions – what they would like to see the candidates asked – in the comment sections of this post. Alternatively, people can tweet their suggested questions at @JohnKingCNN using the hashtag #unasked. The students will also do a quick classification of all the questions to send to John King’s producer just before the debate.

Will there be many questions? Will they be much different from what the media asks anyway (after all, the mass media shapes the public opinion)? Will a few of those questions emerge as strong contenders by being asked repeatedly by many people? Will John King actually ask one or more of these questions? Will moderators of future debates ask the citizens’ questions? Will other media outlets pick up these questions and ask the candidates whenever they have the opportunity to do so? That is still to be seen.

Asking about science?

Many important policy questions are in some way related to science or rely on scientific information. The same can be said of medicine, environment and technology.

While many science publications collect candidates’ quotes on scientific matters every four years (including us, just a couple of weeks ago), attempts to get presidential candidates to answer science questions have been made in the past without much success. Most notably, ScienceDebate.org managed to get some answers from both Obama and McCain four years ago, and intends to try to do the same this year. Occasionally a very lucky blogger may get an exclusive interview with one of the candidates specifically about science (I was that lucky four years ago, interviewing then presidential candidate John Edwards).

But questions posed by a large number of citizens are harder to ignore than questions posed by an organization, be it a specialized science media organization, or an organization of scientists (which can be dismissed as an “interest group” by the politicians). Also, questions about science, when placed in the mix with other questions of interest to the public, may have a better chance to get answered than if science is kept in isolation and treated as a special topic.

I am confident that the readers of Scientific American would love to ask science-related questions of the candidates, and can come up with good, well-informed questions that can lead to important and informative answers. This is your chance to influence the Citizen’s Agenda, by posting science-based questions on the Guardian site or on Twitter. Let’s see if we can influence the Citizen’s Agenda, and if that, in turn, may affect what questions get asked of the candidates in the mass media.

——–

Image: Nadja Popovich





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Comments 7 Comments

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  1. 1. TTLG 12:32 pm 02/17/2012

    I would rather have science-based questions rather than science-related ones. For example, what questions can we ask candidates to determine whether they will actually work for the people rather than sell out to the “campaign donors”? Banks apparently have a way to determine whether a prospective teller will be honest or not. Why can’t we do the same with politicians?

    Link to this
  2. 2. candide 2:53 pm 02/17/2012

    The GOP seems to be at war against science. Evolution, climate change and women’s health are the forefront of their dis-information campaign.

    This transcends mere politics and has far wider implications. Electing a scientifically ignorant politician is bad enough, electing an anti-science politician could produce very long term, significant negative consequences.

    Link to this
  3. 3. JamesDavis 3:08 pm 02/17/2012

    “candide”, I agree. Asking a GOP candidate a science question is like asking a first grader to explain the laws of physics. The GOP are not leaders; they are followers…mimicking each other…not a one of them has an original idea.

    Link to this
  4. 4. alan6302 7:41 pm 02/17/2012

    If u ask them a question , they will spend 5 minutes saying absolute crap

    Link to this
  5. 5. billfalls 7:46 pm 02/17/2012

    The article would have been more interesting and useful for me if it had included the candidates’ answers, or at least links to them. Apparently other commenters share this preference since their comments are about the candidates’ scientific knowledge/ignorance/positions, not about the questions themselves.

    Fortunately, the general news media have covered the more outlandish positions of the GOP candidates (denial of climate change, creationism, falsehoods about reproductive health, etc.). I suspect SciAm could provide more balanced and credible analysis of the candidates’ positions.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Bora Zivkovic 3:26 pm 02/18/2012

    I have seen it in the comments here, in the comments on the Guardian, and on Twitter – a portion of the readers do not see what this is all about: the questions, not the answers.

    The answers are purposefully not included because they are a distraction from the main point.

    For this project, it is irrelevant what the answers are, who the candidates are, which party it is, or even what year it is. Eight years ago, focus was on Democrats, four years ago on both parties, and this year on Republicans, but none of that matters.

    What matters is the questions. There has been a lot of rumbling about pundits who moderate debates, as well as mass media in general, focusing on horse-race questions, polls, “electability”, attack ads, irrelevant personal details, etc.

    This is an experiment designed to see if citizens have different priorities. And if so, if citizens’ priorities can be injected into the discourse.

    So, don’t get distracted by particular answers by particular candidates of a particular party in this particular election cycle. Think bigger than that – how to democratize (using the Web) the campaign process, how to get candidates to confront the questions that people really want to ask. Questions. Not answers.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 1:33 am 02/20/2012

    You can sign this petition as well:

    ‘John King of CNN, moderator of the Feb. 22 Republican candidates debate: Ask Rick Santorum if he really thinks global warming is a “hoax.”‘:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/john-king-of-cnn-moderator-of-the-feb-22-republican-candidates-debate-ask-rick-santorum-if-he-really-thinks-global-warming-is-a-hoax

    Link to this

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