Thursday, June 19, 2008


My previous post on cancer research reminded me of an article that I read a while back about the tiny number of "scientists" in Congress. Even applying the loosest definition of the word, there are only 30 scientists out of 535 Senators and Representatives.

This is not a surprising fact, nor does it necessarily have to be a problematic one. A strong and curious mind can quickly be brought up to speed on the ways in which science can and should impact public policy - provided of course, that our politicians have both the desire to learn and an inner circle with sufficient expertise to recognize when a scientist's input is warranted.

Sadly, the testimony of the politicians in this article indicate that most of their colleagues seem to be lacking both. Representative Rush Holt (one of the 30 scientists) characterizes the issue perfectly when he says:

“We (the scientists in Congress) know more than our colleagues...but not more than they could know.”

So what does this mean for a voter?

My personal recommendation is to look for evidence of critical thinking ability in your candidates. Do they demonstrate an ability to handle nuance or do they grossly oversimplify issues? Do they change their mind in response to new facts? Does their background demonstrate an ability to work effectively in very diverse jobs or environments - and with diverse teams?

It seems that we usually don't have the opportunity to vote for someone that can clearly demonstrate any of these qualities. Fortunately, the article lists another, more actionable recommendation that we should demand our next President adopt:
Move quickly to appoint a science adviser and keep that person in the presidential inner circle.

This seems absurdly obvious to me... but I guess many of the best ideas are....


Unknown said...

Our politicans don't know a thing about science because ignorance of science/mathematics is not a taboo in our culture. If you don't know how to read, you're an imbecile, but if you don't know how to add, you're just "not a math person." If you don't know who John Adams was, you're an ignoramus, but if you don't know who Carolus Linnaeus was, then you're in fine company.

Our society has to change to value once again scientific and technical advancement and American leadership therein. It wasn't so long ago that we as a nation placed an importance on sci/tech, if only to beat the Russians at the game in the early days of the Space Age. As our daily lives become increasingly entangled with scientific and technological advancements (which, I think, is a good thing!), it will be increasingly important for the average person to be more scientifically literate. More scientifically literate politicans will follow.

Admittedly, this is vastly easier said than done, and I don't know the best way to go about it! But I think it's a cultural change that needs to occur if we are to stay on top.

Jared said...

I definitely agree with your overall point but would exchange Michael Jordon or Tom Cruise's name for John Adams'. Historical political figures are certainly more known/celebrated than scientists, but people would be ridiculed far more for not knowing the winner of the last Superbowl or American Idol more than they would not knowing the Senator or the Secretary of State...

You mentioned the value we placed on science in the past - particularly during the Cold War. I'm optimistic that an ambitious Chinese space program could get us fired up again. Obviously I would hope the competition would have a less antagonistic and/or fear driven spirit, but it does seem that their could be some good from America being challenged again...

It is shocking and sad to me that there will be AT LEAST a few years where Russia and China will be able to put a human being into space and the United States will NOT. (For those of you that don't follow NASA closely, the Space Shuttle is being retired in 2010 and we will not have a replacement craft until at least 2014).