The election of a US president almost always seems like a crossroads, but the
choice to be made on 4 November feels unusual, and daunting, in its national and
Science and the research enterprise offer powerful
tools for addressing key challenges that face America and the world, and it is
heartening that both John McCain and Barack Obama have had thoughtful things to
say about them. Obama has been more forthcoming in his discussion of research
goals, but both have engaged with the issues. McCain deserves particular credit
for taking a stance on carbon emissions that is at odds with that of a
significant proportion of his party.
There is no open-and-shut case for preferring one
man or the other on the basis of their views on these matters. This is as it
should be: for science to be a narrow sectional interest bundled up in a single
party would be a terrible thing. Both sides recognize science’s inspirational
value and ability to help achieve national and global goals. That is common
ground to be prized, and a scientific journal’s discussion of these matters
might be expected to stop right there.
But science is bound by, and committed to, a set of
normative values — values that have application to political questions. Placing
a disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should
be; recognizing that ideas should be tested in as systematic a way as possible;
appreciating that there are experts whose views and criticisms need to be taken
seriously: these are all attributes of good science that can be usefully applied
when making decisions about the world of which science is but a part. Writ
larger, the core values of science are those of open debate within a free
society that have come down to us from the Enlightenment in many forms, not the
least of which is the constitution of the United States.
On a range of topics, science included, Obama has
surrounded himself with a wider and more able cadre of advisers than McCain.
This is not a panacea. Some of the policies Obama supports — continued subsidies
for corn ethanol, for example — seem misguided. The advice of experts is all the
more valuable when it is diverse: ‘groupthink’ is a problem in any job. Obama
seems to understands this. He tends to seek a range of opinions and analyses to
ensure that his own opinion, when reached, has been well considered and exposed
to alternatives. He also exhibits pragmatism — for example in his proposals for
health-care reform — that suggests a keen sense for the tests reality can bring
to bear on policy.
Some will find strengths in McCain that they value
more highly than the commitment to reasoned assessment that appeals in Obama.
But all the signs are that the former seeks a narrower range of advice. Equally
worrying is that he fails to educate himself on crucial matters; the attitude he
has taken to economic policy over many years is at issue here. Either as a
result of poor advice, or of advice inadequately considered, he frequently makes
decisions that seem capricious or erratic. The most notable of these is his
ill-considered choice of Sarah Palin, the Republican governor of Alaska, as
running mate. Palin lacks the experience, and any outward sign of the capacity,
to face the rigours of the presidency.
The Oval Office is not a debating chamber, nor is
it a faculty club. As anyone in academia will know, a thoughtful and
professorial air is not in itself a recommendation for executive power. But a
commitment to seeking good advice and taking seriously the findings of
disinterested enquiry seems an attractive attribute for a chief executive. It
certainly matters more than any specific pledge to fund some particular agency
or initiative at a certain level — pledges of a sort now largely rendered moot
by the unpredictable flux of the economy.
This journal does not have a vote, and does not
claim any particular standing from which to instruct those who do. But if it
did, it would cast its vote for Barack Obama.
- Lido no Climate Progress » Blog Archive » Nature: “The values of scientific enquiry … suggest a preference for one US presidential candidate.”