Posted by: ericgrimsrud | April 20, 2017

Getting science back into our legislative branches

We clearly need a lot more scientific influence in our legislative bodies both in Washington DC and at the state levels. While most of our congressmen are well-trained in the rigors of law and/or economics/business, very few have more than public school educations in the sciences. Of the few legislators that do have some backgrounds in science, these are typically in the applied fields of engineering or medicine rather than the basic physical sciences. We therefore have a problem in our legislative branches whenever issues come up that can be well understood only be those with solid backgrounds in the basic sciences.

The most important issue of our times, climate change, provides a clear example of this. In order to decide what Mother Nature’s responses will be to mankind’s enormous conversions of geological carbon (fossil fuels) to biological carbon (carbon dioxide and plants), the only option available to most of our elected officials is to refer to others who claim to have that understanding. Unfortunately, the number of want-to-be advisors on environmental issues far exceed those having bona fide scientific experiences. In addition, most of those want-to-be advisors are actually lobbyists with motivations and pockets much deeper than their levels of scientific understanding. Given the fact that they outnumber our legislators in DC by about 5 to 1, it is not surprising that they have a great or even determining influence on legislation.

For the purpose of addressing this problem, the USA has established several professional organizations in all of the sciences that regularly offer their advice on issues involving science. In addition, we have the National Academy of Sciences, an organization that President Lincoln established in 1862 specifically for providing our government the best advice available on any scientific topic. Its members include the most renown scientists of the USA in all areas of science. These scientific organizations, including the NAS, have no actual power in setting legislation, however. They simply advise those that do. Sadly, the advice of these professional scientific organizations is now routinely ignored by our legislative bodies that tend to be controlled by financial interests. Therefore, our country routinely goes “forward” along its “business as usual” paths without a clue as to the most likely responses Mother Nature will have to the impacts of mankind on our planet. It should be noted that almost all of our legislators within the majority Republican party in Washington do not even acknowledge the near unanimous view of all of our professional scientific organizations on the subject of climate change. Only on the Democratic side do we have a few Senators, such as Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Al Franken of Minnesota, who can intelligently explain the scientific basis of global warming to their colleagues and the public.

I can think of no resolution to this disconnect between science and our legislatures other than the following. We need to have far more scientists at the front lines of power where the actual decisions are made. That is, we need far more legislators who have had solid educations and experiences in science. There are several reasons for this in addition to the obvious one that scientists typically know a lot more about scientific issues than lawyers do. One of these is that lawyers and scientists are taught entirely different ways of approaching the issues before them. Lawyers are typically hired or assigned to support one side of an issue – they are on the side of either the plaintiff or the defense. Therefore, lawyers typically start with the “answer” they favor and then do their best to prove that the evidence supports their preference.

Scientists, on the other hand, are trained to do exactly the opposite. That is, they typically start with the observable evidence and work towards the most likely conclusions. This fundamental difference between lawyers and scientists makes all the difference if the issues under consideration concerns what Mother Nature is likely to do. No one can claim to represent Her interests. But we do know that She does things one way – Her way – and historically the disciplines of science have provided our most reliable predictions what She will do. Trying to understand the natural world is what scientists do.

Another very important difference between scientists and lawyers concerns the breath of history that is relevant to their deliberations. Lawyers have derived their total sum of knowledge from documents written by other human beings over the last 5,000 years or so – since the beginning of human civilizations. Thus, lawyers, like much of the general public, have an ingrained “feeling” that our relevant history dates back only to that recorded by humans – even though that period is of almost negligible duration relative to the natural history of our planet. Thus, with all due respect to our essential profession of Law, lawyers are typically useless in assessing what Mother Nature is likely to do in response to the physical changes we are making on our planet. A sense of the Earth’s natural history over many millions of years is required in order to do that.

Thus, whether lawyers or scientists would make better legislators depends on the subject under consideration. If the question before them is whether or not some activity is in compliance with the laws of our country as laid out be the Constitutions and subsequent rulings of our courts, a background in law would obviously be more useful than one in science. On the other hand, if the issue at hand concerns what Mother Nature is likely to do in the future in response to the various inputs of mankind, then a background in science would be much more useful in determining what corrective action, if any, might be warranted.

In response to my last point, the lawyers are going to say “but we have scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, for providing the scientific advice we need”. And to that comment I will repeat, “yes, but the NAS has no power and recent history has shown that its advice is now resisted or ignored if it is not favored by the controlling financial interests of our country.

If you now happen to agree with me that we need more professional scientists in our legislative bodies, the next question you might have is – are a significant number of professional scientists likely to change their professions from science to politics. Over the last several decades, the answer to this question has clearly been “no” – very few active scientists entered the fields of politics in the USA during the post WWII era. At the end of that war, the importance of science was so well recognized by our federal government that scientists were encouraged to focus entirely on their research and were well funded to do just that. An unfortunate result of that arrangement was that there was less need for scientists to make the case for science in the political arena and scientists gradually lost their ability to effectively communicate with the general public and their elected officials.

This attitude in now changing among scientists, however. Large numbers of scientists in all areas are now realizing that they simply must become parts of our political system for all of the reasons I have cited above. This change of attitude has been given a big boost by the election of Donald Trump to our Presidency.  President Trump is undoubtedly the more scientifically-challenged President we have ever had in the post WWII era. The set of equally ignorant cronies he has placed in positions of central importance to matters of science, energy and our environment has also provided great motivation for a return of solid science to all levels of our government.

Fortunately, some help now appears to be on the horizon. An account of movements currently underway designed to get more scientists involved in US politics was provided recently in the Feb 6, 2017, edition of the New York Times in an article by Amy Herman and Henry Fountain entitled “Scientists Show Signs of a Political Pulse”.  Let’s hope these movements once again bring first rate science back to Washington DC and our state capitals.  To think we can go forward without it in this day and age is nothing short of insanity.


Responses

  1. Timely article, Eric, coming just before Saturday’s April 22 EARTHDAY MARCH FOR SCIENCE.
    Under the current administration in Washington, we are seeing dollars flowing to the military-industrial complex and away from science, environment, healthcare and the arts.

    From their website:
    “The March for Science is the first step of a global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.
    It’s time to get off the sidelines and make a difference.

    There is no Planet B. Join the #MarchForScience. ”
    I looked up some states …
    13 Marches in MN including Grand Rapids, Northfield and St. Paul.
    5 marches in Montana: Billings, Great Falls, Missoula, Bozeman, & Helena
    41 marches in California
    https://www.marchforscience.com/


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