[First published on skepolitical.com on 5/19/12]
Last week on Science Friday, Ira Flatow and three guests discussed the idea of having a Presidential Science Debate, or at least sneaking some science questions into a regular debate. This blend of skepticism and politics seems like the perfect topic for me to cover in order to make up for the less-than-entirely-political topic I covered last time. Science and skepticism go hand-in-hand, with science being a sort of a formalized way of overriding our “System 1” biases and inclinations, and it doesn’t get much more political than a discussion of Presidential Debates. The panel discussed the need for both scientific questions in the debates and more politicians who are scientists.
In order to be good decision-makers, politicians do not really need to know scientific facts. There’s too much to know, anyway. What they do need is an appreciation for science, so that when problems arise that require scientific understanding, the politician will not hesitate to bring in scientists for advisement. However, politicians don’t seem to do this as much as they should. Why not?
You need to be quite intelligent in order to be either a successful politician (that is, an electable politician; being a good or admirable politician is another story) or a successful scientist, but this certainly does not mean that being a successful politician will help you understand science. In some ways, it’s just the opposite. Successful politicians exude confidence and are skilled at keeping two separate worldviews in order: the strong, idealistic worldview they present to the electorate and the pragmatic worldview they live by and act on. In other words, they lack humility and are comfortable living with contradictions and cognitive dissonance. In contrast, accepting scientific findings requires both humility and a desire to resolve contradictions.
Frankly, I don’t know how we can bridge this gap without changing American culture. Call me jaded, but I just don’t see the science debate ever coming to fruition, and if it did, I don’t think the electorate will take it seriously. This brings me back to my original reason for writing on this blog: we need an electorate who cares about this stuff. In order to solve our long term problems, our country needs an electorate that embraces skepticism. To be sure, this is a long-term project, but I think it is achievable. More on this later.
I haven’t listened yet, but Dan Carlin just released his interview with Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. (117)