Thursday, September 06, 2012

Science debate, 14 questions: Romney beats Obama

Some people wanted American politicians to explicitly address scientific questions. Whether it's important or not, the project has become a reality.

Your humble correspondent and Slate are among those (see Google News for media reactions) who think that judging by the answers, Romney defeated Obama, despite all the talk about the Left's being pro-science.

Here are their answers to 14 questions:
The Top American Science Questions: 2012 (at the website of the Science Debate movement that made this possible)
Obama's and Romney's answers are written as two columns in the blue and red color, respectively. The first thing you will notice is that under almost all the questions, Romney's answers are longer, usually much longer, than Obama's answers. Slate describes the verdict in this way:
According to Science Debate, both the Obama and Romney campaigns say they are considering participating in a live science forum. In the meantime, these written answers will have to do. If you scroll through them quickly, one thing is immediately apparent: Mitt Romney’s team took this very seriously. His answers are longer, they have subtitles, they have bullet points. It’s not just great presentation: The Romney text is substantive, specific, and detailed. Obama’s answers to some of the same questions are single paragraphs that are vague, repetitive (two in a row start with “Since taking office”), and poorly written.
Slate discussed how surprising this could be given the "famous science" status of some Obama aides such as John Holdren. Well, I would describe Holdren very differently but OK. And yes, Chu is a good physicist. Here is the review of the 2x 14 answers:

Innovation and the economy

Both candidates say that innovation is very important, should be supported, and so on. The focus in this question seems to be on applied research which is understandable given the words in the question. However, Obama's answer says nothing else. Romney's answer is full of facts and numbers about the role of innovation in America's leadership (it's quantified) and detailed philosophies about the proposed policies on basic research, education, taxation of research and development, intellectual property, and so on. It seems like a competent long answer written by people who obviously know what they're talking about. You may want to read it.

Climate change

Obama says it's a very important challenge and he's already fighting it, being a leader in various crazy things. Romney says that while he isn't a scientist, he thinks that the world is getting warmer, humans contribute something, and it's natural for policymakers to consider risks. He says that the debate continues, however, and that scientists have no right to directly dictate policies. Romney (now) opposes cap-and-trade and similar policies as economically devastating and overlooking the foreign sources such as those in China. Romney obviously tries to position himself as the ultimate centrist here.

Obama is fortunately far from the activists' ideal global warming warrior, too. Al Gore decided to boycott the DNC for this very reason.

Research and the future

Obama says one should invest a lot in research and he has already done so and paid for a few things. Romney, in his slightly shorter answer (unusual here), also says it's important but one must also be careful what is funded (Obama's green agenda is a bad example) and one must be sure that the results of the public research can penetrate to the commercial sector.

Pandemics and biosecurity

Obama says it's an important problem that should be addressed well. His short answer doesn't really say anything beyond general clichés. Romney says something about the history – pandemics have been here for ages but we're more prepared to fight them today – and is rather concrete about the things that should be developed or improved, like public health monitoring systems, research into new pathogens, and so on. Romney also lists some bad policies by which Obama has allegedly hurt the biomedical research.


For Obama, STEM education is a "route to the middle class" and he enumerates a few random things he has done for education. His short answer somewhat reminded me of the Miss South Carolina who explained that the U.S. Americans don't have maps etc. ;-) Romney again starts with a historical context – it is not a new question – and K-12 is cited as the 2nd clearest weakness of America. He makes a convincing case that it's not due to the lack of spending; instead, the teachers' labor union protecting the adults' interests and fighting innovation are the real problem. He wants to fight similar special interests and support choice and innovation, sketching several meaningful principles how to do it, and is said to contain a much more detailed algorithm to improve the quality of teaching. Pretty impressive.


Obama shows he knows the concept of "energy independence" as a dream and can list several types of energy sources. Somewhat illogically relatively to energy independence, he spends most of the answer by his desire to make the cleanest energy in the world – and saying how much he has already done. Romney wants to improve energy independence by growing local and North American sources, including Keystone. He negatively mentions the Obama supporters' opposition to such things. With these policies, the U.S. may become a 21st century energy superpower. Affordable sources he promotes have several other advantages (tax revenue etc.). He sketches some detailed plans for energy. Romney wants to keep high environmental standards but he wants to avoid "manually choosing losers and winners" (a reference to Obama and his solar winners etc.). More to be found at Romney's website.

Food (and safety)

Obama talks about his fight against food-borne diseases, prevention. He is against pesticides and antibiotics in food. Romney's slightly shorter (unusual!) answer is similar but it also has a non-trivial point – something beyond general clichés – that he wants his FDA to co-operate with the commercial sector.

Fresh water

Obama lists some details about water-preservation and clean-water policies. Romney's answer is unusually 2x shorter and containing fewer details.

The Internet

Obama wants to fight cybersecurity as well piracy but also preserve freedom of expression. Romney offers a more self-explanatory account why it's wrong for the government to regulate the Internet. And by regulation, he also means some Obama's favorite policies including "Net Neutrality", a solution in search of a problem.

Ocean health

Obama enumerates a few ocean-related issues and he makes it sound that it's enough to throw money at each problem. Romney says that it's an important and subtle problem to preserve fisheries. Not too many details here.

Science and public policy

Obama repetitively says that science is important in the society. Somewhat comically, he says that his advisers were un-ideological; I suppose that these ludicrous comments were written by the advisers themselves. Romney also says that science is important for decisions but he also accuses Obama of having manipulated technical data to support preconceived decisions. Mercury regulation – designed to cripple the U.S. coal industry – is his example. Romney wisely says that he will force the regulators to take the costs into account. He also introduces a cute idea of a regulatory cap which will prevent the amount of regulation from growing. For each new regulation, some old one(s) will have to be streamlined or abolished.


Obama says space is good and in an observer-like fashion, he describes what has happening at the ISS, Mars etc. He wants to send missions to an asteroid and/or Mars. For Romney, space is good for the economy, America's standing, and inspiration. Romney reviews 50 years of space research and defines America's leadership is a top principle here. In his much longer reply, he wants to focus NASA more practically, collaborate internationally, penetrate to foreign markets, and strengthen security.

Critical natural resources

Obama offers some clichés suggesting that he doesn't know much about these things. It's good to have rare elements, energy independence – repetitiveness here – and improve efficiency. Romney shows much more understanding for minerals and American self-sufficiency in them (now and previously) and the policies that help or hurt this independence. He seems to know some details about the federal-vs-state-level legal interactions when it comes to drilling and other things.

Vaccination and public health

Obama defends preventive vaccination even among Americans who don't appreciate its importance. Romney divides his answer to the sufficient supplies, effectiveness of their usage, and research – in the latter, he tries to define steps needed to revert the outflow of research from the U.S. in recent years.

So most of the time, Romney's answers were smarter. Even if you agree with me, this of course doesn't prove that he would be a better president when it comes to science-related policies. But it surely does eliminate the preconception that the GOP as defined by the power balance in 2012 is significantly more anti-science.

I suspect that some people behind the "Science Debate" project had a particular goal, namely to give the Democratic candidate a new advantage by finding a tool to automatically promote the expectation that the Democrats are closer to science. Well, if that was their driver, it seems that it hasn't worked out for them.


  1. "(...) instead, the teachers' labor union protecting the adults' interests and fighting innovation are the real problem. He wants to fight similar special interests and (...)"

    Maybe the real problem with the economy are companies that take risks but are bailed out when then fail. Why not start by fighting those special interests? Clearly the negative influence of the latter in the country is orders of magnitude larger.

  2. "Paint your roofs white" Chu is a good physicist? I bow to your expertise in that field. His current standing as a corrupted technocrat taints his record, in my opinion.

  3. Only the US has the nerves to undertake such a debate. When will we see that in Europe ? Republicans seem to have understood the public's craving for realistic and clear alternatives to this European-style socialist democracy à la Obama.

  4. Any physicist who believes in the greenhouse effect upon global warming is not a good physicist. And, while I am looking forward to President Romney as hopefully as anyone, the bottom line is, politicians will not get the science right until the scientists do -- and that is not happening anytime soon. The scientific mess is all over the floor, and no one in authority wants to smell it, much less clean it up.

  5. Another reminder of why this election is pretty important; I'm hoping the fact that Obama's speech is being downsized for a much smaller crowd tonight is because he's losing. They say it's bcz of weather. Right.

  6. I don’t want to sound like a tin foil hat, but it seems to me that
    nothing about this presidential election matters. Obama is just a
    foil, and Romney is just a test to see if Americans are so stupid they will vote
    for a corporate raider, after he and his ilk nearly destroyed the world
    I’m convinced that those who are calling the shots are laughing up
    their sleeves, secure in the knowledge that the entire process is an
    enormous reality show. Our votes mean absolutely nothing.

  7. Does one of these two foster any love for (in particular experimental or observational) fundamental physics or would both of them rather tend to make the US definitively giving up on it by erasing what is still left at present :-/ ...?

    (Because of some time constrains I've just read this summarizing TRF article and seen this issue not specifically adressed here ...)


    "I do believe in basic science. I believe in participating in space. I believe in analysis of new sources of energy. I believe in laboratories, looking at ways to conduct electricity with -- with cold fusion, if we can come up with it. It was the University of Utah that solved that. We somehow can’t figure out how to duplicate it"


  9. Holdren is a lecturer, not a scientist. Michio Kaku is an actual former scientist. Anyway, Steven Chu is the only politician whose Nobel Prize I respect.

  10. Painting your roof white would reduce the amount of cooling you need. Whether or not that's worth it, is a decision for you and your local housing board. In some more tropical places like Israel, all the roofs are white.
    Steven Chu won the Nobel Prize for manipulating cold neutral atoms with laser beams. You can find his Nobel lecture at

  11. learning about the subprime mortgage crisis would be a good start for you to learn some basic things. the banks are not the main reason for the crisis

  12. It would also mean that I need more heating in winter. In any case, this idea is supposed to reduce global warming by reflecting sunlight to space. What % of the earth's surface is made up of rooftops. And how much would this policy cost. Calculate these numbers and you realise that it is a crackpot idea.

  13. Do you think either of them ever actually looked at the questions? The quality of the answers, imo, depends simply on which aide was handed the questions to draft the answers. Perhaps Romney's ghost was better educated than Obama's. I doubt that the answers say anything about the candidates' thoughts or priorities.

  14. Very true, Gordon, but the same ghosts are likely to matter in the future, too.

  15. Gordon, still this is a declaration of principle and a starting point for their future politics.