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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

To Beat Trump, Clinton Needs to Bring Science to the Debates

By Phil Plait

What do the presidential candidates think about science?

Normally, these topics barely get a head nod from the hopefuls. But this year is very very different. Donald Trump, who barely can make two coherent sentences in a row on any topic, has released a torrent of anti-science nonsense. Most notably he’s called climate change a hoax, picked a global warming denier (and creationist) as his vice president, and hired a denier as his energy adviser. He’s anti-vaccination, thinks the California drought doesn’t exist, and has said NASA makes America look like “a third world nation”.

Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, has also made a slew of anti-science statements, and libertarian Gary Johnson is no better.

Heck, the cohort of candidates is so bad that when Hillary Clinton said “I believe in science” when she accepted the Democratic nomination, the internet practically carried her around on its collective shoulders.

But these are generalities. What do the candidates really think about scientific topics, like space exploration, mental health, energy, public health, what to do about climate change, and more?

A coalition of scientists wanted to know just that, so they drafted a series of 20 questions for the candidates. Calling this challenge Science Debate 2016 (this was also done in 2008 and 2012), they asked the candidates to answer.

And they have.

Well, three of four have. Gary Johnson has not responded as yet, but Clinton, Trump, and Stein have. And their answers are interesting.

Well, not Trump’s so much. I’ll get back to him in a moment.

The most surprising answers to me were Stein’s. Some of her stances I agree with: We need more renewable energy, for example. Many I don’t, like completely dumping nuclear energy, and demilitarizing space. For the former, nuclear energy in this country is decades behind cutting edge, and it’s time we at least look into making it cleaner, safer, and more secure. Also, like it or not, there are bad guys out there, and military use of space is needed to be able to collect intelligence. That actually saves more lives than it costs.

I was fascinated by her statements on vaccines; she hasn’t been entirely anti-vax in her earlier statements, but she’s pandered mightily to that group. In these answers she is far more clear about the necessity of vaccines. But after everything else she’s said, I am very skeptical about this new tact.

Clinton’s responses were also interesting, in that unlike the other candidates, she outlines a lot of specifics on many of the topics. Usually these sorts of answers are mushy, but she (well, her staff) actually lays out quite a few details about taking action on climate change, energy, and more. I agree with quite a bit of what she wrote, including her plans for climate change (though I still wish she were even more aggressive about it), securing the internet, helping those with mental health issues, and more.

I was disappointed, however, in her passage about space exploration. There’s not much really there in her statement aside from praising NASA. I’d love to hear more about her ideas about Earth science, future exploration of the solar system, ensuring funding for NASA, and more. President Obama has done things I’ve liked and things I haven’t with regard to NASA, and I’d very much like to know whether she plans on continuing in his footsteps.

And that brings us to Trump. Of all the candidates, his statements at Science Debate are the most transparently from his staff; the grammatical contrast with his public speeches and tweets is, well, dramatic.

But the thing is—and this is no surprise at all—there’s almost no content to his answers. Like his other public statements, they are all generalities and no substance at all. Reading them too, his anti-science leanings come out. I mean, c’mon, he thinks global warming is a hoax (he can’t even bring himself to answer the Science Debate question without putting scare quotes around the words), so of course his answer there is just verbal dancing. The GOP has made it clear it wants to sell off federal land in national parks, so his statement, “Laws that tilt the scales toward special interests must be modified to balance the needs of society with the preservation of our valuable living resources,” is fairly transparent.

His answer to the question about space exploration is even less weighty than Clinton’s, just saying space exploration is great. There are no details there at all.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Trump lies about everything, saying only what satisfies his immediate political expediencies. He has abandoned the dog whistle of racial and sexist politics, and is instead now using a megaphone. White supremacists and misogynists have heard him loudly and clearly. His ability to garner votes in black America is essentially dead (he’s polling the worst of any GOP candidate in decades), and women are avoiding him in droves.

Even so, he might have traction to status quo white male America. I hope this is not the case, but I fear it may be.

But not when it comes to science. A discussion of science could give Clinton an edge. Polls show that concerns among Americans over global warming are at an eight-year high, with 64 percent expressing a great deal or fair amount of worry on the topic. Trump flatly denies global warming exists. That gives Clinton an advantage right there. Even better, Republicans are expressing more concern about warming as well, and that strikes right to the heart of the very people Trump is disenfranchising.

Clinton has a chance here to widen her gap ahead of Trump. Science has become a wedge issue in GOP politics.

Our technological advances, our engineering, our education, our infrastructure, our health care system, our energy generation, even our ability to produce food and water rely entirely on our ability to understand the science behind these issues. If we ignore the science—and I don’t think this is an exaggeration at all—we are endangering our ability as a nation and a people to exist.

So while in the past I haven’t thought that a science debate would really help much, I’ve changed my position on it. I endorse this idea, whether it’s in the form of an actual debate or just these public policy statements issued by the candidates.

Remember, Trump’s view of science is dim. Clinton has nothing to lose and much to gain by bringing up science between now and November, while Trump has everything to lose. And that’s a situation I’d very, very dearly like to promote.

So kudos to Sheril Kirshenbaum and Shawn Otto, the minds behind Science Debate 2016. Please go to the Science Debate website and read what’s there. It has a huge amount of information, including what you can do to urge the candidates to talk science. Be a part of this movement, and be a part of making sure that science takes its rightful place in the political discourse.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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