Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, August 29, 2013

what politicians don't know about science (and other things)

Buried in the midst of reports on all the various doings at Christ’s College, Cambridge in that fine institution’s 2010 magazine there’s a fascinating essay by the historian Lisa Jardine — one of my favorite scholars, by the way. It concerns the seemingly endless controversy over C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture on “The Two Cultures” of the sciences and the humanities, a lecture Jardine believes has been generally misunderstood.

Some of her ideas are going to play a role in the book I’m currently working on, but I’m not going to talk about those now. It’s another point, Jardine’s concluding one, that I want to take up today.

Jardine argues that Snow was moved to write his lecture by his experience, not as a novelist or a scientist (he was both), but as a government official.

We live, he writes in Science and Government [a book he wrote immediately after “The Two Cultures”], in times when vital political decisions have to be made for which specialist scientific understanding is essential, but for which those charged with taking the decisions have not been prepared: ‘One of the most bizarre features of any advanced industrial society in our time is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret: and... by men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be. [Jardine’s emphasis]’...

Snow goes on to include under his ‘live or die’ rubric all significant decisions taken in the public sphere which involve choices that ought to be informed by fundamental scientific understanding: ‘It is in the making of weapons of absolute destruction that you can see my central theme at its sharpest and most dramatic, or most melodramatic if you like. But the same reflections would apply to a whole assembly of decisions which are not designed to do harm. For example, some of the most important choices about a nation’s physical health are made, or not made, by a handful of men, in secret, and ... by men who normally are not able to comprehend the arguments in depth.’

What are we to do if Presidents and Prime Ministers are making decisions on subjects which they simply do not have the knowledge to understand? Jardine pursues this point by invoking a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt when it was time to make a decision about whether to use the atomic bomb:

In his letter, Einstein explained that because of the secret nature of [Leo] Szilard’s work, neither he nor Szilard himself was in a position to explain to the President quite how catastrophic the use of the bomb on civilian targets would be – catastrophic beyond what was imaginable to anyone without first-hand understanding of the science behind it. He therefore urged Roosevelt to see Szilard in person, and hear his concerns at first hand. His letter ends like this: ‘The terms of secrecy under which Dr. Szilard is working at present do not permit him to give me information about his work; however, I understand that he now is greatly concerned about the lack of adequate contact between scientists who are doing this work and those members of your Cabinet who are responsible for formulating policy [Jardine’s emphasis].

But Roosevelt died before he could meet Leo Szilard, and President Truman took office. Jardine thinks that “From Snow’s perspective, President Truman’s decision to use the bomb — twice — on a civilian population at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the following August, was the most powerful example that could be produced of the absolute necessity for permanently and irrevocably bridging the two cultures divide.”

But that doesn't seem right to me. The problem was not that Truman had a humanistic rather than a scientific education: Truman didn’t attend university at all (the last U.S. President of which that can be said). Neither for that matter did Churchill, though he did receive a traditional classical education at Harrow, where he was an indifferent student at best. FDR attended Harvard, but he too was no intellectual, and later said that he had spent four years taking economics courses in which everything he was taught was wrong.

Today, a political leader is more likely to be a lawyer than anything else, which mans that he or she will have received an education that is not scientific but not necessarily fully humanistic either. When the newly elected President Clinton in 1992 praised his just-chosen cabinet as the most diverse in American history, a cabinet that “looks like America,” someone — I can neither remember nor discover who — pointed out that sixteen of its twenty members were lawyers, including the President himself and the First Lady.

Political leaders around the world are making foreign policy decisions with very little knowledge of history or geography; economic decisions with limited training in economics; and scientific and technological decisions with almost no background in the STEM disciplines. Which of these deficiencies is most in need of being remedied? And how can political leaders best compensate for what they don’t, and often can’t, know?

UPDATE: In addition to Adam Keiper's comment below, with the link to his very useful and insightful article, see also his editorial on the President as "scientist-in-chief."

3 comments:

  • Nice post. The education of policymakers on technical subjects has been greatly transformed in the last seven decades. In the U.S. federal government, scientific expertise is now peppered throughout the executive branch. The president has access to many of the nation’s top scientists through the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and the White House science advisor heads an entire office that focuses on aspects of science and technology policy. In the legislative branch, there was for some two decades an entity called the Office of Technology Assessment that sought to inform Congress about a range of scientific and technological questions; other legislative agencies like the Government Accountability Office now do some of that.

    Beyond this governmental apparatus, there are the quasi-governmental entities (especially the National Academies) that work hard to explain scientific matters to people in power, the countless think tanks that try to bring research out of the academy and into the policy realm, and many other avenues of conversation between scientific experts and policymakers.

    (For anyone who wants to know more and has many hours to spare, I once wrote a long, long, long New Atlantis essay about how policymakers get advice on science and technology, focusing especially on Congress.)

    Almost all of this infrastructure developed in the postwar period. And everything I’ve listed here just pertains to science and technology; other technical areas — like foreign policy and economics, both of which you mention — have in recent decades developed their own ways of informing policymakers. If it’s true that policymakers during WWII and earlier were woefully underinformed on technical matters by today’s standards, one could also argue that there is now a surfeit of technical information available to policymakers.

  • This is a wonderful and helpful reply, Adam — much better than my post. It raises the question, doesn't it, about whether a surfeit of information is practically different from a shortage. It's hard not to be concerned that, faed with an incredible variety of divergent opinions, political leaders will find a way to choose just the wrong one.

  • I was curious about this Clinton thing. It's strange how often this turns up as an ostensibly original remark:
    Lee Walczak, January 1993
    Thomas Dye, December 1993
    Jeff Jacoby, September 1996
    Jonah Goldberg, October 1998
    Ben Wattenberg, December 2000 (sort of)

    Good point all the more.

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