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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?


Been pondering this for years and believe there is a method. When Government fails to 'promote the general welfare' it opens itself up to improved methods. More structured methods exist that can be instituted to force our representatives to actually carry out what voters want; not what representatives want. America is not static, it learns - albeit slowly. Additional depressions will eventually force changes. One method would require voters to declare stances on all issues via an electronic QFD analysis, in order for voters stances to have legitimate voting weights. Voters QFD inputs would highlight tradeoffs for each decision. The complexity of QFD would need to be taught but its excellence for determining which way to head ends up being stunningly straightforward and has a common sense reality to it. QFD would end up documenting every stance, all arguments and tradeoffs, and the mathematics dictate which direction/decisions to make. Until a book is written on how to implement it I would recommend reading the next best book: The Law by Frederic Bastiat, (tiny) from ~1860.
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I think this has as much to do with personality types than anything else. I state this as someone married to a scientist/professor, and works with many engineer/scientists as well as marketing/business people. I think that if you *generally* look a typical scientist you will see that most scientist types will tend to be more introverted, focused, analytical, singularly driven, etc. *Generally* not the greatest communicators and salesmen. There are certainly exceptions to this, but I believe many of the traits that lend people to be very good scientists don't always lend to what tends to get people elected. If you look at the percentage of poiticians, you tend to have people with career backgrounds in which charisma is a main component (business, religious, lawyers, etc.)
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A US politician's job, especially at the national level, is mostly managing staff, some political strategy, and making speeches. All the nuts and bolts work is done by staff. Does manipulating people and public speaking really sound like work for an engineer?

Also, it makes a sort of sense that legislators are largely lawyers. Their core job function is creating laws after all. Doing so well ought to involve a thorough understanding of the legal principles used in their interpretation.
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Scientists usually like to solve problems and help people.
Politicians usually like to cause problems and hurt people.

People want all their problems solved in ways reality won't allow.
Reality wants to cause problems for people as a punishment for being "teh stoopid."
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Scientists are too busy trying to cure diseases, invent new wonderful things to make our lives better and trying to solve our worlds problems.

Politicians are usually busy circle jerking about voting to raise their own salaries and trying to get reelected.
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Americans will only vote for candidates who state they belief in a fantasy man in the sky who determines our fates and controls access to the afterlife. Scientists typically base their beliefs on evidence-based, peer-reviewed science - thus the disconnect.
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As Manticore correctly points out, American politicians are not typically scientists, especially at the national level. Check out the percentages in China's government, for example, and you see the opposite situation.

Or, perhaps because American politicians - again, especially at the national level - must be very wealthy to win a Congressional or Presidential campaign, and since scientists and engineers aren't a high percentage of the one percent, they are unable to sustain a campaign.
http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/11/chart-of-the-day-1.html
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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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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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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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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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