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Politicians Should Think and Debate Like Scientists
Thinking Like Scientists; Encouraging Evidence-based Debate by Flor Lacanilao
I hasten to say that science is not the only way of knowing things. Through religion, through literature, reflection, meditation, and any number of other approaches, we gain understanding and knowledge of our world. But the most reliable knowledge—that can be applied societally, to an entire community or country—is knowledge that has been tested empirically, that is based on the leveling effect of evidence. Evidence shouldn’t depend on one’s socioeconomic status or one’s political affiliation. Evidence has a democratizing effect that is healthy for our country. It’s the most politically useful way of knowing things. (Rush Holt, Scientist, October 9, 2012)
Two interesting articles about elections, politicians, and scientific thinking appeared in recent issues of the leading journal Nature and science magazine Scientist. They are views of the only physicist in the US Congress, Rush Holt. Whereas they address problems in the most developed country, many in the Philippines will find the discussed subjects relevant and crucial also to the country's persistent problems, ongoing debates, the elusive sustainable growth, and poverty reduction.
Holt's Nature article ("US election: Politicians should think like scientists") is not freely accessible, but the Scientistarticle on him is copied in full below -- a question & answer interview. He argues that evidence-based, scientific thinking could improve lawmakers’ decisions. Our other government officials, industry leaders, media people & commentators, science administrators, educators, concerned organizations, and graduate faculty will also find his views useful to their work.
Politicians could make better decisions if they thought more like scientists, says Rush Holt, the only physicist in Congress.
In the heat of election season, scientists—and 85 percent of voters are clamoring for candidates to explain their positions on alternative energy sources, climate change policy, and federal funding for research, among other science-related issues. But one scientist-turned-congressman wants more. Representative Rush Holt (D, NJ) doesn’t want politicians to merely think about science, he wants them to think like scientists. In a recent opinion piece in Nature, Holt argued that scientific thinking—based on logic and evidence—could improve lawmakers’ decisions on issues ranging from voting systems to air transportation security. The Scientist spoke with Holt about his thoughts on blending science into politics.
The Scientist: What inspired your opinion that scientific thinking can improve politics?
Rep. Rush Holt: It became apparent to me that my constituents like the fact that I’m a research scientist that decided to go into Congress. And I’ve been asking myself, “Why?” Sometimes people say, “Well, we want somebody who will understand scientific technicalities and languages.” But most of the time I find it’s not that, but rather, people want someone who makes decisions based on evidence. People are really troubled by the idea that politics is driven by ideologies now, and debate is usually just posturing. Science moves away from political spin because it’s tied to evidence. In science, questions are answered provisionally, with the understanding that provisional answers are subject to revision as evidence dictates, which is not very common in a political debate.
TS: How can we incorporate more scientific-thinking into political discussion?
RH: In the long-term, we should have better science education. And that doesn’t mean training more scientists; it means helping non-scientists think like scientists. The real solution is to get all of the lawyers and business people—anyone who’s elected to Congress—to understand how you compose evidence-based debates and how you learn to refine your understanding of a question based on evidence.
In the short-term, I think we have to turn to scientists. They should be talking about how a person—including a member of Congress—can ask questions in an open-minded way, so that they can be answered based on evidence and subjected to criticism. It won’t be easy, obviously—it’s a tall order—but who better to do that than scientists?
TS: So are you suggesting that more scientists should be involved in politics?
RH: Well, not everyone who thinks like a scientist is a scientist. There are many people who can help broaden the debate and open people’s minds, such as engineers and other technical professionals. But, of course, the twin-prong of my argument is that scientists should be able to think politically and be engaged politically. We certainly need more of that—and people have been saying that for decades.
TS: But couldn’t having more scientists engaged in politics have its downsides, too, such as politicized scientific studies?
RH: Of course, scientists are no less arrogant or pigheaded than other humans are, but the scientific process subjects them to a public review that leads to progress, and that’s what we need.
TS: Do you think a scientific approach is always the best way to think about an issue or policy?
RH: I hasten to say that science is not the only way of knowing things. Through religion, through literature, reflection, meditation, and any number of other approaches, we gain understanding and knowledge of our world. But the most reliable knowledge—that can be applied societally, to an entire community or country—is knowledge that has been tested empirically, that is based on the leveling effect of evidence. Evidence shouldn’t depend on one’s socioeconomic status or one’s political affiliation. Evidence has a democratizing effect that is healthy for our country. It’s the most politically useful way of knowing things.
TS: After more than a decade in Congress, what have you learned about working in politics and what advice would you give to other scientists trying to encourage evidence-based debate?
RH: Trying to balance the competing interests of around 700,000 constituents—which each member of Congress has to do—each constituent with a different idea of how we should be spending our time and our money and what’s important in our society, it’s hard work. This is intellectually harder than physics; psychologically and physically harder, too. But it’s also more important, and more satisfying.
I’m a realist and a pragmatist. I don’t go around dismissing people who think illogically or who are governed by rigid ideology. You have to work with them. But I would also like to work toward the day when we have less rigid ideologies governing the debate in Congress.
TANONG: ANO ANG KTO12 PROGRAM? SAGOT: Ang Kto12 Program ng gobyerno ng Pilipinas ay tumutukoy sa pagkakaroon ng mandatory o required na kindergarten at karagdagang 2 taon sa dating 10-year Basic Education Cycle. Kung noon, pagkatapos ng anim na taon sa elementarya at apat na taon sa hayskul (kabuuang 10 taon) ay maaari nang makapagkolehiyo ang mga estudyante. Sa ilalim ng Kto12, bago makapagkolehiyo, kailangan pa nilang dumaan sa karagdagang 2 taon pagkatapos ng apat na taong hayskul. Sa bagong sistema, tinatawag na senior high school o junior college ang karagdagang 2 tao…
With the new K to 12 curriculum in the Philippines, various tracks are now offered in the last two years of basic education. The various options available obviously make it possible for students to find themselves later unprepared for the courses they decide to take in college. A student, for instance, who finishes the accounting business management (ABM) strand in the senior high school academic track, is now required to take additional courses if the student chooses to enroll in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) major in college. These additional courses which are now called "bridging programs" are either taken during the first year of college or over several weeks in the summer before college starts.
There are bridging programs in the United States, but these are different from the ones that are now appearing in colleges in the Philippines. In Coldwater High School in Michigan, for example, the "bridging program" is an option for students…
People have strong opinions about almost anything and the issue of education is no exception. How these opinions have been formed needs to be examined. This is what good research does. It informs and guides. A myriad of factors influence education and oftentimes, these factors are not independent from each other. Factors interact, sometimes these add, and other times, these subtract. General notions therefore need to be carefully drawn. Writing articles on education can also be quite challenging. When problems in basic education involve an inability to think critically, it is difficult to reach the audience and convey the correct message. Oftentimes, sarcasm is lost so such style of writing needs to be avoided. For people who are convinced of their wisdom and understanding of how education works, profound messages from basic research can be often easily lost.