4 Reasons Why Scientists Don’t Become Politicians

1. They Don’t Want To

The first reason is a simple one, most have no desire to. Scientists generally love what they do and American politics is more demanding than ever. Becoming a politician usually means giving up a long pursued career that was worked hard to obtain.

Scientists are also experts in their field. They dedicate a significant portion of their time to studying one particular aspect of nature, then they contribute to their field by attempting to prove or disprove claims. This process works in gradual steps with occasional great leaps. During a scientific conference, one can observe the careful steps a scientist will take when presenting claims. They are quick to admit when they speculating in the slightest, knowing there is likely an expert in the room who will gleefully correct any mistakes. 

This is a stark contrast to the mentality of politicians and political discourse. One reason, is the scope of problems. Politicians deal with broad topics that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. An electorate is not exactly a diversified panel of experts either. Though there are experts in fields of economics, political science, and so on, there seems to be no specific objective approach to solving  many of our pressing problems. While many scientists are fully capable of handling a broad set of problems using skills in reasoning and problem solving, science itself says more about what is, than what should be.

It requires some small level of ignorance to make claims and decisions in politics, hoping for the best outcome based on the information one has. Scientists prefer to study the data personally and remain modest about truth claims. Scientists may be skeptical to committing fully to policy that is not fully supported by a complete body of research.

2. Value Judgements Are Not Perceived to Be Scientific Pursuits

Historically, scientists have been content with presenting the world with their findings and leaving the decision of how to use this information, for society. Though generally welcomed by the public, scientific communicators like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye, have been criticized by the scientific community for overstepping their bounds. A clear sense of duty to the truth is firmly ingrained in the scientific community. Without the clear evidence that hard sciences can provide, claims in the humanities can be viewed as more subjective than objective, and therefore is out of the realm for scientific claims. Being informed about scientific facts that influence value judgements is important but it is not the only thing that is important

3. Scientists Are Controversial

Scientists themselves are not all that controversial, but scientific truth claims often are. Politicians rely on influence and sometimes gaining that influence requires supporting unscientific claims that are representative of the voters. As strange as it may sound, our government is structured to elect leaders who represent the people and not necessarily the truth. Americans even have the freedom to be wrong, and to make it public policy. It is the job of the voters to be informed  and to then elect their representatives based on that understanding. In a society that is largely unaware of natural human biases and not specifically trained to mitigate them, science and popular opinion often collide. They are especially confrontational on issues regarding religion and other non-intuitive facts about climate change or vaccine effectiveness.

4. Disagreement and the Two Party System

While it is true that scientists have almost always run for office behind one of two parties, individual issues are non-partisan when it comes to scientific truth claims. A look into the structure of the scientific community reveals partisan only on issues where there are competing empirical claims. In some cases there are two models that compete to best explain observations. In other cases there may be more. How is it that a politician’s views on abortion or climate change can be a predictor of their economic policy prescriptions? What do these issues, and many others like them, have in common?  It is hard to imagine scientists in politics becoming entirely devoted to any single party that uses a dogmatic approach.

A Solution?

While bringing scientists into congress seems to be a great idea, it is not a fix all solution. These scientists have to be skilled and more importantly (especially in U.S. politics) confident in their broad, not specific, knowledge base. No doubt there are plenty of scientists who are capable of doing the job, there are few who are confident enough to think they can do it properly. Most scientist chose their profession because that is their passion in life. So why would they do anything else? Some scientists, especially given the recent political climate in the United States, feel it is time to speak out. Tracy Van Houten is a NASA aerospace engineer who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, decided to run for the 34th Congressional District in California. She gave an interview to The Atlantic, where she responded to if she agreed with the view of science as being above politics:


I agree that ideally, our STEM workforce should be focused on solving the problems of the world. I think all of us would probably much prefer to stay in our own domains and make change there. But unfortunately, that’s not working for us very well. We can’t say that science doesn’t have a place in politics. Politics has dragged us in.


Unofficial rogue government twitter accounts have also appeared, including NASA (@RogueNASA) along with many other agencies, to voice their opinions.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, explains a less direct influence science should have on politics. He would like to see political candidates tested in areas of critical thinking and problem solving. Some changes he would like to see in debate structures, as stated in a recent New York Times article:


To avoid receiving the candidates’ canned responses on these and other issues, I sometimes wish that a debate moderator would forgo a standard question about immigration or jobs and instead ask the candidates to solve a simple puzzle, make an elementary estimate, perform a basic calculation.


Ultimately the goal should not to elect a scientific team to lead the nation.  Most scientists have no interest in doing so and would lack the broad social and cultural decision making abilities required. To better integrate scientific ideals and principles into governmental practice, the public must speak the language of the scientific method and embrace the philosophy that follows. Having a scientifically literate public encourages literate representatives and provides an intellectual toolbox to judge claims. The American people are free to choose embracing science or not and will ultimately reap the rewards or suffer the consequences.

Let us hope for the former.

Please, comment below and let me know what you think.

Sources:

The Atlantic Article: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/nasa-tracy-van-houten/517335/

New York Times Article:

https://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/13/why-dont-americans-elect-scientists/?_r=0

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