Regardless of political ideology, whoever wins the forthcoming U.S. presidential election will have had to win over a tiny fraction of the electorate—the swing voters—by persuading them of their vision for the country, whether it’s on economics, jobs, defense, health care, the environment, security, gun laws or simply a worldview that resonates more with the average American. The one thing I suspect won’t be at the forefront of these swing voters’ minds is any of the candidates’ grasp of quantum physics or Einstein’s theories of relativity. But maybe it should be.
Here is my pitch for getting a physicist into the White House. Not this time around of course, and not me, you understand; I’m British and don’t qualify.
We live in a complex world full of conflicting ideologies, in which we are becoming increasingly entrenched. This is particularly true in U.S. politics and is very evident on this side of the pond from the debates in the media and social media. We regularly hear terms such as filter bubbles, echo chambers, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, groupthink, even—and this was a new one to me—identity-protective cognition, whereby individuals selectively credit and dismiss asserted dangers in a manner supportive of their cultural identities. And then there is cognitive dissonance, whereby someone will feel genuine mental discomfort when confronted with evidence supporting a view contrary to their own. This polarized and intransigent thinking means that political discourse is breaking down like never before.
Despite many politicians’ suspicion of science and scientists, it is encouraging that we are now seeing so many governments around the world finally listening and acting on the advice of scientific experts when dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, whether in keeping populations safe, providing the necessary care, or working towards finding a vaccine. But a lot more can be said about the value of science and the way we carry out scientific research that could be applied more generally in politics.
Indeed, we have only made progress in our scientific understanding of the world, and the development of technologies based on that understanding, through collaboration, consensus and honesty. In science, while we might be confident that our theories are correct, we will never say that we are completely certain that they are right.
After all, if an observation or new experimental result comes along and conflicts with our current understanding of the world, then we have to abandon that theory. Conspiracy theories are a good example of the polar opposite of the scientific approach in that they seek to assimilate whatever evidence there is against them and interpret it in a way that confirms rather than repudiates their core idea, thus making them unfalsifiable.
My point is that we could do worse than have someone in the Oval Office who understands, and applies, the scientific method to their thinking and decision making. As a physicist myself, I have been trained to always question my beliefs and hypotheses, to value doubt over certainty, to not be afraid to admit my mistakes and to be prepared to change my mind in the light of new evidence, because that is how I develop a better understanding of the world.
I also know that it takes years of training to fully understand the complexities of the workings of the universe, and so I will listen to and value the opinions of those who know more about a subject or issue than me. In science, unlike politics, these attributes are seen as a virtue, which stems from our desire to seek out an objective truth about reality rather than just win an argument or appeal to the baser instincts of those who follow us unquestioningly.
Imagine then a physicist as president: someone with analytical and problem-solving skills, who values the importance of evidence-based policies, of honesty and openness, and who understands the role of science and technology in sustaining innovation and economic competitiveness; one who appreciates the need for a scientifically literate populace and the value of investment in an adequate STEM education for the nation’s children; someone who can see how quickly the world is changing and react to it and who is ready to listen and act upon the advice of experts, rather than dismiss them if their advice doesn’t fit into some deep-seated ideological dogma.
America and the world will face many challenges in the years and decades ahead—most of them desperately requiring a rationalist scientific approach and evidence-based policies. We’ve seen how the threat of a global pandemic is all too real and entails a desperate need for scientific expertise and advice. But we must also find solutions to the climate crisis, to cyberterrorism, to our energy needs, as well as preparing for the coming of AI. In fact, I predict that AI, robotics and automation will grow to become the pervasive technology of the 21st century and beyond. All these issues cry out for leadership that understands the way science works and that will give science and technology prominence.
We are living in a time of huge challenges, but also of wonderous opportunities and incredible technological advances, and we cannot entrust our lives and future to politicians who do not understand this. America could do a lot worse than elect a physicist as President.