Why is Congress Silent on Science Debates’ High-Stakes Science-related Questions?

According to Shawn Otto, U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives have ignored a request from Science Debate to answer eight science policy questions.  The questions were selected from hundreds submitted by scientists, engineers, educators, and concerned citizens.  Science Debate would like to know what elected officials in Washington think about science related policy issues facing the U.S. in 2012.  The eight Congressional questions, which were selected from 14 questions submitted to the campaigns of President Obama, and Governor Romney,  focus on topics such as innovation, climate change, education, energy and science in public policy.   Figure 1 is a “wordle” of the eight Science Debate questions.

Figure 1. Terms and Ideas in the Science Debate Congressional Questions

There are 535 members of Congress.  According to Shawn Otto, only two (or 0.37%) Congressional members have responded — Reps Henry Waxman and Chris Van Hollen.  Where is the other 99%?

Unlike students in K-12 schools and college, Congressional members have large staffs of paid full-time and part-time staffers.  Senators have on average 34 staffers, while members of the House have 18 or more.  No doubt neither Representative Waxman or Van Hollen will sit down and write the answers to the Science Debate questions.  Their respective staff will handle the job.  But what about the other 99%.

Why are they remaining silent?

Is Silence Golden?

It may be that most members of Congress believe  that “silence is golden.”  This really is a paradox, especially if you watch politicians compete for an office in either the U.S. House or  Senate.  Be that as it may, the Congress is stonewalling Science Debates’ attempt to engage them in a discussion of science related issues that face U.S. citizens.

Interestingly, many of the members of Congress contacted have strong opinions on many science issues.  For example, one of the questions submitted to Congressional members was this one on climate change:

The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

According to Think Progress and the Daily Kos, in nearly every state, there are members of Congress who question and challenge the scientific consensus of global warming. Many in Congress consider the scientific evidence is a hoax, scam or conspiracy.  They claim human’s  have had little influence on the climate, or at least they think the influence is unclear.  They deny that greenhouse gasses have any impact on global temperatures.  You would think that with such strong opinions, Congressional members would speak up on climate change.

Think Progress has documented that over half (56 percent) of the new Republican members of Congress deny or question the science of global warming.  Go over to this site to read the documentation.  Of the 47 Republicans in the Senate, 35 (74 percent) have publicly questioned the science related to global warming.  And more than half of the House of Representatives question the science.

Putting their views in writing to Science Debate might expose their political views,and it will show their lack of understanding and ignorance of basic scientific research.

For example, here are statements some representatives and senators have made.   Would they include statements like the following as part of their answers to the climate change question?

  • Climate change is nothing but a “hoax” that has been perpetrated out of the scientific community (Rep. Paul Broun, R-GA)
  • Climategate reveals a serious lack of integrity in the underlying data and models, such that it is doubtful that any process can be trusted until the data and models are validated and their integrity assured (Rep. Phil Gingrey,R-GA)
  • The EPA’s unilateral decision to regulate carbon dioxide would impose a de facto national energy tax on every sector of the economy and push our struggling job-creators off a cliff. This decision goes against all common sense, especially considering the many recent revelations of errors and obfuscation in the allegedly ‘settled science’ of global warming.(Rep. Tom Price, R-GA)
  •  I called the threat of catastrophic global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” a statement that, to put it mildly, was not viewed kindly by environmental extremists and their elitist organizations.(Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-OK)
  • Bill Shuster (R-PA) offered a new reason not to take action on global warming: it’s cold in Copenhagen, where the UN Climate Change Conference is taking place.

Figure 2. Terms and Ideas about Global Warming from a Sample of Congressional Members

I would have included statements by Democratic senators or representatives, but I could find no documentation that they agree with their Republican counterparts. Please follow this link to read documentation showing what congressional members think about science.

A related issue here is if these members of Congress think this way about climate change and global warming, what are their views on the teaching of science in American schools?  Do they think that teachers who design activities and projects engaging their students in data collection, and theory building about global climate change are perpetuating a hoax with America’s students?  Or do they join with many state legislators who think ideas such as global warming, evolution, origins of life, and human cloning should be critically analyzed because they are mere theories, and all points of view should be considered by science teachers.  With the support of the Discovery Institute, various states have figured out a way to get creationism and intelligent design into the curriculum through stealth.

The academic freedom bills that have been passed in Louisiana (2008), and Tennessee (2012) disguise their intent of teaching creationism and intelligent design using clever and slick language that they are coming to the rescue of science teachers by passing a law that protects teachers’ academic freedom to present lessons questioning and critiquing scientific theories being studied including but not limited to evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning. Kind of a poor “Trojan horse” scenario, don’t you think? Where is the theory of gravity, plate tectonics, and atomic theory on their to do list?

High-Stakes Questions?

Members of Congress  passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, a law that required each state in the country to develop tests in mathematics and reading, but over time, the policy makers decided that science and history should also be tested.  On the one hand, we have elected officials telling schools that all students should be subjected to high-stakes questions and tests, but on the other hand when asked to answer a few questions about science, they remain silent.

Why don’t Congressional members respond to the Science Debate questions?  To most members running for office, science is a non-issue.  It may be that expressing an opinion that shows an understanding of the nature of science might not be good politics.

What do you think?  Why aren’t members of Congress responding to the Science Debate questionnaire?



About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.