Why don’t Americans elect scientists to office?

Back in August of 2011, the New York Times published an interactive feature titled If I Were President. The Times ran the opinions of 12 respondents in total, including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — director of the Hayden Planetarium and one of the most compelling science communicators of our time.

Tyson's response is level-headed and incisive. The editorial prompt of "If I were president I'd...", he writes, "implies that if you swap out one leader, put in another, then all will be well with America — as though our leaders are the cause of all ailments." He continues:

That must be why we've created a tradition of rampant attacks on our politicians. Are they too conservative for you? Too liberal? Too religious? Too atheist? Too gay? Too anti-gay? Too rich? Too dumb? Too smart? Too ethnic? Too philanderous? Curious behavior, given that we elect 88% of Congress every two years.

Tyson ultimately concludes that our government doesn't work — not because of our politicians, but because of the "dysfunctional voters" who put them in office.

"My goal, then," he writes, "is not to become President and lead a dysfunctional electorate, but to enlighten the electorate so they might choose the right leaders in the first place."

Need "the right leader" be a scientist? Certainly not. And relating back to Tyson's first point, putting a scientist in office would by no means set everything right in America. Yet the question remains: why don't Americans elect scientists to office?

Two days ago, the New York Times' op-ed section featured an article on this very subject. Penned by mathematics professore John Allen Paulos, the editorial does a commendable job of encapsulating the nation's reservations over a scientifically literate government. We've included an excerpt of it here, but it's definitely worth reading in its entirety.

Paolos begins:

I've visited Singapore a few times in recent years and been impressed with its wealth and modernity. I was also quite aware of its world-leading programs in mathematics education and naturally noted that one of the candidates for president was Tony Tan, who has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Tan won the very close election and joined the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who also has a degree in mathematics.

China has even more scientists in key positions in the government. President Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer and Premier Wen Jiabao as a geomechanical engineer. In fact, eight out of the nine top government officials in China have scientific backgrounds. There is a scattering of scientist-politicians in high government positions in other countries as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physical chemistry, and, going back a bit, Margaret Thatcher earned a degree in chemistry.

One needn't endorse the politics of these people or countries to feel that given the complexities of an ever more technologically sophisticated world, the United States could benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government. This is obviously no panacea - Herbert Hoover was an engineer, after all - but more people with scientific backgrounds would be a welcome counterweight to the vast majority of legislators and other officials in this country who are lawyers.

Among the 435 members of the House, for example, there are one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, six engineers and nearly two dozen representatives with medical training. The case of doctors and the body politic is telling. Everyone knows roughly what doctors do, and so those with medical backgrounds escape the anti-intellectual charge of irrelevance often thrown at those in the hard sciences. Witness Senator Bill Frist, Gov. Howard Dean and even Ron Paul.

This showing is sparse even with the inclusion of the doctors, but it shouldn't be too surprising. For complex historical reasons, Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist, even while publicly paying lip service to them.

One reason is that an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs and scientists are sometimes tone-deaf to the social environment in which they state their conclusions. A more politically sensitive approach to problems and issues, on the other hand, often leads to positions that simply don't jibe with the facts, no matter how delicately phrased. Examples as diverse as stem cell research and the economic stimulus abound.

Politicians, whose job is in many ways more difficult than that of scientists, naturally try to sway their disparate constituencies, but the prevailing celebrity-infatuated, money-driven culture and their personal ambitions often lead them to employ rhetorical tricks rather than logical arguments. Both Republicans and Democrats massage statistics, use numbers to provide decoration rather than information, dismiss, or at least distort, the opinions of experts, torture the law of the excluded middle (i.e., flip-flop), equivocate, derogate and obfuscate.

Dinosaurs cavorting with humans, climate scientists cooking up the global warming "hoax," the health establishment using vaccines to bring about socialism – it's hard to imagine mainstream leaders in other advanced economies not laughing at such claims.

Continue reading over on The New York Times.

Read Tyson's undedited response to the "If I were President..." prompt on the Hayden Planetarium website.