why scientists won’t be elected in the u.s.

February 23, 2012


Not too long ago, there was an interesting blog post over at NYT asking why Americans don’t elect nearly as many scientists as most other advanced countries, preferring lawyers and businesspeople. Scientists have been elected to Congress of course, and there are more than 20 lawmakers with advanced degrees. But the number of scientists on Capitol Hill maxes out at three while those holding advanced degrees are doctors. If we were to take a survey of many other advanced economies, we would find a much better balance of higher education in the sciences to those who studied law. Granted, many heads of state in the developed world are lawyers, like France’s Sarkozy and Spain’s Rajoy, but Germany’s Merkel has a degree in chemistry, Portugal’s Coelho is an economist, and Singapore’s top leaders both have PhDs in mathematics. And of course, we do need to mention that most of the Chinese oligarchy is composed of engineers. So why do scientists fare a lot better politically in other countries? Do Americans have terribly dim view of science and education? Or does a scientist simply lack the political skills necessary to persuade the American voters to take to the polls?

One of the possibilities the post didn’t try to explore was that Americans just don’t understand scientists and aren’t really sure how to start understanding them. And yes, I have proof of this. Scientists are often pictured to be a brooding lot sequestered in their ivory towers and lacking the social skills to market their ideas thanks to their immunity from real world problems. Of course a quick stint in grad school or beyond would certainly provide a very different view. Certainly some scientists at top research labs and with tenure are very much away from an inordinate amount of real world concerns, but most simply can’t afford to be. Many work with industry, write an entire library’s worth of exhaustive grant proposals, attend fundraisers to raise cash for their projects, and ask how they can turn their ideas into marketable ventures. Politics is extremely pervasive in academia because it determines who gets funding, where one can have an easier time getting published, and how much access a scientist has to a lab or weight to throw around to secure the required resources. You simply can’t exist in academia without knowing with whom to compromise and whom never to cross, even as a lowly grad student. Likewise, since scientists often deal with very limited funds, they’re not really that well off either while lawyers who sit in Congress today either routinely made six figures before running for office, or are millionaires.

But just talk to the American public and you will get an entirely different picture. Academics apparently get whatever they want from a bottomless pit of a budget which a disturbing number of Americans estimate at being in the hundreds of billions while it’s actually far, far less than that. If you follow right wing pundits, you’d think that colleges just shower professors with money while the truth is that most professors are adjuncts paid in what amounts to being below minimum wage, and they can be dismissed at any time for any reason. Job security simply does not exist in the academic world unless you’re absolutely brilliant and produce ideas that would interest private industry and can help fund more esoteric projects. True, scientists are often caught up in their jargon but so is anyone who works day in and day out in any particular field, but if they made it to their PhDs, it would be a safe bet to assume that they know how to navigate the world of politics. However, they would have a very difficult time with the partisan politics of today. Scientists really don’t like to deal with absolutes. When a pressing issue is on their desk, they want to take time to study it so being shoved in front of a camera while a pundit demands an immediate answer to complex problems for the audience at home, they’re not going to be all that able to cough one out. By contrast, many of today’s politicians are perfectly comfortable reading from a talking points memo, looking cool and in control. They’re not, but that is the perception and perceptions have an immense influence over voting preferences, and those who look like leaders are assumed to be.

Perhaps the worst misunderstanding of all between scientists and the general public is that many Americans tend to react to something they don’t understand with deference. Slip into jargon for a second or use scientific or mathematical terms and their first response will often be "yeah, I don’t know any of that stuff." Not "what did you mean by that," but a disinterested admission of ignorance. Americans seemed to have become used to a specialization between different types of careers and education, so much so that they separate who will need to know what. I see that myself all the time even though computer science is closer to engineering. Often, one of the first reactions to my attempt to explain a basic fix to a computer glitch is met with "you do it." Yes, I could do it but that’s not the point of my attempts to explain what will be done or teach someone how to do it. This is for their own benefit because next time a similar issue pops up, this person can just fix it without me there. So if something as immediate as how to handle a computer gets the brush off, how do you imagine physicists or astronomers or chemists being treated when they attempt to explain something complex? Few will listen to a lecture because many in the audience will feel that they don’t need to know this. You do this job, you figure all this stuff out. You can hear this attitude start in schools when students ask "will this be on the test?"

All that out there, why would Americans vote for people they believe to be out of touch, aloof, and impossible to understand because they know little about them and have even less interest in learning more? In an extreme case, you’ll even find those who think that hard sciences promote government tyranny because China is a very repressive state and many of its rulers happen to be engineers, which must mean that the two facts are related. It’s easier to trust that someone with a polished spiel and authoritative manner is really in control than have PhDs carefully hedge their bets and promise to study problems and find solutions rather than just spit out answers on cue. The result is that a lot of silver tongued empty suits win government leadership positions and then do nothing to rock the boat because they’re too afraid of doing the right but unpopular thing, or because they just don’t know what to do and it quickly becomes obvious that none of their talking points could actually translate into workable policy. Without a powerful block that pushes them to study problems and experiment with ideas for their solutions, no matter how counterintuitive they may be at first, we end up with a mess a lot like the one we have now. Those very same silver tongued empty suits are stuck in perpetual gridlock, pushing ferocious, ill-informed dogmatisms across the table and blaming each other when things predictably won’t work thanks to their best efforts in fixing things until they break.

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  • k. montgomery

    Good post. Interesting.

    I’m Canadian, and it’s always been something of a mystery to me the attitudes of citizens (in both our countries) towards science.

    For relatively modest monetary amounts, society gains so much from investment in basic research; perhaps not directly or immediately, but it does happen.

    A vigorous and diverse program of basic research is also a sign of a progressing society.

    Perhaps some of the societal attitude toward science comes from the very public actions of a few “scientists”. The recent “fakegate” incident comes to mind immediately, but we can think of others, e.g. the British scandal where an MD publicly linked autism to childhood immunization.

    Most scientists are not like that, but then they constitute a silent majority.

    For myself, nothing epitomizes society’s attitude to science and engineering than the almost complete abandonment of space exploration. Explain that one…

    Anyway, I do enjoy your posts, even if I don’t always agree with all of them. But that is how it should be in a functioning liberal democracy, which both of our countries have (at least for now).

  • Bruce Coulson

    Different skill sets. To become elected in the United States, one must be skilled in talking without saying anything, appearing to make no controversial decisions, and fund raising. Now, the last might well be partially known by scientists, who have to acquire grants; but a grant proposal is still different from simply getting people to donate funds on the basis that you will support their interests. (And since for federal elections, only around 200 people are giving out the amounts of money required, it’s also knowing whom to approach.)

    There’s also a different approach. Politics is all about managing people; science is about gathering, collating, and interpreting information. And as you noted, current politics is also about providing certainty. It’s not a reality of the world they are selling (along with themselves); it’s a desirable fantasy.

    There are people who have both skill sets. They are very few in number, which is why the vast majority of politicians in this country come from fields heavily involved in managing emotions and perceptions.

  • Michael Overton

    There’s also been a strong anti-intellectual undercurrent to our culture here in the U.S. that goes way back. You’ll find that on both sides of the political isle, but with the hard-right so obsessed with fighting evolution and global-warming they’ve taken it to nearly a war on science itself. People have a very distorted view of what the process is and how it works, and an inherent distrust of anybody that has become “elite”.

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  • Ack

    Scientists are too smart to be involved in politics. Seriously.

  • Kevin

    We don’t have that many in congress because they like the system how it is. Rather then advancing medicine, science, education, space travel, and other exploration; the current government is only concerned about how much they make at the end of the day- regardless of who they harm on the way.

  • Jeff Loats

    Thanks for the interesting discussion. The idea of yours that rang true to me the most was the idea that scientists are comfortable with nuance and dislike absolutes. That is very much the opposite of the political climate (especially at the moment).

  • Phil Page

    You forgot the mention that in the US a much higher % of the population believe the bible to be historically correct. These people people view science with suspicion, some even say there is a conspiracy by scientists regarding evolution and the age of the world.

    It’s also worth noting then, that Europe has a small number of atheist politicians. In the US you won’t get anywhere without being a god fearing Christian.

  • p

    it’s not that so many who know scientists (or other any other brand of academicians for that matter), think that they are lost in a ivory tower, but rather that like most bureaucrats, they often put “company line” and red tape before common sense.

    At best – a well-intentioned extremist whose overriding motivation is being employee of the month, while at worst willing to do Anything to keep to the department money following.

  • silifi

    A big factor is that in most other democracies, proportional representation is used. Lawyers and business people are natural public figures, while scientists are not. But in America, all congressmen are directly elected as individuals, while European MPs are on party-lists. It still involves politicking to get elected, but it’s more of the internal, backroom dealing sort, which scientists are more experienced with.

  • B.D

    however, there is a difference between scientist and PhD holders.
    A scientist produce, make discover…etc.
    A PhD holder is a person who did not succeed in real life industry and took the safe path of academia.

    Think about it!!
    A recent PhD graduate is a scientist if he/she/it find/found a job/company that can survive in the economy. these guys can get elected.
    A recent PhD graduate going to academia after graduating from academia with no practical life experience, is not really a so impressive thing.

    Hear an Emeritus professor saying all good scientist end up working in industry the “leftovers” stay in academia.

    Point is, unless you have a real life industry experience, people in here will look at you as a looser.

  • Frank Mill

    I hope English is not your first language

  • Truth

    To anyone who doesn’t have time to read the story, I will summarize. The reason Americans don’t elect more scientists is because Anericans are stupid.

  • BlaBla

    Nah, it’s much simpler than that. America is full of stupid people. The vast majority are all dolts and it’s an amazing thing that they can get out of bed in the morning without killing themselves.

    Look at who we emulate! Look at Miley Cyrus. George W. Quayle. Our leaders belittle those with intelligence and call them elitist. Over 80% of Americans sincerely believe in angels. With wings and harps. Even more believe in ghosts. We treasure those with no intellectual capacity like actors and sports figures.

    In general, humans are pretty stupid, but America has a preponderance of stupidity. Elect someone SMART? For krist’s sake they elected someone who choked on a pretzel until he nearly died – TWICE – and during his 8 year term he never could bring himself to pronounce it NUCLEAR, but “nukular” instead. Like a dumb*ss.

    Americans celebrate stupid and are distrustful of intelligence. They’re easier to control when they’re as vapid as sheep.

  • BlaBla

    There’s less intelligent people than the ultra-rich 1%-ers.

  • BradM

    I’m sorry but I don’t think author did her research. There are all kinds of science degreed individuals in politics. 23 have PhD’s. We also have medical doctors, astronauts, engineers, veterinarians, psychologists, and nurses. There is even two dentists. Jimmy Carter was an engineer by education. It has nothing to do with society, religion, the 1% and everything to do with the individuals going into these fields. If they have political aspirations and they have cultivated leadership skills, they can and have been elected. As for the “ignorant” right, there is one law maker that has no education, care to guess which party?

  • hans

    because scientists look at things objectively instead of politicians whose only objective is to protect the interest of a certain demographic or worse a handfull of rich bastards