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Why Don't Americans Elect Scientists?

John Allen Paulos of The New York Times' opinion column Campaign Stops ponders noted that amongst the 435 members of the House of Representatives, there are only one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologists, six engineers.

Why, he wonders, aren't there more scientists in the world of politics:

For complex historical reasons, Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist, even while publicly paying lip service to them.

One reason is that an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs and scientists are sometimes tone-deaf to the social environment in which they state their conclusions. A more politically sensitive approach to problems and issues, on the other hand, often leads to positions that simply don’t jibe with the facts, no matter how delicately phrased. Examples as diverse as stem cell research and the economic stimulus abound.

Politicians, whose job is in many ways more difficult than that of scientists, naturally try to sway their disparate constituencies, but the prevailing celebrity-infatuated, money-driven culture and their personal ambitions often lead them to employ rhetorical tricks rather than logical arguments. Both Republicans and Democrats massage statistics, use numbers to provide decoration rather than information, dismiss, or at least distort, the opinions of experts, torture the law of the excluded middle (i.e., flip-flop), equivocate, derogate and obfuscate.

Link (Photo: Shutterstock)

I have a different opinion: Perhaps scientists are too smart to engage in politics. What do you think?


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Ironically, the accompanying istock image in the article above might be partially to blame. At least, an example of the deeper problem.

The iconic stereotype of scientists in western society includes a removed, aloof character that is disconnected from you're average person. This is encouraged when a general representative of 'scientist' portrayed (as above). While there are no doubt many reasons contributing to the absence of scientists in politics, I think the expectation of scientists to be disconnected observers who are out of touch with Joe Average plays a role.
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Scientists engage in politics all the time. A crap-ton of studies come with policy recommendations attached, almost always of the busybody variety.
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The same reason we never get picked for juries. Those who wish to sway the opinion of representatives do not want their campaign contributions countered by the inconvenience of cold, hard facts.
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Forget scientists; vote for philosophers. Even in a perfect world where a politician could make decisions based on perfect information and without interference from lobbyists and the desire for reelection, scientists still wouldn't necessarily be ideal leaders. Politics is rarely about weighing established facts and finding some scientifically optimal solution; it's about weighing complex, often conflicting uncertainties and finding a morally optimal solution.
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