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Problem Solving

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

I recently read an article asking why there aren’t more science and technology experts helping solve the world’s problems. Sci-tech experts are supposed to be the smartest and most innovative people around so why aren’t they out there involved in global problem solving? Looking at the background of most political leaders we see people with a background in law, business, and other similar fields, but rarely STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths). Why? And is this good or bad?

First, let’s establish whether this is actually a real issue. I looked at the members of the US congress and found that law is by far the most common previous occupation or area of expertise. Out of the approximately 550 total members just 9 had backgrounds in STEM, and that included no mathematicians.

In New Zealand, the National Party (center-right) members have backgrounds mainly in law, business, and politics, while Labour (center-left) have mainly government, education, and union. Looking at the pie graphs there isn’t even a segment for STEM in either!

In a time when representation in politics from all groups – especially from those based on gender and ethnicity – is encouraged it seems odd that we don’t want greater equality in representation from different groups based on area of expertise or interest as well.

But there is one attribute I have noticed (and this is an anecdote rather than a fact) commonly in people from STEM: that is that they have a great deal of humility and understand that there are no simple answers, that opinions aren’t facts, and that reality doesn’t respond to actions based on ideology.

And all of those things are contrary to how most politicians work. To be a successful politician you have to have absolute confidence in your party’s policies – or at least make it look like you do when discussing them in public. I don’t think many science oriented people could work that way.

There are exceptions, of course. Margaret Thatcher had a background in chemistry before becoming British prime minister but while she was in power seemed to have absolute confidence that her extreme and dangerous political views were beyond criticism. She was rejected for a job (before entering politics) because she was “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated”.

And Thatcher (or Roberts before she married) was already looking towards law and politics even while completing her science degree. She was said to have been more proud of being the first British PM with a science degree than being the first female PM. Unfortunately she failed to demonstrate the higher ideals of science once she was PM!

Of course, science and technology have changed the world for the better very significantly without the people responsible for these advances being involved in politics. In fact, a case could be made to say that almost all the benefits of modern society come from sci-tech. But if the same people who created these benefits could also help apply them more efficiently and fairly then things would be even better. And to do that we need those people in politics.

It seems to me that the reason few “science types” enter politics is because the environment they would find themselves in is totally contrary to the principles a good science type would value. Those principles are: valuing actual truth above convenient beliefs, questioning the statements from all authorities and correcting them if they are found lacking, and using empirical well founded techniques to improve outcomes.

As a science oriented person myself I could not function in the political environment we have. I would have to criticise and vote against my own party, I would have to make private information public if it affected other people, and I would always be debating with my colleagues about the best way forward.

So it seems that the reason that STEM people don’t make a greater contribution to society is because society doesn’t let them. Until we create a political environment where more fact-based decisions are endorsed, where the freedom to critique ideas is tolerated, and where all information is made accessible we will never get the benefits the sci-tech people can provide.

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