Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Presidential Wordles: Obama and Romney on Science


Scientific American and ScienceDebate.org partnered up earlier this summer and asked President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney some key questions about their stances on issues related to science, technology and education. This is quite important because presidential debates and interviews with presidential candidates often gloss over science and science-related topics. This is not due to some sort of conspiracy among presidential candidates and debate moderators or interviewers that allows them to neglect policy stances about science and technology. Instead, there seems to be a lack of interest among the general public regarding the science policies of the presidential candidates that they might elect. To illustrate this, one only needs to review the 32 "crowd-sourced" questions that the readers of The Atlantic would like to ask the presidential candidates. In this list, we can find numerous questions related to the budget deficit, wars, terrorism, economy or taxes, but not a single question that focuses on science or technology. Being a scientist, I am probably biased in favor of emphasizing the important role that science plays in our everyday lives, but I think that even non-scientists would admit that science and technology are quite central to contemporary society. It would therefore make sense to carefully evaluate a presidential candidate’s policies in regards to science, technology and education prior to casting one’s vote.
            Instead of waiting for some elusive and sparse questions about scientific issues that the candidates may encounter prior to the upcoming presidential election in November 2012, Scientific American and ScienceDebate.org took a pro-active approach and sent them a list of questions related to science, technology and education. These carefully selected questions touch on many of the major science and technology related issues that ought to be of interest to the US voters and should factor into their decision-making. They were based in part on questions that readers of the Scientific American Blog submitted as their top science-related questions for the presidential candidates. Unlike the broad request for questions by The Atlantic, the Scientific American readers were specifically asked to submit science and technology related questions by the editor Bora Zivkovic.
I look forward to an in-depth and serious analysis of Obama’s and Romney’s  responses by the editors of Scientific American, which will be published in the upcoming November issue. However, since I am neither profound nor serious, I decided to perform my own superficial and fun analysis of some of the responses using the online app Wordle. The Wordle app generates images of texts show-casing the words, based on the frequency of the words used in the input text. The more often a word is used in a text, the larger the font of the word in the generated image. I chose four questions that I was especially interested in because they relate to general science policy and education and I plugged in the responses of the candidates into the Wordle app.
1. Innovation and the Economy. Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?
Obama Answer to Question 1
Romney Answer to Question 1

When we look at the Wordles of both responses, we can see that both candidates used the word “American” frequently and they use the expected buzz-words innovation, economy, workers and jobs. However, what does stand out is that in Obama’s response, science and math are specifically mentioned, whereas Mitt Romney’s response seems to use the word “tax” frequently. This does strike me as a bit odd; after all, the question is about science and technology leadership and it is not clear why taxes should be such a prominent part of the response. The other distinguishing feature of the two responses is that Obama specifically mentions science and math, whereas Romney’s response does not use the word science at all. 

3. Research and the Future. Federally funded research has helped to produce America’s major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research. Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?
Obama Answer to Question 3
Romney Answer to Question 3

The Wordles do not seem too different – research and energy appears prominently in the responses of both candidates. Romney mentions Obama multiple times, but this can be attributed to the fact that as a challenger he feels the need to highlight flaws and mistakes of the incumbent president. The Wordle does reveal that Romney uses “companies” multiple times in a response to a question about federal funding of research.

5. Education. Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?
Obama Answer to Question 5
Romney Answer to Question 5
  
The Wordle of Obama’s response indicates a repeated mention of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math, whereas Romney’s response manages to completely avoid using the expression science or the all-inclusive STEM, but does have a couple of references to “technology”. Instead, there is an oddly frequent occurrence of the word “unions” in Romney’s response. I was so puzzled by “unions” in a response to a question about science and math education, that I decided to read his full response and realized that Romney believes teachers unions are to blame for the poor science and math education in the US.  

11. Science in Public Policy. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions. How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?
Obama Answer to Question 11
Romney Answer to Question 11

The one key difference in the Wordles of the responses to a question about public policy is that Obama responds using the word “public”, whereas Romney seems to be quite concerned with EPA regulations regarding mercury and pollution in general. Other than that, there does not seem to be any obvious difference in the word frequencies.

This Wordle analysis did not involve actual reading and interpretation of the responses – it therefore does not constitute an in-depth analysis of the science policies of the two candidates. Nevertheless, this simple automated enumeration of words did reveal some unexpected results, such as Romney’s repeated mention of “taxes” and “unions” in responses to questions related to science and education. It is likely that the frequent recurrence of these expressions is indicative of some key differences in the approaches of the two candidates to the policy goals for science and technology. I look forward to the in-depth analysis of the Scientific American editors and, more importantly, I hope that American voters will consider the science policies of the candidates when they cast their votes in November.

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