Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Physicists in Congress Calculate Their Influence

OK, let me first of all qualify myself by saying that I love, LOVE, reading this piece. I don't ever recall reading a report on this before, even though there have been previous articles on how physicists work in the US Congress. But this NY Times article on the 3 physicists in the US Congress is just plain delightful.

First of all, it highlights what I have argued earlier. What is important is not that one learned a specific issue, but that one is equipped to learn about things and think things through analytically, which is something that can be acquired as a skill in a science class.

There are 435 people in the House, Mr. Holt said, and “420 don’t know much about science and choose not to.” He recalled his exasperation when anthrax spores were discovered in the Capitol in 2001 and colleagues came to him and said, “You are a scientist, you must know about anthrax,” a subject ordinarily missing from the physics curriculum.

“The difference,” he said, “is we would be perfectly happy to pick up a copy of The New England Journal of Medicine and read about the etiology of anthrax.”

“In fact, we basically did that,” Mr. Ehlers said.

“We know more than our colleagues,” Mr. Holt said, “but not more than they could know.

But it is also sad to know that these lawmakers are saddled with the same level of ignorance that we have seen in the general public.

But sometimes, he said, the problem is just old-fashioned ignorance. Several times he has found himself “rushing to the floor” to head off colleagues ready to eliminate financing for endeavors whose importance they did not understand.

Once it was game theory. The person seeking the cut did not seem to realize that game theory had to do with interactions in economics, behavior and other social sciences, not sports, Mr. Ehlers recounted.

Then there was the time he rose to defend A.T.M. research against a colleague who thought it should be left to the banking industry. In this case the initials stood for asynchronous transfer mode, a protocol for fiber-optic data transfer.

One would think that if one is making such an important decision on something, that one would at least figure out what those things mean, especially when these lawmakers have staffers that can easily brief them on what they are.

It would be nice to have more people in power who have a more positive inclination towards science, and physics in particular. However, I'm skeptical that there will be significantly more.



cometman said...

I find it interesting that one Congressman said:

Sherwood L. Boehlert, the upstate New York Republican who until last year was chairman of the House Science Committee, said that what citizens should expect from their elected representatives is not knowledge of science per se, but rather “an ability to reach out to experts in any given field and then do what is oftentimes hard for elected officials to do, listen instead of talk.”

This would be fine if that is what actually occurred. But lately even if Congress does manage to consult an actual scientist, they still have to run to the likes of the pseudo-scientific Discovery Institute for a second opinion because they are not smart enough to realize that what these types of people do is not science.

When I was taking high school physics I operated on the assumption that elected officials had a greater understanding of the world they lived in and the government they were part of than the average citizen.

25 years later I'm not even sure the average Congressperson can get dressed by themselves in the morning.

sandycharm said...

This is truly terrifying. We need more science-literates in the congress. or to have a house majority who are willing to learn about science.

Physicists, please sacrifice!