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Rep. Rush Holt’s Advice to His Fellow Scientists on Politics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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US-capitolIn 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.”


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tharriss 8:02 pm 11/12/2012

    Makes sense to me, thanks!

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  2. 2. dubay.denis 8:48 pm 11/12/2012

    A refreshing view, and from a member of Congress no less! He sounds so optimistic. Maybe there is hope.

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  3. 3. Na g n o s t ic 8:50 pm 11/12/2012

    The deal with climate change is, too many of those advertising it have been involved with misanthropic environmental causes all along. It’s no wonder many otherwise intelligent people react the way they do. The misanthropic greenies poisoned the well long ago.

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  4. 4. robert schmidt 10:35 pm 11/12/2012

    The problem with the US isn’t the scientists, it is the scientifically illiterate public. You can fix that with better education early. But once the religion and right wing fanaticism take hold it is almost impossible to fix it with science. By that point science has become the great evil. You are facing down a conspiracy theory with nothing more than reason, which will get you nowhere. Start teaching critical thought as soon as possible and arm children with weapons to deal with fanaticism and superstition.

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  5. 5. robert schmidt 10:55 pm 11/12/2012

    “The misanthropic greenies poisoned the well long ago.”, no actually it is the radical right’s antiscience agenda, spreading lies and misinformation that have poisoned the well. What we have seen with AGW is that the claims by the scientific community have been well supported and if anything, conservative. While the claims of the deniers have been nothing more than deliberate misinformation campaigns motivated by nothing more than greed and political opportunism. In my opinion the blue states should cast the red states aside. They are nothing more than an anchor keeping you from moving forward. Let them return to the dark ages where they belong.

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  6. 6. m 8:09 am 11/13/2012

    Sorry Nagnostic you dont get it, Robert schmidt does. Intelligent people do not believe without evidence, only religious nutters believe things with faith.

    I couldnt careless is greenies, pinkies, or someone from the cia/nsa or section 20 came out and said the sky is blue, i wouldnt believe them with some sort of evidence to back that claim. Until then it is stored in my brain as secondary/or tertiary evidence so to speak and will always be confirmed before being used in conversation without an allegedly next to it.

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  7. 7. JDSanderson 9:12 am 11/13/2012

    The answer to the campaign against science and education in general is much more complicated than just teaching critical thought or educating people. Having relatives that fall into this category, I know that these people never get to a point of reason. They are taught to first invalidate the source of the message. If a reliable, well-researched article is printed in the New York Times or broadcast on “60 Minutes” (or similar outlets), it is automatically discarded by those on the right since it came from a “liberal source”. Anything that indicates a support for the idea of climate change isn’t even read, but discarded as “funded by those behind the hoax”. The research, the evidence, is never even reviewed.

    Teaching critical thought in schools is good, but in most cases it won’t outweigh a parent’s biased and fear-based teachings at home.

    Since they don’t want to think too heavily, I usually offer a fairly mindless argument – “so what?” If it’s a hoax, but we create tons of new jobs in the process of trying to save the climate, how does that hurt us? That usually at least starts a dialog that would otherwise not happen.

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 10:15 am 11/13/2012


    Motherhood and apple pie.

    Starts out ok and then gets, ‘surprise’…political. So much for science.

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  9. 9. geojellyroll 10:19 am 11/13/2012

    “We prefer a story (anecdote!) to a compilation of statistics (data!).”

    Huh? This after going on about global warming! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. We hear anecdotal stories that have zero base in stats….from polar bears becoming extinct to we’re all going to die from malaria. Friggin too funny.

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  10. 10. LarryW 11:14 am 11/13/2012

    Teaching people to think like scientists and use evidence to make decisions is doomed to failure. The best we can do is teach people that that they should have no opinion whatsoever on any matter in which they have no knowledge. That is, people need to know when they are ignorant.

    Over the last three generations at least, the US has declined precipitously due in part to the confusion of right to free speech and right to have an opinion. We have enshrined and confused respect for others with respect for their opinions, and have enshrined the silly notion that all opinions are equal.

    As a baby-boomer, I saw this develop during my college years in the 60′s, primarily within the developing political Left as they were encountering the rigidity of the political Right. It was a useful approach to show the Right had little evidence for their positions, but Left itself failed to develop past criticism only, and failed to understand the need for evidence to support their positions. The Left merely invented their own mysticism to counter the Right’s mysticism — the new age religions vs the old age religions.

    The Universities became more open to soft thinking, removing freshman and sophomore requirements within the liberal arts of heavy doses of math and science. Since then we have graduated 3 generations of university students who have no idea of what is required to actually know something, and how much time and effort it requires to evaluate and collect evidence to support it.

    Today, truth is no more than how many people you can convince. Both the Left and Right are in total agreement that when Science disagrees with their beliefs, it is the Science that is wrong.

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  11. 11. RichardR 12:13 pm 11/13/2012

    What ever happened to the Office of Scientific Assessment(OTA), and why was it eliminated?

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  12. 12. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 12:18 pm 11/13/2012

    @ JDsanderson: I couldn’t have stated the problem more succinctly. Fox “News” is the bane of my life. I saw the war criminal Karl Rove being asked about his opinions on the “Liberal pagan agenda of lies and atheism” or something like that on Fox recently. The scumbag was smiling like a toad and talking to a delusional psycopath named Sean Hannity. And apparently people believe what Fox sells. Incredible.

    @ geojellybun: Um…AGW is supported by statistics and facts. Denialism is supported by Rep. Inhofe saying that he doesn’t trust facts.

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  13. 13. FrankFurman 1:59 pm 11/13/2012

    It’s important to remember how both sides of the aisle ignore data when it opposes their views. Conservatives are wary of climate change, while liberals are equally wary of the substantial (and growing) body of evidence that underpins education reform efforts. The takeaway is that you shouldn’t trust politicians…or politics.

    And the good representative should have stopped short before advocating for “more Solyndras”. Deficit spending to prop up a company that:
    1) was NOT doing innovative PV research
    2) was owned by campaign contributors

    …is not an approach backed by solid evidence.

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  14. 14. plswinford 4:01 pm 11/13/2012

    And now we have found the ability to extract lots of oil from tar sands and such, so that anti-global-warming people will be swimming against the potential for serious wealth. And getting between some people and opulence is risky behaviour indeed.

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  15. 15. diandted 4:25 pm 11/13/2012

    there is, unfortunately, little immediate hope. Possibly only 25% of our esteemed leaders understand the denial is a river in Egypt and not a substitute for reality

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  16. 16. DPWalker 5:03 pm 11/15/2012

    Worth reading is a little book titled “Global Weirdness” which suggests the global warming problem is complex, but global. If mankind is to keep the average temperature from climbing, the solution will have to be a global one. Placing a few solar panels on one’s roof and driving an electric car will have little or no effect on the measurements of CO2 on Mauna Loa. This is a problem which has been building for 200 years and accelerating over the past half-century. It’s probably already too late to effect much change. Let’s tackle world hunger!

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  17. 17. jeenious 6:50 pm 11/15/2012

    This is the nearest blog title I could find to urge a new blog title: “How can scientist deal optimally with patronage-driven anti=science politics?”

    Or, if staff can be more succinct and to the point, great!

    My background is in philosophy of science, political science, philosophy of economics, anthropology… and the conflict between wealthy, powerful patrons of greed-driven elected public officials versus hard findings and well-reasoned interpretations of hard evidence.

    This would be a subject more general than any single, particular example of how big oil, or big coal, or big polluters put words into the mouths, and biases into the rhetoric and the votes of politicians… although it would certainly include that. Much frustration and much effort comes from the scientific community about the problem of anti-science in governmental policy. But governmental policy is more than just innocent ignorance on part of elected officials. Let me strongly recommend that scientists pursue the role of political scientists and basically science-literate people in their efforts to get at the cause of the anti-science-in-government issues.

    It is well-known among seasoned politician in congress that there are “ways” to get things done, whether for noble purposes or for greed-driven purposes. Those in the various research fields and in science academia (while they sometimes argue vehemently between themselves) tend to leave politics to politicians, and that is NEVER going to be very effective in getting any “good” scientific evidence to influence policy UNLESS ways are found to get the voices of scientists translated into politically effective influence on what politicians do.

    Yes, scientists write white papers and send them to politicians. Scientists do not, however, as a rule, work through people who can shake up established patronized legislative changes or policy changes. In the lead-up to the recently popular voting, lots of scientific journals and spokespersons communicated to their subscribers and contributors and to the science-interested public, much dissatifaction with how political rhetoric and some political policy-making and legislation-passing have tended to be “anti-science” in effect.

    As one devoted to studying political science, I sense that the net effect of that kind of effort, may have had far less to do with the outcome of the election. I estimate that the main drivers of the result were less about the need for publicly-grasped motives by 99% of the voters than with other issues or — even more likely — that even the issues the public perceived itself to grasp were far from understood at anything approaching a science-literate level.

    Nor am I suggesting scientists attempt to stamp out scienc-illiteracy or science-disinformation that reaches the average scientifically ignorant voter en masse. What I do suggest, and strongly urge, is that people who specialize in sound bites, and people who can and do sway opinions of science-marginally-literate voters, be brought into the behind-closed=door kind of political in-fighting that actually works.

    Right now, today, members of congress are inundated with lobbying by special interests, some of which interests are wealthy and powerful as a result of public image work into which they ply millions and millions of dollars, not to mention one-on-one contacts with former public office holders who — after retirement — have gotten into the “real money” which is in not just lobbying but, also, in calling upon one-to-one relationships with their former comrades in the congress and in key executive administrative positions, where old mutual-back-scratch favors and all sort of well-laundered business favors and advantages can be “traded upon” while leaving no paper trail or evidence criminal enforcement agencies can use in a court of law (and especially to get the ear of many judicial judges or justices, appointed for life, whose social and extra-judicial investments and crony schmoozings, and upbringings in wealthy, connected wealth and power sharing families, tend to be the same social circles as those of the vested politicians and lobbying law firms and corporate representatives.

    Nothing here is intended by me to discourage scientists from influencing legislation or public policy. Quite the contrary, I am recommend a “scientific” (if you will) approach to studying and grasping and utilizing knowledge of how legislation actually gets shaped, who shapes it, what motivates the shapers, and how deals get done. To stand off, outside the context of the power and influence game is to get left in the dust, if — and as is most often the case — there is any conflict of interest between hard scientific data, wisely parsed and interpreted into scientific consensus on an issue, on the one side, and the interests of big money and big power, and much talent and money and motivation translated into “the playing of the git-er-done world of political gamesmanship.”

    What does not work in getting through to the people who can, and do, get policies shaped and legislative loopholes, and actual enforcement of existing laws done, is scientific folly.

    Scientists can impact public opinion. To do so, however, scientists must be motivated to, and carry through in doing, a study of “the ropes.” Scientists must recruit (and, yes, they are out there) motivated truth-seekers who know how to sway public opinion and bring it to bear on the political outcome of what tends to be purchased compliance with the wants and the greed-interests of those who stand to profit most (and thence share some of the resulting enhanced profits from anti-science) with the politically elected palms they robustly grease, if nobody exposes them or effectively resists them in effective ways.

    If science cannot be a major influencer of political outcomes, it certainly can be more effective than if it merely pleads and cajoles and tells a rhetoric-overwhelmed voting public that some policy or some law is based on propagand that flies in the face of scientific evidence.

    Dear scientists, you need help from non-scientists (in the strict empirical sense) who know how to get in there and slug it out. You don’t have to dirty your hands in the process, but you need to seek and find scientifically literate sympathizers to champion your cause with the skills and wiles that favor the chances of getting political battles won… even when special interests use their money to fight back.

    You need to help, too, to get out the word that such court rulings as the Citizens United ruling, enable not corporations but, rather, a SMALL HANDFUL OF SELF-SERVING HUMAN EXECUTIVES… SOME OF THEM LEADERS OF INTRA-CORPORATE DEALINGS AND INTER-CORPORATE DEALINGS WITH OTHER SELF-SERVING CRIMINAL CORPORATE EXECUTIVES, to put over on the political system and on the voting science-illiterate public, policies and legislation that are a disservice to the corporate stockholders, the corporations’ employees, and everybody else but their own, human, criminal, greedy selves. And not only the Citizens United ruling, but a long history of juridical rulings, have evoled a corporate shell (known as the corporate veil) from serving its beneficial advantage of protecting honest risk venture executive leaders to protecting human corporate executive leaders of communities of crime inside corporations.

    Not until enough voting citizens become aware of how HUMAN corporate executives commit crimes, and buy protection from politicians, will there be a sufficient mandate to do something about the criminal underpinning of what a non-politically-savvy scientist — no matter how brilliant, may “experience” as a result of scientific-illiteracy among the politically elected.

    They are dumb like foxes, dear scientists. And it is not you who understand better what the world needs, but they who understand better what their BIG INTEREST PATRONS want them to do.

    As scientists who probe deeply into, and come to better understanding, with the cooperation of engineers, of how to obtain and evaluate samples of, say, the geology of Mars… you have the intelligence and the methodology to probe more deeply than you have into the shaping of public polity.

    Use it, PLEASE!

    When you do, and when you obtain the assistance of people with skills outside your area of specialization, as you do engineers in the example just cited, you will find yourselves having the impact you now feel helpless to attain by way of simply trying to inform those whose game is to play dumb, and the voting citizens who just don’t have the specialized literacy you have, and are not going to get it on a casual, barely interested, or totally misinformed (by special interests) level.

    There are ways to “git-er-done,” dear scientists.

    Study that as you study other manifestations of nature. Seek the kind of outside expertise that you need. Seek it out. Cultivate it. Give credit for volunteer help in this regard.

    If ANY class of people have the capacity to do these things, you have demonstrated inside your various specialties that YOU DO.

    Here’s to government more responsive to hard science evidence in the future, as a result of your mastering the political challange as you have so many other challenges to your noble and wonderful coping by humanity for a better world.

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  18. 18. jeenious 12:22 pm 11/17/2012

    (This is a caveat, in response to Larry W (comment # 10, above). Larry, there is much truth in what you say in your paragraph quoted below. And, let me disclose that it is difficult for any of us, ever, to think through all the nuances of a subject, or a point we would make about it, even in our finest expert thinking. And virtually never do I say something I do not read back later, and regret something about it. That admitted, let me ask you to reexamine the implications of your paragraph in which you wrote:

    “Over the last three generations at least, the US has declined precipitously due in part to the confusion of right to free speech and right to have an opinion. We have enshrined and confused respect for others with respect for their opinions, and have enshrined the silly notion that all opinions are equal.”

    You come dangerously close in that paragraph — whether intentionally or not — to intellectual elitism. This is not to say your facts lack merit, with the GIVEN, that experts are all, always right in their final analysis of an issue involving many non-experts. We must never rule out, nore appear to rule out, the value of input from those less expert or, especially, those expert in other specialties, but not in our own. Not only do experts, in the best of good faith and nobility of intentions, often disagree (indeed one of the highest and best features of scientific debate whereby iron sharpens iron), but when they disagree, sometimes neither is right. All the evidence of every factor is never in. Even consensuses change (another feature of best science: the capacity to update and upgrade to ever newer and better accessments of what nature does, and how).

    Opinions can vary for reasons that go outside any one field of expertise and outside, as well, the motives of experts. Those who “know” the most about one scientific question, in one field of specialization, do not necessarily know more about all others. And neither do those who know the most about one scientific specialization know, nor take into mind, nor care… about all the ways policies in governance play out in the real world. Often idealogues (and if ever there has been any person who must resist mightily against being one, it is I) tend to think of how ideal solutions would play out in an ideal world. The fact is that they would not. (:>) By this I mean that dynamic homeostases do not continuously resolve to the same optimums, and evolutions of many parameters do not find ultimate stasis. And if they did, that would be the end of dynamism and the end of homeostasis.

    To say this more at street level, the opinions of many who know less than others are a driver of outcomes of processes, and cannot be removed from those processes. Even if all ignorant input even could be squelched, or relegated to being ignored in the “getting things right” in this human experience you and I and others share, the social and political and economic gravitation of dissatisfaction arising out of that in a society would most likely impact the overall culture in even more deleterious ways than beneficial ones. A “big brother” situation might well occur, not because a consensus among experts might fail to consider the most information the most sensibly but, rather, because there must be some give and take, some live and let live, even for new learning, and new ideas, and new progress to result.

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