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.