Wednesday, April 4, 2012

HELP WANTED: More Scientists For Political Office

Science & Government

“During my eighty-seven years I have witnessed a whole succession of technological revolutions. But none of them has done away with the need for character in the individual or the ability to think.”
Bernard Baruch [1870-1965]

Among the United States members of congress, 535 in total, few are scientifically knowledgeable. More than 100 deny evolution. The numbers are similar in Canada. This troubles some persons, chiefly scientists and organizations that benefit economically from technology and its promotion and advancement.

Then it would make perfect sense to see scientists become more politically involved. How about a scientist as president or prime minister? It’s true that you rarely see scientists running for political office, probably because the campaign is not something most scientists can accomplish with poise, certainty and success. It involves skills that most scientists do not posses, including guile, arrogance and an ability to negotiate, cajole and bargain in the give-and-take of national politics. In China, where science is revered as much as Marxism and Christianity, many members of the ruling elite are scientists. Of course, they are appointed.

At at time when science and technology are becoming more important in the lives of citizens, the suggestion pops up that it might be a good idea for persons responsible for making political decisions to have some knowledge and comfort about science, at least the fundamentals. Most don't have such knowledge at a time when science is playing an increasingly important role in the lives of citizens.

Jeremy Grantham, a self-described plutocrat who has benefited greatly from capitalism, has written about capitalism's current weaknesses, one being the lack of scientific knowledge at the political level. Grantham,  the founder and chief strategist of the asset-management firm GMO, which manages about $100 billion in assets, wrote the following in his quarterly newsletter (February 2012):
It would certainly help if the general public were better educated, especially in science. The same applies, unfortunately, to Congress itself. This body is desperately short of scientists and basic familiarity with things scientific. Our key problems need to be addressed by people very familiar and comfortable with science. It is said that eight of the nine senior leaders in China’s government are scientists. At that high a level, of our 535 Congressmen and the President and Vice President, less than a handful – arguably only two or three – would pass the test.
I agree with the first sentence wholeheartedly, since a better understanding of science is necessary in today's technologically advanced society. Ignorance is not bliss, and much of our future advancement, at least as it applies to our comfort and physical well-being, depends on science and its off-shoot, technology. But, in response to the question as to whether more of democracy’s legislators need be scientists, that is, if scientists were able to adapt to the punishing climate of a campaign,  I would answer a qualified no.

My feeling is that it would lead to a technical elite that would have poor understanding and sympathy for democracy's chief fundamentals, including the give and take of political bargaining and necessary compromises. It was Bismark who reportedly said that “politics is the art of the possible,” whose meaning is clear. Scientists, on the whole, have become overly practical and narrowly focused. It's a habit formed from years of training and a by-product of the academic and research climate they work under. Science today likely demands such a mind.

I am a firm believer in science, but not in the scientist-politician; scientists can do a far better job for society conducting pure and applied research. Just as legislators need not be lawyers or physicians or businesspersonss, they need not be scientists. Legislators need to be well-informed persons with an ability to analyse issues and understand the complexities of a subject. But it might be good if such legislators would hire more aides who held degrees in hard sciences and engineering, so as to help explain scientific language and ideas in non-scientific idiom. That is, if that is already not the case.

Legislators ought to be intelligent enough to understand and respect the scientific method and the advances this entails. But they need not be scientists to achieve this. Not yet. Not now. Perhaps never.

A course in morality (and humility) might be the better option.


  1. I had never before heard that so many of China's leaders were scientists. It is the strongest argument imaginable against scientists in office.
    China's leaders have faith--in the eternal truth of the words of Marx. That is why they enforce thought control.
    The best counterexample is Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel.

  2. Good point regarding China. As for Chaim Weizmann, he was a great scientist. His position as president was, of course, ceremonial.

  3. I see what I consider a misconception of what science is. It is not training in a discipline like chemistry or physics. It is training in interpreting the environment in a particular critical manner. It is a way of thought that can be applied to almost any aspect of life. Years ago I suggested to an educator that training in the philosophy of science an the scientific method should start in elementary school, possibly in kindergarten. He laughed. Maybe that is the reason we are in such bad political shape.

  4. Harvey M:

    Yes, you're quite correct that science teaches a student a certain way of thinking, in keeping with the scientific method. But does that make scientists better in politics than others steeped in the humanities?


Comment Policy:

All comments will be moderated; and bear in mind that anonymous, hostile, vulgar and off-topic comments will not be published. Thoughtful, reasonable and clear comments, bearing your real name, will be. All comments must be in English.