The Congressional Science Debates
Science provides us with an increasingly clear picture of how to solve our most intransignent and difficult challenges as a country, but policymakers are increasingly unwilling to engage in the directions science recommends. Instead, they often take one of two routes: deny the science, or pretend the problems don’t exist.
"Whenever the people are well informed," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "they can be trusted with their own government."
But today, our politicians seem unable to lead on big issues, and the country has become lost in a knowledge-free zone, with arguments based on opinion and punditry rather than objective facts, a condition John Locke, one of Jefferson's three principle inspirations, sought to avoid when he created empiricism and defined what knowledge was, and how it was separate from "but faith, or opinion."
Could it be that science has simply advanced too far, or that our world has simply gotten too complex for democracy? In a world dominated by science that requires extensive education, can democracy still prosper, or will its invisible hand finally fall to inaction? Are Americans still well enough informed to be trusted with their own government?
Judging from Congress alone, the answer may be “no.” Less than 2% of members of Congress have a professional background in science, in an age when most major policy challenges revolve around it.
The membership of the 112th Congress included one physicist, one chemist, six engineers, and a microbiologist.
By contrast, how many Members do you suppose were lawyers – who often avoided science classes like the plague?
Two hundred twenty two. It’s little wonder we have more rhetoric than fact-based arguments in our national policymaking. Lawyers are trained to create a compelling narrative to win an argument, but as any trial lawyer will tell you, that argument uses facts only for the purposes of winning the argument, not for establishing the truth.
We cannot expect our politicians to do it alone. They are there to represent us. Citizens are the ones who have to lead, and to provide a safe space and a clear demand for these issues to be addressed.
That is what congressional science debates are designed to do. Their design is intended to insure thoughtful, fact-based, nonpartisan debates on these critical challenges facing the country, by bringing policymakers together with science, the media and the public.
We encourage you to adopt a themed science debate in every congressional district in your state, based on the Questions developed on this site from the thousands submitted, and refined to insure their impartiality. Your local science museum, college or university will be a hospitable and welcoming home to hold such a debate.
The goal is not to score partisan points on one side or the other, but to provide voters with a thoughful exchange on some of the most important policy challenges in America, ones that may not otherwise have a hearing.
This is something each individual supporter should promote within their own state and congressional district. We will provide guidance and support to insure a fair and nonpartisan fact-based debate, and we will post your results here for others to see.
The president can only do so much. Legislation is proposed in the House and ratified in the Senate. For a true reaffirmation of this nation's long and storied embrace of the ideal and principles of science for its highest path forward, we must begin the conversation, and we must begin it in Congress.