David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter
In 1993, Americans elected the first physicist to Congress: Vern Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan. Just six years later, former assistant director of Princeton’s Plasma Physics Laboratory, Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey, joined him. And in 2008, Fermilab physicist and Illinois Democrat Bill Foster joined them, only to lose re-election in 2010 before regaining his seat this year. At that rate, Holt joked to an audience of mostly chemists at Princeton University on November 9, “By mid-century, the population of Congress would be physicists.”
But that’s a “slow way” to inject scientific thinking into the political process, Holt argued. “I wish we could get more Americans and, hence, their representatives thinking like scientists, which means basing our conclusions on evidence,” he said.
That laudable goal may prove even more challenging than turning a physicist into an electrifying political speaker. Because humans are not born statisticians, thinking scientifically is both technically and psychologically challenging . We prefer a story (anecdote!) to a compilation of statistics (data!). The modern world, as Holt observed of C.P. Snow’s famous analysis decades ago, has become divided into two disparate camps: scientists and non-scientists.
This may be most apparent currently on the subject of climate change. There are more and more data points showing that climate is changing, whether it be the early arrival of spring or the ongoing meltdown of Arctic summer sea ice. Yet, at the same time, a warming Arctic may mean more snow in lower latitudes, a lived experience (or anecdote) that tends to trump statistical abstractions. “The evidence for climate change is strong enough that we should be taking very bold and very expensive action because the costs of not taking action will be even more expensive,” Holt argued, suggesting that legislation to combat climate change “probably will be undertaken again, I would guess relatively soon in the next Congress.”
The problem will be convincing Holt’s Republican colleagues in Congress that climate change isn’t a hoax—the three men vying for the chairmanship of the next House Science and Technology Committee all espouse varying levels of doubts about climate change. That challenge is made even harder by the fact that the science makes it unclear exactly how much of an impact the U.S. can have in restraining global warming, rising sea levels and other unsavory results of the ever-increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Politicians—and people generally—don’t do well with uncertainty, and uncertainty is the basic nature of science, whether it be questions of climate sensitivity or the existence of the Higgs Boson.
The fundamental challenge of promoting scientific thinking in decision-making requires more from scientists than simply sending members to Congress. It will require scientists to help communicate what scientific uncertainty means, the realities of probability and statistics, and even the real dividends of investment in research—the only way to continue to produce the goods, services and quality of life that comes currently from burning fossil fuels but needs to come in future from cleaner sources of energy. “Americans value the fruits of research, but they have hardly a clue how it works,” Holt said. “I still like to think that I think like a scientist and I would like to see more of that in Congress.”
Of course, one of the first things Holts and other science-friendly Congress members will have to do is figure out how make science sound less like yet another special interest and more like a sound investment. For his part, Holt would like to see the U.S. invest “tens of billions” more in basic scientific research. He has already helped to secure $22 billion for scientific research under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus bill. “I think we will be able to demonstrate that this has a stimulative effect comparable to building roads and bridges,” he argued to the no-doubt-agreeable chemists, who may have been shocked to find out that lab techs, research assistants and post-docs get paid roughly the same wage as construction workers. “We will get lots of benefits from the kinds of research people in this room are doing with materials or efficiency of combustion or wind capture.”
Indeed, the U.S. needs more failed alternative energy companies like Solyndra, not fewer, Holt argued. “Not every research project will pan out and that doesn’t mean it’s been a waste. The use is not always predictable,” Holt noted. “We do need more investments in forward-looking manufacturing processes, more investment in the research and development that leads to those even though some of that will fail.”