16 February 2012

Why does the U.S. elect so few scientists ?

Excerpts from an op-ed piece (by a mathematician) in the New York Times:
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...

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...
I wonder to what extent the situation is similar or different in other countries. The article doesn't offer answers to the question posed, but some of the ~400 comments there are particularly insightful.


  1. Perhaps it has something to do with needing vast fortunes of money to buy...errr win an election in the U.S.? You have to start networking and making connections that aren't really in the science community? Also, there's a strong anti-intellectual bent here.

  2. The legislature's function is to pass laws. It seems appropriate that most members should therefore be lawyers.

  3. This is important.

    So, it looks like we're betting the farm on lawyers running our country. I wonder how much correlation could be found between the personality types Americans elect, their education, and the wisdom of our collective decision making.

    Do we choose ruthlessly manipulative hagglers who pretend to be visionaries over actual practical visionaries who have the training to know what they're talking about?

  4. I think a quote by Isaac Asimov sums it it quite nicely:

    "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

    The common voter is distrustful of the highly educated. You can see this in the backlash against climate change scientists, the demand to teach "Intelligent Design/ Creationism" in high school science courses, the progressively louder political talking heads who shout down facts.

  5. Science? I thought we voted that down....

  6. I think that political decision making benefits from having people who have emerged from a variety of backgrounds, as the careers people have, and the education that trains them for those careers, often train them to think about things in a particular way. This has the effect of blinkering them to many other ways of thinking through and resolving problems. For instance, the over representation of lawyers, economists, business backgrounds has created the economic rationalist ideas of small governments and the primacy given to the economy and not about delivering services and improving society.

    You can see this in newspaper articles that put a cost on things where the importance is not the cost. For instance, that public holidays cost business X amount of dolllars, or that early death of smokers costs the economy X amount of dollars or that the number of sick days caused by swine flu in a particular year cost the economy etc etc.

  7. While we are talking about lawyers and law, in Singapore, and this may have changed, parliamentary privilege was removed and the government sued many opposition members for defamation. This had the effect of censuring the oppositin as many of those sued became bunkrupt, and a bankrupt cannot hold public office in Singapore. This trick has given the People's Action Party a stranglehold on government for most of the years since independence.

    So your examples of the Singapore and Chinese governents having more scientists, may have as much to do with the style of governments as some of the cultural factors mentioned.

  8. Ahemm ... Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover were engineers, as was Yasar Arafat. Speaking on behalf of my fellow engineers, you don't want us running your country. China is doomed.

  9. What European leaders did:

    1. Profile of 112th Congress:

      Historical Profile:

    2. Excellent again. That graph in the second link is bloggable. Maybe tomorrow.


    3. I know, I know I get obsessed but these stories point out why the prior occupation of politicians, their situations and even backgrounds are relevant to the laws that we make.


  10. I recall well the days of the Feynman administration back from 84-92. And now we have our first African-American president, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Man, that was a bitter primary battle between Richard Lewontin's socialist wing and Tyson's futurist wing for control of the Democrats. Of course, Lewontin was given the very important Secratary of Biological Sciences post.

    Dawkin is working out pretty well as PM over in the UK as well.

    Oh wait, this isn't the Alternate History forum. Sorry

  11. For scientists to be elected, they need to run first. Being a scientists is a pretty good profession. It is varied, has a lot of freedom and independence. Why then move to politics? Also, scientists are generally not very interested in money. People who do, do not enter graduate school. (American) Politics consists of continuously begging for money. Finally, scientists like reason. Reason has left politics decades ago.

    Quite frankly, at the moment, you have to wonder why anybody at all wants to be a politician.

    As an immigrant, I am quite shocked to see how Americans are very incapable of selecting a decent candidate for president. And I am not only talking about the sorry bunch of republicans trying to get defeated by Obama. This is a systemic failure in the American political system. Four years ago, the republicans also had very weak candidates. Democrats were lucky with Clinton and Obama. Eight years ago, democrats had an equal freakshow as republicans have now with uninspiring John Kerry coming out as the flipflopper-in-chief. Twelve years ago, democrats showed up with Al Gore, and republicans with GW Bush. Sixteen years ago, Bob Dole and Ross Perrot challenged Clinton. Really America? That's the best you got?

    And this is for president. It gets worse fast for lower positions, even leadership positions in Congress. Harry Reid and John Boehner are by no means inspirational or efficient leaders. Local politicians are often abysmally informed and simply incompetent.

    My favorite example is the fact that Marrion Barry is still in the Washington DC City Council. The man did jail time as mayor! He has not paid his taxes in time for the last 5 years, and rides in unregistered car despite having city-provided tags available. The simple reason for his continued electoral existence is that in his ward, the poorest, least-educated and most criminal in DC, there is simply no-one capable of beating his entrenched (and corrupt) political machine.

    Americans - all of you - should be very worried about this. Aside from your political affiliation, it is very bad for a country when its leaders are not the best and brightest. To govern well, you need a good leader as well as good opposition. The current political selection process in the US does not, by any objective means, bring out the best and brightest.

    Just think of it. There are more than 300,000,000 Americans. You just need a few thousand to run the country.

  12. @Jasper,
    Great analysis.
    In Kenya we prefer the ignorant types(no degree,nothing).The ones who can sustain a system of ignorance for longer periods of time.and infact very old.

    The politicians with some ideas on how to run a country we reject under the banner of tribalism.Even Obama could not make it if he were vying around.coz he has Luo roots.


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