Thinking Like a Scientist: Solution to Politics?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Is there a science to the way American politics is conducted? Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) argues that more scientific thought is needed when it comes to the political system. Rep. Holt argues that thinking analytically — whether it's when drafting bills, negotiating in Congress, or creating new programs — would lead to higher value political policies. He wrote about this issue for Nature

Rep. Holt is the only physicist in Congress today and is the ranking member of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, which focuses on addressing global warming and climate change. 

"My constituents often say, 'Isn't it wonderful to have a scientist in Congress? We need more scientists in Congress,'" says Holt. But he thinks what is equally important is having more scientific thinking, even among the non-scientists in government. "I mean that for the reasons that maybe aren't obvious," he adds, clarifying that he doesn't just mean for decisions about NASA or scientific research. "I'm more interested in the way that scientists are trained to deal with uncertainty, to deal with evidence and statistical reasoning, things that are lacking in the political debate."

"What is lacking most, I think, is this basic idea that scientists have that it's not how strongly you believe something, it's what the evidence says." Even though scientists are not necessarily wiser or smarter than anyone else, they are open to evidence.

When it comes to global warming, for instance, Representative Holt says we don't need people in congress who understand atmospheric pressure, or glaciation. We simply need them to be open to the idea that evidence might disprove what they think they know. And that, he says, is thinking like a scientist.


Rush Holt

Produced by:

Arwa Gunja and Maggie Penman

Comments [8]

George T. Karnezis from Portland, Oregon

Can political discourse be improved by following a "scientific" model? A good question and one with a long history. The larger question is whether the subject matter of politics can be strictly reduced to questions of fact. Clearly policy questions involve more than just agreement as to facts, though one would hope that sufficient agreement as to facts is achievable. The ancients (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero) understood that "rhetoric" (sadly a term of disparagement today and supposedly never practiced by scientists), was once worthy of some respect, close study, and cultivation. Sadly, cultivating a capacity to argue in rhetorically responsible ways (see Lincoln, ML King and other practitioners of good rhetoric) is not a high priority in our schools. Thus the models for arguing responsibly are eclipsed by awful "talkshows" on both TV and radio, so it is no wonder that civil conversation and sound argument have grown more scarce than ever. As we shall see in the forthcoming presidential debates, "moderators" will hardly ever do more than give participants speechifying prompts. A better format would create conditions for real dialogue and discussion, but as long as we treat these "debates" as competition between contestants followed by the usual pundits who declare the "winner," we will continue to inhabit a continually decaying community of declamation -- a far cry from the alleged superiority of the civility and depth practiced among scientists.

Sep. 27 2012 09:24 PM

I agree that on the issue of "global warming" that politicians would serve us better if they were more scientifically analytical and sceptical.

Because I have no idea how things like Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards in the U.S. are supposed to have an impact other than screwing up the domestic automobile industry based on, you know, stuff like sound economic principles. If somebody could explain scientifically whether, and exactly to what degree "global warming" is anthropomorphic rather than just part of an ever-changing climate since the dawn of time on earth, and if somebody could explain how and why we should radically alter our behavior and compromise our economy to produce an entirely unknown and/or speculative effect on the environment... yeah, a cold hard scientific look at that is something I'd welcome.

In the meantime, a Ph.D. in physics doesn't give you the inside track on political wisdom.

Rush Holt's voting record makes him one of the 50 most liberal members of Congress.
Meanwhile, the other Congressman with a Ph.D. in physics, the now-retired Rep. Vern Ehlers of Michigan, was one of the least liberal members of Congress.
Obviously, a Ph.D. was not determinative of a single correct vote in Congress.

Sep. 27 2012 08:55 PM
Tina from Queens

Totally agree with Rep. Holt. Now, the question is, how do you tell all these professional politicians in congress and senate to get the hell out, because they are obsolete, and bring in young people educated mostly in the science fields.

Sep. 27 2012 03:33 PM
Derek from Oklahoma

What an embarrassment it is to be from Oklahoma sometimes/most of the time politically. His comment was the complete antithesis of logical thinking. Thanks Senator Inhoff.

Sep. 27 2012 10:58 AM
karen kulju mckee

Wow! I am very proud to have such an articulate representative.

Sep. 27 2012 09:57 AM
karen kulju mckee

Wow! I am very proud to have such a articulate representative.

Sep. 27 2012 09:52 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I wish more Politicians were Scientists instead of ancient Dinosaurs who don't believe in evolution or dinosaurs.

Sep. 27 2012 09:34 AM
Jimmy Knight

Along the same lines R. Buckminster Fuller expressed the thought that the "technocrat" should rule.

Sep. 27 2012 09:31 AM

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