The (not-so) funny question of whether scientists should be political leaders

15 08 2019

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At the risk of precociously setting fire to my powder keg, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the very real question of whether there should be more scientists in politics.

The reason I’m contemplating this particular question is because I’ve been forced to. Perhaps contrary to better judgement, I’ve agreed to take part in a the SciFight Science Comedy Debate in Adelaide on 31 August. Organised by scientist-comedian Alanta Colley, the event will pitch two scientist-comedian teams against each other to argue either in the affirmative or negative regarding this — scientists should rule the world.

Of course, the primary goal of the evening is to make people laugh (which still has me wondering whether I was a worthy choice for the role — thank Cthulu there will be some actual, live comedians there too).

But there’s a serious side to this question that I don’t think has any simple answers.

Most scientists’ immediate reaction might be ‘hell yes’, for it’s really no exaggeration to claim that most of our leaders these days possess a woefully inadequate understanding of the sciences, and certainly the scientific process. I think it’s more than just ideology veiling capacity in most cases. Indeed, I think the dominant opinion about most of our politicians is that they’re just not very good at their jobs.

Of course, there have been some notable politicians with a science background. Margaret Thatcher received a second-class honours in chemistry from Oxford — while this might not qualify her as a scientist today, it was fairly remarkable back then. Dr Angela Merkel is perhaps one of the best-known scientist-cum-politicians, who worked as a physical chemist in various institutes after obtaining her PhD. Wen Jiaobao was a prominent Chinese politician with a background in engineering and geology. And of course, Dr Steven Chu, a former American government official, even won a Nobel Prize. There are many others.

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I think in principle having a good scientific background probably makes you better able to weigh evidence for different decisions, which should ideally be how good policy is made. However, one can see that good policy does not always follow from having an understanding of science (Margaret Thatcher is probably a good example of that on many fronts).

I imagine in most cases, weighing evidence scientifically probably has little to do with day-to-day policy implementation, mainly because of the competing interests of party ideologies, appealing to the masses for re-election, financial influence from vested interests, and kowtowing to other parties to strike the balance of power. In that sense, maybe a science background is more of a hindrance than an advantage?

Another problem is that most scientists I know (myself included), are not innately good at managing people, nor are they particularly adept at showmanship, presenting well to the media, or suffering fools with a smile. I imagine most scientists have personalities that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to the voting public on this basis alone.

Perhaps the very things that limit scientists from being good politicians are also the aspects that keep most of us even from considering the idea in the first place. While I’m good at whingeing about the pack of woeful buffoons in Parliament today, I would rather poke sharp sticks in my eye than try to replace one of them. I suspect many of my colleagues would be of a similar opinion.

All these complexities notwithstanding, could we do with a smarter mob of people running the government? Absolutely, but would scientists do any better? It’s an open question in my opinion.

Maybe come along to the show in a few weeks to see if we can resolve this one. At the very least you’ll get a good chuckle out of the experience (I hope).

CJA Bradshaw


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