Rush Holt: “Politicians should think like scientists”

Democrat Rush Holt, plasma physicist and Congressman representing New Jersey’s 12th district, writes in Nature ,

Scientists, engineers and technologists are not necessarily smarter or wiser than others, but we have many habitual practices of mind that would be valuable in the sluggish legislative process. ‘Scientific thinkers’ — and to be clear, not all such thinkers are professional scientists — have a deep appreciation for evidence. They have a realistic understanding of technology’s promises and pitfalls. They work comfortably with estimates and data. They use statistical reasoning. They are more alert to the mental tricks that they, like all humans, play on themselves. Most importantly, they understand that the path towards good solutions is paved with uncertainty, trial and error; that conclusions should be tentative; and that alternative views should be entertained.

Accomplished physical and social scientists also understand the limits of intuitive reasoning; they apply quantitative and qualitative statistical metrics to reach conclusions from uncertain or noisy data. Holt writes about the Federal legislative process, but his comments are arguably more relevant in municipal and state elections. This is because, while Congressmen and Senators can draw upon the advice of non-partisan staff and civil service professionals, Assembly members, Supervisors, and Council members rely to a greater extent on their own intuition and judgement. In matters amenable to scientific, engineering, or economic analysis, and particularly where difficult funding choices must be made, some unprepared legislators are unduly influenced by the special interest. The election of a few scientists to Assembly, notably Bill Quirk in AD20, will inject a dose of reason and objectivity into arguments that are otherwise settled along party lines.


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