Add ‘believes in science’ to the list of issues that Americans now find topical, important, and a point of division in the election. From Virginia Senator Mark Warner’s “Believes in Science” tagline to vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ trust in scientists over the President’s word, this is the new kitchen table issue.
So-called kitchen table issues are those that matter most to voters. The concepts that President Obama, in 2009, said were the “quiet struggles” Americans “wrestle with at the dinner table” as they sign checks for monthly bills.
Historically this has been wages, the rate of unemployment, the cost of groceries, tuition, and healthcare. At times, concerns have been manifest as symbolic to illustrate the point — like the price of milk. Over time this has expanded to include cultural issues like the second amendment, equal rights, and civil unrest.
At times too, candidates have attempted to manufacture kitchen table issues to incite fake outrage. As if the debunked Burisma narrative somehow affects the paychecks of Americans.
At Joe Biden’s town hall this week, the words ‘science’ and ‘scientist’ were mentioned fifteen times in total. During President Trump’s town hall held the same night? Once.
These concerns are used by voters as a litmus to measure how closely a candidate is aligned with their own beliefs. Belief in increasing the minimum wage, belief in pro-life or pro-choice stance, and now, how much credence they place in science.
Ultimately, will voters align with Joe Bidens’ trust in scientists, or Trump’s skepticism that “I don’t think the science knows,” (his response to questions about climate change as California fires raged)?
The answer to this question is largely partisan as candidates attempt to connect with each of their bases: Pew Research Center finds that 62% of Democrats have a lot of trust in scientists, compared with 20% of Republicans. And that party contrast was discernable during the dueling town halls between the presidential candidates.
At Democrat nominee Vice President Joe Biden’s town hall this week, the words ‘science’ and ‘scientist’ were mentioned fifteen times in total. During Republican President Trump’s town hall held the same night? Once.
Notably, the word ‘science’ occurred three times in the opening minutes when uttered during the very first question by a Pennsylvanian audience member. The self-proclaimed Democrat asked what a Biden administration might do in “following the science.” It was a leading question that was also used as a backhanded slap to the current administration who have not had “real concrete policies.”
Credibly speaking, the messenger counts
Overwhelmingly, research suggests that more Americans place increasing faith in science. According to Pew Research Center, 73% of Americans say science has had a mostly positive impact on society. An overwhelming 82% expect future developments in science to yield societal benefits.
Since 2016, the confidence that Americans place in scientists has increased by ten percentage points. As of 2019, nearly 86% of Americans place either a “fair amount” or “great deal” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest. That’s in stark contrast to the trust we place in elected officials, according to the report: a “great deal” of confidence in elected officials is just four percent.
And who we side with was on display during the vice-presidential debate.
Earlier this month, Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris was emphatic about the trust she places in the scientific community. When asked by the moderator if she would take a vaccine if approved by the Trump administration, the senator said, “If the public health professionals — if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us I should — that we should take it, I’m not taking it.”
Indeed, it’s not just the science — it’s the street cred of the messenger too. The second question at the Biden town hall, related to a potential vaccine mandate, was laced with a notion of trust bias. In her question to Biden, the registered Republican noted that “it’s not President Trump that would create this vaccine, it would be doctors and scientists that presumably we all trust.”
During Trump’s town hall, messenger credibility was on trial too. During one exchange, moderator Savannah Guthrie credited the University of Washington as claiming Covid-related deaths might be cut in half if everyone wore a mask.
President Trump responded that “others” would disagree, like Dr. Scott Atlas, whom he appointed to his coronavirus task force. Guthrie countered that the neuroradiologist is not an infectious disease expert, the connotation being that his opinion carries less weight in the scientific community.
Trump demurred. “Oh, I don’t know. Look, he’s an expert.”
Dr. Atlas, an advisor to the administration, had his Twitter account blocked on Sunday, as he violated the platform’s rules on spreading misinformation related to Covid-19. Twitter removed a tweet posted Saturday by Atlas, which claimed that masks don’t work to stop the spread of the virus.
A Twitter spokesperson told Newsweek that his “Masks work? NO!” tweet was in violation of Twitter’s Covid-19 misleading information policy, which could lead to harm.
In contrast, the CDC website states, “masks help stop the spread of COVID-19 to others.” It further recommends that people wear masks in public settings when around others who don’t live in the same household and when “you can’t stay 6 feet away from others.”
Is this still up for debate?
In state-level contests, science as a belief system is playing out too. On October 12th, Virginia Senator Mark Warner released an ad ahead of his final debate against Daniel Gade called “Science.” The spot sought to draw differences by focusing on the belief itself. Of his opponent, Warner said in the ad, “Gade actually believes wearing a mask is tyranny.”
His final tagline of “Senator Warner believes in science” is seemingly irrefutable. Is the counterargument “I don’t believe in science”? As if to say, would we still debate the (non)existence of the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, or Santa Claus?
But to some, perhaps science still is up for debate. Pew notes that many Americans still have a strong skepticism of the scientific method. Though 63% believe the scientific method produces sound conclusions, over one-third believe it can be used to develop “any result a researcher wants.”
This is where candidates are driving the wedge. From the presidential election to local contests, what we believe and who we trust to deliver the message is on the ballot.