Recently, the two men who want to be next president of the United States appeared in a televised two-hour forum on faith, hosted by megachurch minister Rick Warren.
Religion has been problematic for both candidates in their campaigns. Barack Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, made controversial, conspiracy-laden statements about AIDS and racism, while John McCain’s spiritual advisor Rod Parsley claimed that America's "divine purpose" is to destroy Islam, which he considers a "false religion."
Still, it's not hard to see why the pair participated: The so-called Faith Forum had important political implications, as both candidates court conservative Christian voters.
Yet the bigger story is another, lesser-known debate — one that transcends faith or politics. The debate, slated for April 18 in Philadelphia, was arranged by ScienceDebate 2008, a bipartisan group of Nobel laureates and other scholars who want to bring science to the fore of public discussion. The idea of a science debate is supported by virtually every scientific organization in the country, including the National Academy of Sciences.
The reason you probably haven't heard about the Science Debate is that it didn't happen. None of the candidates accepted. They found time for other public forums, including the Faith Forum, and a "Compassion Forum," but when it came to science — the very engine that drives America's technology — the candidates were conspicuously silent.
Discussions of faith and compassion are fine, but solutions to the serious problems facing our nation and indeed the planet can only be found in science. It’s not clear why the candidates didn’t participate. Perhaps they felt that they weren't well-versed enough in science to really discuss it, lest the forum turn into an embarrassing, gaffe-riddled version of "Jeopardy!" Perhaps they think science isn’t sexy, and assumed that they should focus on more fundamental issues like the Iraq war, energy shortages, and the economy.
What they don't seem to understand is that science underlies all those issues, and many more. America needs a science-literate president now more than ever. Both Obama and McCain are intelligent people, but neither seems to recognize the importance of science to the future of our country. The point is not to ask the candidates to explain Faraday's law of induction, or know the difference between mitosis and meiosis, but a basic understanding of what science is, and how it works, is essential to creating good laws and public policy.
It's not too late; Obama and McCain can still have a Science Debate before the election if they realize how important science is. After all, our energy and environmental problems can’t be solved with hot air.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his Web site.