Why Politicians Need to Think Like Scientists

"Earthrise" seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts in December 1968.
Lawmakers grappling with various issues, from global warming to counterterrorism, would benefit from thinking like a scientist, says a physicist congressman in a Sept. 27, 2012, issue of the journal Nature. (Image credit: NASA)

Global warming, counterterrorism efforts that profile Muslims, the shift to electronic voting machines — lawmakers grappling with these issues and others could benefit greatly from some scientific thinking, says a U.S. congressman and physicist.

While electing more scientists would address the problem, it is an unlikely solution, writes U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat who represents a New Jersey district. Instead, he writes nonscientist legislators need to become more comfortable thinking like scientists.

Science & the issues

Scientific thinkers share important traits, such as a realistic understanding of technology, using statistical thinking and an understanding that the path towards good solutions is paved with uncertainty, he writes.

For example, after the disputed presidential election of 2000, lawmakers and election officials embraced a switch to electronic voting machines. But this move alarmed computer scientists because software is prone to subtle errors, oversight is difficult and electronic elections are tempting targets for malevolent hackers, he writes in a commentary published in Thursday's (Sept. 27) issue of the journal Nature. [Quiz Bizarre U.S. Presidential Elections]

Likewise, statistical reasoning demonstrates why the New York City Police Department's counterterrorism practice of conducting surveillance on Muslims was not effective, Holt said.

That's because, he explained, Muslims have made about 50 million flights in the United States since 2001, but terrorists are exceedingly rare. As a result, even a highly accurate detection program at airports would still have falsely accused tens of thousands of innocent people. The result: Billions of dollars wasted and the creation of profound distrust for U.S. authorities among the Muslim community, he writes. 

As for global warming, "a failure to understand ordinary fluctuations in noisy climate data allows some members of Congress to believe that claims of human-induced climate change are a hoax, or that the data are so chaotic that no policy action can be devised," he writes.

A solution

The need to improve science education for everyone factors into the dearth of scientific thought among politicians, Holt said.

"The scientific thinking I am talking about is not available just to scientists. As long as we have an education program in this country that tells people you are either a scientist or you are not, then we need more trained scientists in public life," Holt told LiveScience. "But there is no reason we can't have more ordinary people comfortable dealing with science." [8 Celebrities Who Promote Science]

To help address the need in Congress, Holt calls for the re-establishment of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which was eliminated in 1995 by budget cuts. The OTA, supervised by a bipartisan panel, responded to questions about science and technology from Congress by conducting in-depth reviews using outside experts as well as in-house staff, he said, adding that when this office was operating, it elevated the level of discussion of these issues.   

By itself, the OTA wouldn't make a member of Congress more open-minded, or guarantee that a decision is based on evidence, "but it certainly helps," he said.

Scientists among politicians

"Congressman Holt is preaching to the choir," said Marc Hetherington, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "The world is an uncertain place, and politicians are wired to appreciate certainty."

The ability to work with uncertainty encourages politicians to keep long-term objectives in mind, rather than getting distracted by short-term outcomes, Hetherington said.

Politicians, particularly those in the executive branch dealing with issues like terrorism, live in constant fear of that one mistake, he said. "They almost certainly are going to be blamed for whatever occurs, and if they didn't do whatever possible, they are going to bear the brunt of that."

The demographics of American politics has changed over the past couple of generations, and the diversity of politicians' backgrounds, whether they be scientists or farmers, has given way to a scene dominated by business people and lawyers, Hetherington said.

The shift has happened for a number of reasons, including the increasing emphasis on the legal aspect of governance driven by an increase in the size of government, the crucial importance of fundraising and increasing demands for a full-time commitment from elected officials.

On the upside, this shift means an increase in politicians' technical proficiency in governance, "but what they lack is breadth of perspective," Hetherington said.

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Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.