What Americans Really Want: Science, Candidates, Debates

It is debate season for the US presidential race. As usual, science is being viewed as a debating point very differently by the two parties, at least so far. The Democratic candidates, yet to actually debate, are currently engaged in dealing policy statements about important scientific issues such as climate change. In previous election cycles, science was brought into Republican primary debates to see which candidate could make the most anti-science statements. This year it is a bit different, with climate science in particular, and one's ability to say something intelligent-sounding about it, being a factor, though still to a very small degree.

You are probably aware of ScienceDebate.org, which has been trying to get science on the table as a standard debating topic worthy of its own entire debate among the candidates. ScienceDebate.org has commissioned a poll asking American voters what they think about science and the candidates. You can read the poll results here.

I created some graphs that re-display the poll's results in a slightly different, and simpler, way than the original poll.

First is a set of questions about science-based challenges, the importance of science, the relationship between science and policy, and the role of journalists in advancing this conversation. I simplified the results of five distinct statements to indicate simple agreement (strong or not) vs. disagreement, across political affiliation. The result is simple. A large majority of people across all political affiliations agree with al of the statements. Variation across the statements, or across the political parties, is unimpressive. Americans, across the board, are on board with science, with policy makers dealing with science, and want journalists to address this.


The second graphic simplified the results across two questions about the importance of members of Congress understanding science and the importance of a science debate. Again, the vast majority of Americans, according to this scientific poll, agree on the importance of these things.


For more details and finer breakdowns of these results, do visit the original poll.

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I have my doubts about science. And not only regarding US-Americans, but regarding the whole mankind.

I see no connection between what Science informs us of and how mankind operates (including any select geo-political subgroup)...

Except, possibly the contrast that Science is consistent and non-political/non-partisan, while mankind is inconsistent, illogical, and prone to the silly practice of putting politics ahead of sanity.

But, really, what DO you mean???

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 13 Oct 2015 #permalink

I am afraid of the people who answered "Not important" to the question about the USA Congress and president being informed by and about science.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 13 Oct 2015 #permalink

They were probably Tea Bagger types, who want to eliminate the government, and hey, might as well ignore science and return us to a standard of living equal to that of the early Bronze Age. "A simpler life" which seems to appeal to them. (Less to keep track of intellectually? Something they require?)

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 13 Oct 2015 #permalink

Yes, everyone (nearly) wants politicians to act based on science. The problem is people don't look at science through an unbiased lens but a partisan one. They have desired outcomes and seek out science to justify their desires.

I mean, does anyone really think 80-90% of Republicans want government action to combat global warming? Of course not. They want their opponents to recognize the "real" science that shows that global warming isn't happening, will be good, etc., not the "phony" science of corrupt environmentalists and socialists.

It's jarring to see that for

In your opinion, which of the following are the most serious long term issues facing this country? (Check all that apply)

the response "International Terrorism" is ranked ahead of climate change, education issues, clean water, protecting the environment, different diseases, ocean extinctions and fishing colony collapse, and a few others. So much for policy and decision making based on science and rational thought being highly important.
(To be complete: Economy and Jobs ranked first, Health Care Costs second, Health Care third, National Security fourth, then International Terrorism. The other issues were sixth and lower.)

Larry, I disagree with you on one point. It is perfectly possible to believe in global warming, or that environmental protections are needed, while at the same time believing government action is not the best way to achieve the desired goals.

There are many groups, such as PERC, that promote free-market solutions to environmental problems. Take electric cars for example. The best way to get people driving electric cars is to make it in their financial interest to do so. I promise you that if there was a fully electric, functional automobile, that could drive up to 300 miles between charges, and could charge quickly and conveniently, and sold for a reasonable price, sales would be through the roof. Why? Because people wouldn't have to pay for gas.

Most middle-class Americans live paycheck to paycheck, or close thereto. When it comes to protecting the environment, or having a few extra bucks at the end of the month so their kids can pay a musical instrument, join the football team, go to camp, etc., most people will focus on their family.

That is not selfish; that is human nature.

The Bush 2 administration worked hard to indoctrinate the American public into thinking that "International Terrorism" is the most pressing issue they face -- and to be scared, to be very scared by it.

So that they could position themselves, their agenda, and their ideology as "The Solution", and dupe the public into throwing votes and money their way.

Propaganda works! (tm)

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 13 Oct 2015 #permalink

Dan #7:


You are absolutely correct!

We really do have to invent our way out of the climate change problem.

We need to invent a source of energy which is cheaper than oil, gas or coal.

If we do, people will switch naturally, because it will be in their economic interest to do so.

A carbon tax just artificially attempts to make alternative energy cheaper - but humans will just figure out a way around that. Because you are right - that is human nature.

Remember the Italians (or was it the Spanish?) who used electricity at night to operate floodlights to generate solar power - because the subsidy granted was greater than the cost of electricity to generate solar power!

Human nature.

The problem is we haven't invented the solution yet.

Hopefully we will.

The other option is scarcity will drive up the cost of hydrocarbon power until alternative energy is cheaper - that will work also (once we run out of hydrocarbon sources).

Of course, history is full of cases of people coming up with useful inventions to solve society's problems... Only to fail because of lack of political will to implement their solutions.

Any invention intended to solve the climate change problem will be equally worthless without solving the BIGGER problem of overcoming the POLITICAL PROBLEM of denial and fights to preserve existing income streams generated by the inventions that are changing the climate in the first place.

RickA, you "+1" Dan who said, "The best way to get people [to ______] is to make it in their financial interest to do so" and then you immediately (and conveniently) discredit him by retorting, "but humans will just figure out a way around [attempts to make alternative energy cheaper]".

To paraphrase you, "The problem is we haven’t found the political solution yet."

That solution will involve making the use of fossil fuels less financially appealing.

That's what you "need to invent".

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 13 Oct 2015 #permalink

Brainstorms #10:

Denial isn't really relevant.

If something is cheaper than oil, coal and natural gas - it will be used, without regard to whether people believe in CAGW or not.

If your goal is to transition to a non-carbon energy economy then we need to invent a CHEAPER non-carbon energy source.

Everything else will flow naturally then, based on human nature and economics (which is based on human nature).

The POLITICAL PROBLEM only exists because you and your buddies want to make people spend more money than is necessary to solve a problem which is always 30 years in the future, and recedes one year for each year which goes by.

It is like trying to fall up - it is very difficult and unnatural.

It is much easier to fall down.

"If something is cheaper than oil, coal and natural gas – it will be used, without regard to whether people believe in CAGW or not."

This is a problematic claim on so many levels...

Let's start with humoring you and say there are two groups of people: those who do not believe in "CAGW", and those that do. The latter group will realize that their 'belief' means that oil, coal and natural gas are priced *artificially low*, as they do not include the hidden costs of fossil fuels (damages due to "CAGW"). The former group, not believing there is any "CAGW", will not consider there are any hidden costs, or at least much fewer (they may accept particulates and mercury emissions as an issue). This has a major impact on evaluation of the true costs and thus choices that are made (but see also below).

The major problem in your whole argumentation seems to be that you believe humans act rational, in the sense that they will chose the options that economically provides the largest benefit (vs cost). If you indeed do believe so, you should have no problem seeing that your proposed simple solution (just wait until alternatives will become cheaper) will not work. If you do not, you should also have no problem seeing that your proposed simple solution does not work, since human nature is in many aspects simply not rational.

If humans were so economically rational, we'd e.g. have stopped eating beef a very long time ago. The only thing that beef does is give people a short-term "fix". From a nutritional point of view there are much cheaper options.

Marco #12:

I actually gave two options. #1 - invent something cheaper now. #2 - wait for shortages in hydrocarbons to cause prices to rise to the point where alternatives are cheaper.

And while the occasional person or two will buck the trend - in the aggregate people will act rationally (economically).

No - stopping beef consumption is not considered rational by consumers (in the aggregate).

Sure - you can make the case that eating beef is irrational - but you haven't convinced the vast majority of the world of this yet.

Take a look at meat consumption in China.

It is rising dramatically.

Why? Because more people can afford it.

The way people spend their dollars defines what is rational to people.

What might be the top science-based challenge in
- healthcare,
- innovation,
- the economy?
What is the current, or being considered, public policy which is most based on the best available science of each of the above?
What grade would you give President Obama on the above and why?

By See Noevo (not verified) on 14 Oct 2015 #permalink

As if people haven't been trying to "invent something cheaper now" for decades.

In some places, at some times of day, wind and solar are reaching parity. They also account for about 1% of all power generation.

Simply put, without the government to accurately price fossil fuels based on their negative externalities, or subsidize renewables and/or nuclear, something cheaper will not exist on a time horizon relative to what scientists have told us we need to do to avoid the most harmful impacts of global warming.

And oh yeah, wind and solar have also received billions in government research funding, which people who don't accept reality of global warming are adamantly opposed to (Solyndra, anyone?)

And waiting for prices of fossil fuels to rise drastically will take even longer, especially because we're actively subsidizing them as well (another political problem).

"The way people spend their dollars defines what is rational to people."

Interestingly, this means you accept that choosing the cheapest option is not a given...which then contradicts your earlier suggestion that the cheapest energy source *will* be chosen.

He's a ball of contradictions. Typical of someone trying to sell an agenda of nefarious intent.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 14 Oct 2015 #permalink

Larry #!5:

I never said it would be easy - just that if we could invent cheaper energy, it would be easy to switch from hydrocarbon to non-hydrocarbon.

Marco #16:

I never said everybody always picked the cheapest option - just that in the aggregate that is what people do.

I am sure there are a few people who mail in more federal taxes than they owe - but most people pay what they owe, and not a penny more.

Not many people pay extra to their electric company to cover the externalities - most just pay what they owe.

I have no agenda - I am just trying to inject a little common sense into pie in the sky thinking.

... most just pay what they owe.

Nope. The problem is, most people (successfully, and for various reasons) evade paying "what they owe". I.e., the "true cost" of what they're buying/buying into.

This goes hand-in-hand with denying that this is what's going on. (As I'm sure you're about to join in on and illustrate adroitly...)

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 14 Oct 2015 #permalink

Brainstorms #19:

Yep - you nailed it.

In my opinion the "true cost" of something is what is on the bill.

Anything else is mental masturbation and can be made as expensive or as cheap as anyone wants. In other words, it is totally subjective.

For example, say we triple the cost of heating in America, by taxing carbon for heating oil, natural gas and other hydrocarbon energy used for heating.

What will the rational person do?

A bunch of them will rush out and buy wood stoves or heat with wood pellets or corn stalk pellets or other biomass (assuming it is cheaper).


Because people (in the aggregate) will always do what is cheapest. If natural gas and fuel oil is made more expensive than wood - people will heat with wood.

Will that externality be priced in? Nope.

If you want to include make-believe external costs you also have to include make-believe external benefits.

How much is that helicopter medical transport worth? Or the ambulance?

Hydrocarbon based electricity provides a lot of benefits - do those get priced in? Nope.

So you are right - I do disagree with you about the "true cost" of what people are buying.

"I never said everybody always picked the cheapest option – just that in the aggregate that is what people do."

That is indeed what you claimed, and then right away contradicted with the increased consumption of meat in China. There are plenty of similar examples where people *on aggregate* do *not* choose the cheapest option. Nike would be a fringe company if it were true. Pepsi and Coca Cola would be broke. No one would watch a sports game from the stands.

When one factors in status and other intangibles - meat or nike may indeed be the cheapest option.

But if everybody will always choose the more expensive option, due to their altruistic nature - why do we need laws to make cheaper things more expensive?

Problem solved - just need a tiny bit of education and whamo - everyone will do what you perceive as the rational thing.

RickA, it looks like you are slowly getting it, apart from the strange idea that you think I suggest we always choose the more expensive option. The simple fact is that we often choose things based on a *lot* more than just pure economics, which is what you originally seemed to imply.

We are willing to pay for things that economically do not make sense. We are often paying for things that economically may well not make sense, but where we have no other choice. We are often *not* paying for things that economically would make sense. For example, there is a consensus among economists that there should be a price on carbon (read: CO2). But in most places in the world there is no price on carbon, so we are not paying for something that economically makes sense.

To return to your first comment I reacted to: if you include externalities, many fossil fuels may already be more expensive than alternatives. But since those are not included, they are not. Why are they not included? Not because it makes economic sense to not include them, but because there is no political will to include them.
That is, the simplistic view of "we humans choose the cheapest" is in reality "we choose the one we like best, and arguments for or against may include the direct costs, but this is far from a given".

A good example is given by the Danes, who obtain a significant proportion of their energy from wind turbines. Many Danes accept the associated increased price, because of 'green' thinking ("intangibles"), others accept it because it includes a substantial subsidy for local industry (Vestas), another form of 'intangible' benefit, and some like it because it makes Denmark less dependent on countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia (yet another 'intangible' benefit). At no time point has anyone ever used the argument that it is cheaper now, although some have stated that a benefit may well be that it becomes cheaper somewhere in the future.

"RickA, it looks like you are slowly getting it, apart from the strange idea that you think I suggest we always choose the more expensive option. The simple fact is that we often choose things based on a *lot* more than just pure economics, which is what you originally seemed to imply."

Well shit, look at what USA citizens pay for via taxation--- six trillion USA dollars is the latest estimate on what the Bush2 Regime's invasions will cost just the USA, not counting nearly one million dead people and the loss of wealth production.

I spend large sums of money on utter garbage, since only utter garbage is available. One cannot buy a decent broom any more, nor good food, nor decent clothing, in the USA: one must look internationally for good axes, jackets, boots, socket wrenches, gasoline engines, pond pumps, pipe fittings, and shit. The USA sells Chinese crap that does not last long, constantly breaks, and is worth a small fraction of what it costs--- yet humdreds of millions of USA citizens buy the crap.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 15 Oct 2015 #permalink

In reply to by Marco (not verified)

Baa! Baa-baa!

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 15 Oct 2015 #permalink

Ric A,

You can't win here. You espouse realism, but this blog is dedicated to fantasy perception is reality.

Like, the blog rules that Mark Steyn is going to be crushed, Reality is, Steyn was worried at the outset, but when given the choice to issue a retraction and avoid legal harassment,or not, and be destroyed, he inventively rejected the harassment, and then made millions proving his position. Mann loses. Which could have been predicted from his 5-year bachelor's degree from Berkeley with only a B+ GPA, getting his first paper in engineering, getting admitted to second-tier Yale physics, then dropping down to Geology, taking 14 years from college matriculation to his PhD, granted by Yale, for work done at U Massachusetts. (Yale said, "we can't give him a PhD done for research done here at Yale, but UMass work deserves a PhD from us."

I'm sorry, but UC Berkeley excellent students want to do PhDs at Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, Princeton. Then did postdocs at Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, Princeton, Cambridge, and Berkeley.
We can add, for specific studies, Cornell, Columbia and Chicago.

Doing your PhD-completing research at U Massachusetts, are you serious? Did you read, Mann, Bradley and Hughes--coauthors at UMass, and U Arizona, accepted before Yale gave Mann a PhD? Where is Mann's research-supervising Yale research advisor on this paper?

Greg, you know how this works. Was your Harvard PhD granted after you did research with SUNY and University of New Mexico researchers,without a Harvard professor named on your peer-reviewed capstone paper accepted by iNature, Science or PNAS?

By Mark Schooley MD (not verified) on 18 Oct 2015 #permalink

Mark, how did you become such a blithering idiot?

If you've been reading this blog the past couple of months, you know: Practice!

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 19 Oct 2015 #permalink

In the video below Joe Biden calls climate change “the most consequential issue of our time.” And it is, not because Biden says so, but because this is what those who research the problem tell us and this is what an increasing amount of evidence shows us.

If we were faced with an epidemic that left unchecked would kill off a substantial part of the population, we wouldn't count pennies or say that we shouldn't act until we develop an effective vaccine. We wouldn't wait for market solutions. We would expect our common voice, the government, to do whatever it could.

The technologies to reduce CO2 emissions are already available, and in many locations they produce energy at lower cost than fossil fuels. The reason Republican dominated Great Plains states get a significant amount of their electricity from wind is that it makes sense, also economic sense. And when we figure in externalities, the cost of fossil fuel produced power is even higher. Transitioning to renewable energy ought to be a no brainer, but no brainers don't work for persons with no brains.

By the way, the Danish electric bill consists mainly of various taxes. The cost of electricity is cheaper from onshore wind than from any other power source. This has been confirmed by the Danish Energy Agency and an EU analysis.

Moreover, the Danish investment in green technology isn't just a matter of cheaply produced electricity and low carbon heating. It also provides us with a significant number of well-paying jobs and increasing export revenues:

Eksporten af energiteknologi sætter rekord
Danske virksomheder, der producerer energiteknologi, eksporterede sidste år mere end nogensinde tidligere. I alt blev der eksporteret for 74,4 milliarder kroner. Det er en stigning på 10,7 procent i forhold til året før. Til sammenligning steg den samlede vareeksport med 0,6 procent.

(Export of energy technology sets record
Last year Danish companies that produce energy technology exported more than ever before. In all, exports amounted to 74.4 billion kroner. That is an increase of 10.7 percent in relation to the previous year. In comparison, the total export of goods rose 0.6 percent.)

By cosmicomics (not verified) on 19 Oct 2015 #permalink