On soft scientism in electoral politics


My scientist friend Jay recently shared a Business Insider article on Facebook. In that, ah, interesting headline style of the late twentyteens, it proclaims: "The US just sent 10 new scientists to Congress, including an ocean expert, a nurse, and a biochemist. Here's the full list."

Great, isn't it? And the good news continues into the article body:
A record number of women are in the ranks [of the 116th Congress, just convened in 2019] — 127, according to Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. They include the first Muslim women, the first Somali-American, and the first Native American women.

There are more scientists too.

Diversity in our representative legislature can be good; our motto is E pluribus unum, after all, and the legislature should be representative of the plurality.
Last November, 10 new science-credentialed candidates were elected: one senator and nine members of the House.
But now "scientists" have become "science-credentialed." Are "science-credentialed" people the same as "scientists"?
The scientifically-inclined members of the 115th Congress included one physicist, one microbiologist, and one chemist, as well as eight engineers and one mathematician. The medical professions were slightly better represented, with three nurses and 15 doctors, as well as at least three veterinarians.

These new lawmakers will bolster those science ranks.
We've come to "scientifically-inclined": Are medical professionals "scientists"? Are engineers and mathematicians, come to think of it?

I will now stipulate that this will not be a gate-keeping blog post.

I would politely correct anyone who would call me a scientist, though I strive to be science literate; and I wouldn't even call myself a mathematician, though I do "mathy" work at my current job and have a graduate degree in mathematics.

Nor am I somehow white-knighting for Jay, my true scientist friend.

Nor still am I putting down those professions and professionals in "non-science" fields. There is good and vital work to be done in all those areas, and that work requires specialized knowledge and methods. If that experience is relevant to politics, so much the better.

Okay, stipulations are over. On to the so-what: so what if Business Insider (not Science Insider, after all) fudges the categories a little and mixes scientists in with technicians and medical professionals? The point is that they're going to be For Science, right?

Not so fast. The BI article makes an error common in public discourse about "science" and "scientists"―credentials are taken to be a strong proxy for some nebulous "sciencey" virtue (if one holds Science as a virtue), and virtues tend to be fuzzy in the mind of the observer, and the positive connotations bleed into other judgments to raise the person disproportionately higher in esteem. This is a bias, maybe leading to disappointment: for example, a scientist (or "scientist," by Business Insider standards) could be sent to Congress to do politics In the Name of Science! and yet could be an awful politician with crappy policy proposals, for whatever metric you want to measure "being awful in politics" by.

What do "scientists" do? They do "science," but more specifically they conduct research and perform experiments. They write papers. They jostle for grant money or perhaps investment capital. They're in the business of creating new knowledge. (It may be of little use to the broader scientific community, but that's for the community to decide.)

Engineers, physicians, nurses, veterinarians, computer programmers: none of these fit the same bill. We do not want our doctors or designers of bridges conducting double-blind experiments. We expect computer programmers to ship code, and if they perfect some novel technique of software design along the way, great, but did the code ship and does it run? There are fundamentally different processes and expectations at work here, and it does nobody any good to confuse them.

What do we want politicians to do? Well, we expect them to be generalists: shaping and voting on legislation for domestic and foreign policy issues, staffing committees, making nice stump speeches, looking good or at least stately in photos. We allegedly want them to work in a "bipartisan" manner "reaching across the aisle" or something something Tip O'Neill and Newt Gingrich. Point being, none of that sounds like what scientists do, other than that maybe grant writing is like a stump speech, but scientists hate writing grant proposals and any scientist who doesn't is immediately suspect.

There's a certain value in electing scientifically-trained people to Congress, and that is viewpoint diversity. But the sciences are so specialized, it seems like a bit of a waste to expect good scientists to also be good politicians.

The other alleged value in the BI article (and others of a similar genre) seems to me to be something like "sciencey people in Congress will finally listen to those scientists who have been talking about $MY_FAVORITE_POLITICAL_ISSUE_BUT_PROBABLY_CLIMATE_CHANGE all this time." And that's a fairly fragile, low-expectations value.

What I think we really would appreciate, we who support Science in our governmental policies, is greater science literacy among lawmakers: that is, an appreciation for the methods and results of science, a conceptual framework that roughly associates relevant terms and important theories, and, yes, a certain deference to known experts and their consensus if one exists.

The specialization I mentioned earlier means that not even all scientists escape the trap of science illiteracy: highly knowledgeable about their central area of study, they may yet blunder off into other realms and come to some truly wild conclusions. Nobel laureate and famous chemistry guy Linus Pauling was also a famous case of crankitude―he became enamored with mega-doses of Vitamin C as a cure-all.

The other "sciencey" professions fare little better. Engineers get a bad rap in skeptic circles: the theory goes something like the aphorism "when all you have a is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" and ends with a lot of engineers making crankish statements about things outside their area of specialization. Super smart engineers fall for climate change denialism, flood geology creationism, and all sorts of other "fun" hypotheses.

Doctors and other medical professionals, who aren't even that poorly represented in American electoral history, can look to former Congressman Ron Paul and his son Rand as exemplars of "interesting" views on science. Or the failed Congressional candidate (but successful state Republican Party chair) from Oregon, Art Cunningham, he of a cringe-worthy dumpster-fire interview on Rachel Maddow―he's a bona fide biochemist (he worked with Pauling, funny enough), but man does he fling "as a scientist" and "scientific" around and stick these phrases on cuckoo-bananas conclusions.

People in politics often put their political values ahead of consensus science. This is not obviously a bad thing; it's worth a blog post of its own, but in a nutshell, should our political values be contingent on the available evidence, or are there some values that have an invariant core, though their political expression may change?

A science-literate, culturally-literate, numerically-literate politician, though, would not trample compelling evidence to retain a cherished political presupposition. They would not declare climate-change-related policy a sovereignty-stealing pretense by the U.N. because sometimes the weather still gets cold. ("Because God promised not to flood the world more than once," at least, is not a scientific reason.) They would not promulgate junk studies on the "dangers" of homosexual or transgender "lifestyles," or on pregnancies and birth control, to justify laws that suppress or criminalize these things. They would not license fake medical professions like naturopathy and the whole "complimentary and alternative" medicine crowd, giving them authority near to M.D.s but with a fraction of the training or expertise (and much of that expertise little more efficacious than magic spells).

The need for these literacies extends to all corners of the American electorate. It would be a mistake to assume that once literate, all would be woke, all would vote "properly." Values are different. Values color the evidence; but we should admit at least that the evidence in front of us is the same. We should be humble in our limited knowledge, grant careful and qualified deference to subject matter experts, but hold them accountable for failure.

Beware the paper proxy. Look at what the person does, and do not clothe them in a romantic ideal.