Chapter 15. Why are Politicians so Scientifically Illiterate?
A United States policy that could find no other option, he suggested, was one of “indolent short-term expediency.”
—Barbara Tuchman (Stillwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945)
Elected officials in general are scientifically illiterate for two reasons: first, they often are either businessmen or –women, or attorneys, and neither one of these professions requires or encourage scientific literacy; and, second, real scientists and serious teachers, those who are most likely to be quite literate, typically have neither the taste for, nor the resources to seek, elected public office. In a pluralistic society such as ours, both reasons are fairly legitimate. Later on in this chapter I’ll come back to the business community and its scientific literacy because this subject is a rich one to use in exploring the interrelationships between science, technology, national security, and economic health. The legal profession, however, has little or no reason to be scientifically literate except in cases involving modern forensics or industries that are heavily dependent on technology. Lawyers and businessmen can, however, and often do, hire their scientific literacy in the form of consultants and expert witnesses, either of which may be quite literate, but neither of which is particularly constrained by the unwritten laws of real science. In other words, consultants and expert witnesses don’t necessarily do science; instead, they are skilled consumers and users of science.
In a previous chapter I defined “scientific literacy” and explored its several applications. In this chapter I’m actually going to address the problems of science education, but not necessarily what we typically think of as “science education” in the public school sense. Instead, I will focus on what we might call “deep” education, that is, the kind that changes the way we view the world. For example, we might claim that having a vague sense of what a molecule is, and perhaps even being able to define the term, counts as being at least somewhat scientifically literate. After all, you have a word and an idea in your mind and you’re not completely baffled when you hear the word spoken on television or read it in the newspaper. Furthermore, you might actually be able to use this word in a complete sentence, such as “I wonder whether the molecules in these pills will make me sick if I swallow them with good Irish whiskey,” or “I wonder whether some of the molecules in that bag of lawn chemicals will kill my cat.” These particular sentences reveal an incipient scientific-type curiosity, whereas the sentence “Don’t bother me with all that talk about molecules, just give me something to cure this headache,” although also a complete sentence, nevertheless expresses a naïveté typical of the scientifically illiterate.
The deep education is revealed, however, when you incorporate the idea of a molecule into your daily decision making, regardless of whether the decisions are simple easy ones (whether to put sugar or artificial sweetener on your cereal) or more long term and difficult ones (whether to stop taking your prescribed medicine because of a newspaper report on associated side effects in a small number of cases). In the first instance, you feel comfortable making the simple decision because you also have a third choice, namely neither, and you don’t know anyone who’s actually been hurt by either sugar or artificial sweetener, at least in single doses. Your molecular decision may be influenced by your weight on any particular day, by your weight on previous days, on your desired weight, or on the feeling of having achieved a goal relative to weight control. Although the decision to use sugar or substitute is a pretty trivial one in scientific terms, when that decision becomes part of an overall engagement with matters of diet and weight control, especially for sound and healthy reasons, then the decision indicates a fairly sophisticated engagement with biology as a science, albeit at a highly personal level. And, if you actually read labels on food products and understand most of what these products contain, you’re well on your way toward becoming scientifically literate.
The second instance, namely, the decision to stop taking a prescription drug, is more troublesome because you really don’t have much control over many of the factors that went into your possession of this supply of molecules. You did not write the prescription; your doctor wrote it based on observations that you might know but probably don’t completely understand. You don’t have any information beyond what’s written in the newspaper about the serious side effects cases or from various web sites, some of them provided by the pharmaceutical industry and others provided by kooks. In the best of all worlds you quit taking the medicine and don’t notice much difference in your health because the medicine wasn’t having any dramatic effects anyway (this actually was the case with me and a drug prescribed for joint pain). In the worst of all worlds you start worrying about the potential side effects and can’t seem to get a straight answer from your doctor or HMO. So it becomes a relief when the company that manufactures this drug pulls it from the market. The deep decision has been made for you.
The decisions that I’ve called “deep” are ones that involve both a breadth of scientific knowledge and a propensity, derived from an understanding of science as a way of knowing, to evaluate evidence supporting an assertion and to think in comparative terms. Deep decisions accept the fundamental nature of science, namely its dependence on observations, the independence of those observations from your desires or beliefs, and the fact that to be relevant, observations must function to test an assertion. Such decisions also accept the idea of probability and the fact of statistical variation instead of demanding certainty. In the case of the sugar substitute decision, you may well have shown a high level of scientific literacy if you engaged in all the label reading and diet design activities intended to keep you healthy and actually knew why you were doing these acts. In addition, such literacy probably primed you to acquire further scientific knowledge and understanding if needed, e.g., when faced with a significant environmental issue affecting your property values.
Furthermore, if you’re convinced that your dietary awareness, exercise, and label reading keeps your weight and cholesterol under control then you’re sort of a walking experiment but with a sample size of one and no control group with which to compare yourself. Nevertheless, you have a testable assertion regarding your own body and through your activity based on scientific literacy you are testing that assertion about weight and blood chemistry, and probably also self-esteem. Regardless of the sample size and lack of control group, you are making decisions that affect yourself and perhaps others, such as family members, using knowledge about the natural world, and using that knowledge in a rational way consistent with scientific practice. The alternate version of this assertion, that if you consume large quantities of certain kinds of molecules you will become heavier and less healthy (as revealed by a bathroom scale and the blood work at annual physical exam time), is also well within your power to test, but your decision not to test it is an example of one based on a meaningful relationship between desire and nature. In other words, nature will allow you to fulfill your desire, provided you interact with nature in a way suggested by scientific knowledge about how nature—your body—works.
As indicated in the previous chapter, testable assertions are the hallmark of science, and later I’ll expand on this scientific property within the context of political action. But for the moment, we should remember that in the political arena, assertions are testable only within an historical framework. In other words, politics is an historical discipline with its own rules of evidence that may not match those of proximal or normal science, i.e., the kind of science that does experiments with material amenable to experimentation. Within the realm of history, you can’t really do “experiments,” as we properly define the term; you can only assess the validity of some assertion by looking back on what actually happened when you acted as if that assertion was true. There is no better example of this kind of historical assertion testing than the Iraq war that began with the invasion of that nation by a group of other nations, led mostly by the United States, in 2003. The assertion that Saddam was developing, or had and intended to use “weapons of mass destruction,” the assertion that Iraqis would quickly adopt an American-style democracy once their dictator was overthrown, the assertion that Iraq would be a business-friendly working environment shortly after hostilities ceased, all were tested and shown to be false. But unlike a real experiment, say involving bacterial metabolism, you can’t go back and start over with Iraq.
The vast majority of all politicians rely on public approval to sustain their employment. In addition, once in office, the trappings of power can become quite seductive. These two facets of political life are among the main reasons that politicians are so scientifically illiterate, or at least act as if they are. Nevertheless, most if not all positions occupied by politicians also involve major responsibilities, compliance with various laws, ceremonial activities, and nowadays, public scrutiny of religious beliefs and behaviors demonstrating “faith.” Nobody who professes to be an atheist should be so stupid as to spend money running for public office in the United States of America, no matter how lowly that office might be or how qualified the individual. Elected membership on the Lancaster County, Nebraska, Weed Control Authority comes immediately to mind; no self-proclaimed secular humanists need apply. Thus politicians are scientifically illiterate, or act as if they are, because the demands of public office, the need for public approval, and the constant scrutiny of their faith-based behavior, all job-related phenomena that work to make such literacy a liability instead of an asset.
Besides the factors of responsibility, approval, and scrutiny, it is also important to remember that mobs want answers and solutions, not questions and problems, from their leaders. In general, science tends to produce more questions and problems than answers and solutions. This tendency derives from the fundamental nature of science as an activity. Elsewhere in this book I use the metaphor of an island of understanding in a sea of ignorance to explain why science produces more problems than solutions. Remember that as an island grows in size (increase in understanding) its shoreline (the boundary between understanding and ignorance) also grows. All the questions and problems lie along this boundary. In addition, to continue with the metaphor, the larger an island gets, the more geographically diverse it tends to become. If that geographic diversity involves mountains, then we have a high perch from which to observe the sea of ignorance. Routinely such observation shows that sea to be much larger than we imagined when we were only down on our hands and knees in the sand studying nature at the [metaphorical] shore.
The familiar case of New Orleans vs. Hurricane Katrina beautifully illustrates all these points about breadth of knowledge, comparative thinking, observations, history, and the basic properties of science. Breadth of knowledge is perhaps the most important factor that should have been considered in the political decisions involving the Mississippi Delta ecology. Thus a broadly educated politician would never simply ask how much money an ecological project—for example, a system of levees and an artificial river (the New Orleans shipping channel)—costs, or how much money the public is willing to spend on such a project. Instead, as a minimum, a broadly educated politician considers history, socio-economic conditions, the probability of disaster, the quality of expertise consulted, whether or not that expertise is in agreement with other expertise from diverse sources, the nature of observations, the process of analysis, and whether the process itself has obvious flaws or internal contradictions. In other words, to really assess the adequacy of New Orleans levees, one would have to study the Mississippi Delta using approaches that would be quite familiar to any evolutionary biologist.
Research over the past half century, i.e., activity increasing both the size of our island of understanding and the length of its shoreline boundary with the sea of ignorance, clearly revealed (produced) more questions and problems about the Mississippi Delta region than answers and solutions. Such research involved new technologies such as satellite imagery, geographic information system software, and socio-economic analysis, as well as experience derived from study of the Achafalaya River and its basin using more conventional methods—measurement of stream flow, sedimentation and erosion rates, pressures on diversion dams and gates, etc. Over the years, the scientific community came to realize that the initial problem and its solution, namely, keeping water out of New Orleans by building levees, was actually only a small part of a much larger problem, specifically, long term management of the interrelationship between a nation’s economy and one of the world’s largest rivers. This kind of collective activity, in which a truly massive ecosystem is the primary player at the center of a highly integrated, far-reaching, transportation and financial network, does not lend itself to governance by mobs that want answers and solutions, not questions and problems, from their leaders. Instead, this kind of system requires almost Jeffersonian dignity, patience, foresight, and breadth, traits that don’t survive well in our Third Millennium media-driven electioneering environment.
Such a broad education, and its use in a public arena, is therefore a lot, indeed probably too much, to ask of any modern politician. But then, of course, it is the job of any newspaper reporter half-way qualified for his or her job to ask the right questions of elected officials in order to reveal those officials’ breadth of knowledge in situations involving natural phenomena, or, in the best of all worlds, to inspire those politicians to acquire knowledge, wisdom, and some decent honest advisers who are not just sycophants. Sadly, perhaps for reasons that are deeply embedded in the human DNA, as a general rule we are not patient with careful analysis, complex interactions between elements of nature, varying degrees of probability, and leaders who are honest about the chances that disaster will befall us. Instead, we seem to admire leaders who are strong advocates of actions based on our beliefs and desires, who inspire us to be courageous, and who tend to simplify a complex universe down to issues and explanations we can understand. And leaders who can convince us we are in danger, and seem to be fighting that danger in an obvious way, are the ones we seem to admire the most. None of this typical interaction between a population and its chosen leaders promotes scientific literacy or honesty about the relationship between nature and people.
I do not claim that scientists, because they are scientists, are more honest or broadly educated than politicians. In the realm of science, however, the honesty system operates much more strongly and rapidly than in the realm of politics, mainly because this system typically involves anonymous review of scientific work before that work is made public, and it does not involve public decision-making. If you are doing experiments on the sex life of some tiny worm, and try to publish your results then some well-educated scientist will scrutinize your methods, including your experimental design, statistical analysis, rationale for doing the project in the first place, interpretations of the results, the extent to which you have taken existing knowledge into account, and even the quality of your writing. All this review does not necessarily make you an honest person, but it does tend to pick up flaws in your thinking and mistakes in your actions. But if you go to a cocktail party filled with attorneys and elected city officials, the main question you are likely to be asked about this research is: “Why is this kind of stuff important?” The question really means: “Why are you wasting time and money, maybe even tax money, on this kind of activity, and why do you seem to be so interested in sex?”
There may be a thousand good reasons why you are studying the sex life of obscure worms, but these reasons probably involve the fundamental nature of science itself. The worms could, potentially, become a model system for the study of hormone action at the cellular level, thus serving to help explain developmental anomalies in humans, livestock, and companion animals. The worms might be extraordinarily beautiful creatures under the microscope, thus quite attractive to students who in turn could easily become internationally renowned scholars studying some global human affliction but who remember fondly their carefree undergrad days back in the lab when all they had to talk about was worm sex. The worms’ reproductive biology could easily shed light on the origin of sex itself, or the evolution of pheromones, both subjects of enormous interest to the scientific community. Pheromone action, as you might suspect, also could be of substantial interest to the cosmetics industry. When a scientist hears that another scientist is studying the sex life of obscure worms, then all of the possibilities mentioned in this paragraph usually come to mind because scientists typically understand how science itself works on a grand scale. Politicians, however, like their constituencies, rarely get past the issues of time, money (especially tax money), and sex, although sometimes, if not often, there is a hidden disdain for people who would spend their lives studying microscopic creatures with no immediate economic importance.
In our example of the worms, politicians’ focus on time, money, sex, and utility is not necessarily stupid, evil, or dangerous, although it has the potential for being all three. In the previous paragraph, I’ve actually revealed all the reasons why in order to remain economically competitive in a technologically competitive world, a nation needs to have a strong, healthy, broad, and active scientific enterprise. Flourishing scientific activity, sustained largely by curiosity about the natural world, breeds scientists, models, new ways of studying nature, and new applications of existing technology. In other words, it is the human resources that are of prime importance to a highly developed nation, not the discoveries themselves. Given enough human resources engaged in research, techniques for studying heretofore mysterious aspects of nature will be developed and the discoveries will be made. Furthermore, breadth of research interest tends to produce transferable technologies, a critical factor in sustaining a technology-based economy.
The laser (light amplification by stimulated emission) is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon from 20th Century science in the United States. A brief history of this technological development can be found on the Bell Labs web site (www.bell-labs.com/history/laser/), but in essence, two scientists—Arthur L. Schawlow and Charles H. Townes—developed the technology from research that began in the 1940s. Schawlow was a researcher at Bell Labs, and Townes was a consultant to the Bell Labs research enterprise. These scientists’ primary interest at the time was molecular structure, and the laser was intended to be a device to help them pursue their research in this area. The commercial development of this technology, along with its rapid spread throughout almost all aspects of modern American life, can be traced to the publication of a paper entitled Infrared and Optical Masers (in Physical Review, volume 112, pages 1940-1949, published December 15, 1958). You can read this original piece of science simply by doing a Google® search using the title—Infrared and Optical Masers—as your search term. Now we have laser pointers in the classroom, laser surgery in the hospital, laser scanning in the grocery story, etc. Although the laser may be the most easily understood example of transferable technology, our daily lives are filled with other cases. And, of course, science feeds on itself in this regard, with practicing scientists always looking for new applications for new and existing technologies.
Another history lesson—actually a rule of human resource development—that politicians typically fail to understand is the following: Artists often spring quickly, even spontaneously, out of a population, but scientists do not. Technological advances and economically important innovations might periodically emerge out of the realm of basic science, but the “realm of basic science” requires a vastly different cultural milieu than does the intellectual soup that spawns artists. Any nation that does not outright suppress or punish artists will end up with a good supply of them, and musicians as well, but to be economically competitive in the Third Millennium, nations need lots of healthy, authentic, curiosity-directed, scientists and such individuals are not guaranteed to arise, and become legitimate scientists, by virtue of their own two hands and a paintbrush or a guitar. Science needs physical facilities, computational power, technology, ready access to information on a global scale, time, and patience. To be economically competitive in the Third Millennium, a nation does not need a bunch of ignorant elected officials, afraid of science, afraid of the word “evolution,” and afraid of anything that seems to support immoral behavior. A nation needs, instead, a bunch of courageous and intellectually honest people who have the interpersonal and verbal skills to help educate its citizens on scientific matters, and especially on the link between economic health and a valid understanding of how nature operates.