Scientists in parliament: can they save us from disaster?

05023394137437_high“To avoid receiving the candidates’ canned responses on these and other issues, I sometimes wish that a debate moderator would forgo a standard question about immigration or jobs and instead ask the candidates to solve a simple puzzle, make an elementary estimate, perform a basic calculation.”[1]

  1. Introduction

Environmental themes are common subjects nowadays in political party programs and political discourse. While environmental topics were still something for Green parties and scientists only a few decades ago, now all parties have become ‘green’. All parties are concerned with topics such as climate change and there is great consensus that it is a problem that desperately needs a solution.

However, at the same time, there is an apparent dichotomy between the discourse of these parties, its MP’s and the real policies they pursue. A study in Portugal, for example, showed that “science is, on the whole, highly regarded by Portuguese parliamentarians. […] Moreover, they express a desire to privilege the role and participation of scientists in developing science policy. These opinions, however, stand in marked contrast to many of the actual practices of the public policy-making process in Portugal.” (Gonçalves 1996, p. 402) Although every politician is concerned with the environment, in everyday (political) life, they are too busy doing other things.

  1. Scientists of all countries, unite!

So, if the parliamentarians do not really seem to care about climate change, should scientists themselves take matters into their own hands? There are some advocates of this idea, for example Mark Henderson. Henderson wrote a book in 2012 titled The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters in which he argues that science should play a crucial role in all policy making nowadays. And since science matters so much, there should be enough scientists in the parliament to deal with these issues in the right way. But, nevertheless, the political reality remains completely different. When he wrote the book, of the UK’s 650 MPs, 158 had a business background, 90 were political advisors or organisers, 86 were lawyers, 38 were journalists; and just three had science PhDs. There is little proof that the situation improved significantly since that date. But does the number of scientists in parliament really matter? Why would we need scientists in parliament? There is in fact, very little genuine research done about this topic. The discussion has, on the other hand, mainly taking place in popular press and online.

The arguments given in favour of this opinion are all very similar. We nowadays live in a technologically complex world and ordinary people are unable to understand what is going on. “[M]ore and more things are simply beyond the grasp of people who aren’t experts in that particular field.”[2] We need well-trained specialists to do the job:

“Some of the key issues of the day can only be understood with the help of science: climate change, drug classification, medicine safety, the impact of pollution, the conservation of fish stocks, risk analysis, the safety of nuclear power and the disposal of radioactive waste, genetic modification, the list goes on and on.”[3]

This has led to a whole range of concepts claiming to bridge this gap: civic science, citizen science, scientist-activist, citizen volunteer, citizen-activist, etc. (Clark 2001). Some, however, even go further and conclude that this not only requires us to take advise from scientists, but scientists themselves should become politicians. “We cannot hope that the politicians who are non-scientists just ‘get it’. I highly doubt that, after advising a politician, scientists or engineers can trust that something in which they’ve taken years to train is understood in a handful of hours.”[4] The environmental problems are scientific in nature, and can be coped only by a scientific way of thinking. Politicians tend to think in a legal way and thus offer judicial solutions. “In the absence of hard science, the vacuum is filled by fads, modish theories, things that people would like to be true.”[5] Bill Foster on the other hand a particle physicist who got elected in the USA, claims that his background offers him unique insights into politics: “he is continually thinking of new ways to inject the rigour of science into the often messy give and take that is the essence of politics.”[6] Scientists are claimed to have a different mentality: “all of the political incentives are about getting elected two years from now. And, this causes us to underinvest in things like basic scientific research or early childhood education, where the economic pickup is not in two years but 10 or 20 years.”[7]

However scientists are underrepresented in parliament: it is mainly filled with economists, businessmen or lawyers more concerned with economic growth than with the environment. Julian Huppert, himself an elected scientist, states for example that “[w]e need to encourage people from a diverse range of careers and backgrounds to enter politics so that we have a mix which is more representative of the people that we have been elected to serve.”[8] In the UK, there are some scientists in the House of Lords, such as John Krebs, Martin Rees or Robert Winston, but scientists are hardly represented in the House of Commons. Similar arguments are to be found in different countries as well.[9] There have been attempts and cases of these scientists-politicians. In 2006, for example, ‘Scientists and Engineers for America’ (Sefora) was founded and in 2010 there was a ‘science party’ in the UK. Both, however, have disappeared by now.

Especially the American press seems to be concerned with this issue, mainly due the high level of scepticism in the United States with regard to scientific topics such as climate change or evolution theory. This is often contrasted with other countries in which scientists are more valued. John Allen Paulos, for example, wrote in 2012 for the New York Times after returning from Singapore:

“China has even more scientists in key positions in the government. President Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer and Premier Wen Jiabao as a geomechanical engineer. In fact, eight out of the nine top government officials in China have scientific backgrounds. There is a scattering of scientist-politicians in high government positions in other countries as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physical chemistry, and, going back a bit, Margaret Thatcher earned a degree in chemistry.”[10]

These type of remarks are inspired by a somewhat idealized image of scientists and a cynical view on politicians: scientists seem to talk about the important stuff, like certain facts, while politicians spur much drivel without any content. A famous example of this is Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and ‘science communicator’, who stated in an interview in July 2014:

“So in the way that nuclear physicists stood up, I think we should have climate scientists standing up. With any issue that comes up, when we have an emergent scientific truth, we can’t just sit back and watch people debate a scientific truth — they should be debating the politics that would follow from the emergent scientific truth. That’s really what the debates should be about, but they haven’t been. And I’m disturbed by that, because I don’t know what kind of democracy that is, if you’re run around cherry-picking the results of science, of emergent scientific consensus because it conflicts with your philosophy and you want to be responsible for the governance of the nation, which involves thoughtful planning for the future of our health and our wealth, the state of the economy, all of the above.”[11]

A popular meme about Neil Degrasse Tyson. The original footage is found in an episode of the talkshow Real Time with Bill Maher.
A popular meme about Neil deGrasse Tyson. The original footage is found in an episode of the talkshow Real Time with Bill Maher.
  1. Why do we need scientists at all?

But are any of these arguments really sound? Would climate change be solved if only we had some more scientists as MP’s? It is ironic that a call for more scientists and scientific expertise is itself based on so little scientific evidence. For example, it can be argued that scientists are not underrepresented at all in parliament. Scientists are in fact only a very small fraction of society, and so there aren’t many scientists needed in parliament. The real problem might not be the lack of science in parliament, but the lack of science in society. “So, contrary to what has been repeatedly argued in the past, there isn’t a glaring problem with a lack of scientists involved in politics. There is, however, another more distressing issue. Our politicians’ collective level of scientific knowledge mirrors that of the general population.”[12] Politicians might be scientific illiterate simply because the population in general is.

Even if they would really be underrepresented, it is doubtful that they would make the difference these people expect them to make. In one of the few studies that are conducted concerning this topic, it is argued that scientific training does not really make any difference at all. Taking the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and Act of 2008 in the UK as a case study, there was no evidence found that scientists in parliament vote any different from other members: they do not vote more often on science-related bills, do not favour more or less restrictions on scientific research, nor do they are inclined to form part of a minority faction within their own part (Goodwin 2014, p. 10-12). There are however two remarks to be made here: firstly, it can be doubted whether this really is a scientific topic, but instead was about an ideological or at least a bio-ethical issue. On the other hand, it is doubtful as well whether any ‘purely’ scientific subjects exist and are discussed in parliament. Secondly, although scientists might not vote differently on bills, they may have an influence behind the scenes. Perhaps they influence the process by agenda-setting prior to the voting (Ibid., p. 19).

Nevertheless, the assimilation of science in politics might be problematic on its own. Science and politics seem to have different goals: the purpose of politics is framed as the ‘good life’ or economic growth, while for science the goal seems to be the accumulation of knowledge. These goals might be incompatible in a way: “There is a crucial difference between the construction of science-based policy advice and the construction of scientific knowledge. Left to their own devices scientists seldom formulate research questions and design research projects in order to provide solutions for policy problems.” (Jung et al. 2014, p. 7). Scientific research is always framed in uncertainty or margins of error, things often lost in the translation to traditional politics. A complete scientific consensus is very rare, and so there are often scientific dissidents, ready to be deployed for politic purposes. Climate change is a very clear example of this: even though climate change deniers are a scientific minority, they are overrepresented in the political debates, especially in the United States. Additionally, claiming that science should serve politics might result in the fact that every scientific project is obliged to formulate concrete purposes or show its utility for society. Science is forced to have a direct ‘impact’ on society.[13] Instead of incorporating science in politics, this simply reduces science to politics.

  1. Towards a contract with nature

Although, the technocratization of politics is proposed by most above authors as the solution, it is, on the contrary, part of the problem. It is doubtful whether any real scientific and legitimate technocracy can be established, let alone solve the problem of climate change. In fact, these optimists presuppose in their argumentations two problematic models of the relation between science and politics: the decisionist model and the technocratic model (Weingart 1999, p. 154).

According to the technocratic model politics should or will be completely dependent on science. Politics would in fact be nothing more than ‘good governance’ and the application of a neutral procedure to implement whatever works according to the objective facts. No such type of politics has come into being, though these technocratic dreams were already popular in the 60’s (and go at least back to the work of Francis Bacon). On the contrary, in the last decades there is a significant loss of authority of science and of credibility of politicians who base their policies on science (Ibid, p. 151).

The decisionist model claims that the relation between politics and science is equal to the relation between objective knowledge and subjective values: scientists just offer the data, for example the current status of the climate, and it is up to politics to make a decision based on their own (subjective) values and perspectives. The idea that ‘science speaks truth to politics’ is, however, highly problematic (Bader 2013). This model has some highly implausible presuppositions: (a) the empirical claim that political decision-making goes from a political problem stated by the politician, via the advice by the scientific expert and to the decision made by the politician; (b) the claim that scientific knowledge is completely value-free; (c) and the presupposed neutrality of the experts (Weingart 1999, p. 154-155).

Sculpture known as ‘Politicians discussing climate change’ by Isaac Cordal, although in reality it is a part of the art work ‘follow the leaders’.

Such a model hardly reflects the reality of the political process. Climate change is, once again, a clear example of this: scientists themselves were deeply involved in putting the problem on the political agenda, e.g. by the actions of the Club of Rome. These actions were hardly value-neutral, since they clearly pleaded for action against climate change and overpopulations. As stated before, the communication of these experts was hardly neutral: the scientists whose standpoints are discussed in parliament or in the media are far from random, but consist of a selective group of scientists, clearly inspired by certain values, such as the value of nature, or political ideas, such as environmentalism. Scientists willing to run for Congress or become an MP would probably even be more clear examples of such value-inspired experts.

The fact that the relation between science and politics is far more complex has also recently been advocated in the science and technology studies (STS) and the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) (see Shapin 1995). The general acceptance of scientific theories is too often thought of as resulting simply from the fact that these theories are manifestly ‘true’. This is, however, not really any explanation at all for the general consensus reached about certain scientific theories. Explaining why most people accept climate change and global warming by referring to the simple fact that ‘it really is a true fact’ will hardly suffice. To do so is to neglect the numerous social practices and networks that had to be mobilized in the process. It required a big network of people, statistical data, environmental disasters, technological instruments and narratives about nature to spread the belief in global warming.

As the French sociologist Bruno Latour points out, we are however inclined to separate these networks in different, strictly separated domains: facts and knowledge on one side, politics and social practices on the other. The humans versus the nonhumans. We claim that this is what separated us from other civilizations and made us ‘modern’: we are separated from ‘primitive’ tribes and medieval warlords by a ‘Great Divide’ (Latour 1993, p. 12). While these tribes seem to mix up politics and nature, by believing in deities ruling over the realms of nature, we have seen the light and separated them: our knowledge about nature is completely detached from all cultural and social processes; our politics is aimed at man alone, and does not rely on these gods of nature. So we westerners claim and so the decisionist and technocratic model presuppose. The assertion that climate change should be coped simply by installing more scientists in parliament, because they have the pure facts, presupposes this separation.

But is there really such a separation? Ironically, climate change might be the perfect example of why this is not the case. Is global warming a purely natural process to be discussed by science and facts, a process of nonhuman things? Or is it a social thing, something made solely by man? It seems to be neither, but instead it is a mix of both. Neither natural nor social, but a hybrid form (Latour, p. 50). Cases such as global warming, ozone hole, deforestation, cancer, overpopulation, Chernobyl, etc. are not clear-cut natural or social, but always a bit of both. In the current threats we are faced with, the distinction has become hard to make: drought and climate change seem to play a crucial role in the Syrian Uprising (De Châtel 2014) while climate change models need to incorporate the behaviour of the masses (Palmer & Smith 2014).

Yet, we are still inclined to keep them disconnected and that is exactly the problem with the whole debate on climate change as well as why the call for more scientists in parliament is misconceived. It is striking that in our political and social thinking we only incorporate the social, but not nature. It is in this context that the French thinker Michel Serres calls up for rewriting our contrat social into a contrat naturel (Serres 1995). When social scientists, lawyers or politicians speak about unemployment, social insurance, the war on drugs or economic growth they hardly speak about the natural processes involved in these matters. These processes seem to take place in a void, completely ignoring the environment in which it takes place. Those who decide, who make the political decisions do this in a way completely separated from every aspect of nature: they deal only in language, in laws, in social norms and political values (Ibid., pp. 28-29).

Sure, politicians do talk about global warming, acid rains or floods. But only as separated debates, somehow distinct. The modern separation between the social and the natural is re-enacted once again. If these environmental problems are incorporated at all, they are translated into economic challenges: we do not talk about fundamental conflicts or crises, but about cooperation problems: we can in a way buy ourselves out of global warming by adjusting our personal behaviour. For example by emissions trading, i.e. we put a price on the right to emit an amount of CO2, but by this we neglect the political aspects of the problem altogether. As Kenis & Lievens (2014) state:

“The CO2 emitted by a steel factory is rendered equal to that emitted by a hospital, by a wild camel in the remote regions of Australia, or by a tree being cut down. The CO2 emission saved by building more efficient coal-fired power stations is equalised with that saved by building wind mills. The fact that the latter is a step on the pathway to a sustainable energy system while the former remains within the fossil fuel model is no longer of any account. This equalisation prevents people from making conscious political choices or choosing priorities. The foregoing seems to lead to an easy conclusion: if we want to repoliticise environmental issues, not only ‘nature’ but also every enmity and conflict should be ‘internalised’ again.” (p. 541)

We should internalise these aspects, to solve global warming, by working towards a fundamental new contract, which breaks with this distinction between politics and nature. As Serres puts it, we need a natural contract: “I mean by natural contract above all the precisely metaphysical recognition, by each collectivity, that it lives and works in the same global world as all the others” (Serres 1995, p. 46). Environmental problems should not be translated to economic recalculations, but should be incorporated into politics as the hybrid problems that they are: mixes of different social aspects, perspectives on nature, technological devices, etc. It is not about determining the natural facts and afterwards starting to think about social solutions, but about establishing these ‘facts’ for what they really are: natural elements always already linked with human elements, economic structures or political relations. We do not NEED a decisionist model where firstly the facts are presented and then politicians decide what to do with this unsurmountable facts. We need to actively form one model in which both the scientists and their facts, claiming to represent climate change, and politicians and their wishes, claiming to represent the public, are blend in. A model in which both people and things stand next to each other and are able to protest against the collective model, if it doesn’t fit: the people might rebel when the model is not socially just; the facts might ‘riot’ when they do not fit into the model.

So do we need more exact scientists in parliament? Perhaps, but not because they somehow miraculously know the ‘truth’ about it all, but because they might offer us different ways of thinking: in a way they are the ones who are somehow more used to work with networks in which the ‘natural things’ dominate. We don’t need them because they have some special method which ensures them to be always correct, they hardly ever are, but because they have an ethos, which might be beneficial: they have a different ‘ethic of cognition’ (Gellner 1979) which incites them to speak about the natural aspects of things to a further extent than other groups are. They tend to represent things rather than people. In this sense, we might not need a parliament of scientists, but perhaps a parliament of things (Latour 1993, p. 142).

Massimiliano Simons

  1. Bibliography

Bader, Veit, ‘Sciences, politics, and associative democracy: democratizing science and expertizing democracy,’ Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 2013, pp. 1-22.

Clark, Fiona & Illman, Deborah L., ‘Dimensions of Civic Science – Introductory Essay,’ Science Communication, 23 (1), 2001, pp. 5-27.

De Châtel, Francesca, ‘The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution,’ Middle Eastern Studies, 50 (4), 2014,      pp. 521-535.

Palmer, Paul I. & Smith, Matthew, J., ‘Model human adaptation to climate change,Nature,   512, 2014, pp. 365-366.

Gellner, Ernest, ‘An ethic of cognition’ in Spectacles & Predicaments, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979.

Gonçalves, Maria Eduarda & Patrício, Maria Teresa & Firmino da Costa, António, ‘Political  images of science in Portugal,’ Public Understanding of Science, 5, 1996, pp. 395-410.

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Hellström, Tomas & Jacob, Merle, ‘Scientification of politics or politicization of science? Traditionalist science-policy discourse and its quarrels with Mode 2 epistemology,’   Social Epistemology, 14 (1), pp. 69-77.

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Kenis, Anneleen & Lievens, Matthias, ‘Searching for ‘the political’ in environmental politics,’ Environmental Politics, 23 (4), 2014, pp. 531-548.

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[1] Paulos, J. A., ‘Why don’t Americans Elect Scientists?,’ The New York Times, February 13, 2012.

[2] Wright, Mark, ‘On the Importance of having Scientists and Engineers in Parliament,’ CaSE, March 17, 2010.

[3] Ladyman, Stephen, ‘Why do so few scientists get involved in politics?,’ CaSE, March 19, 2010.

[4] Clarkson, Paul, ‘Where are the scientist politicians?,’ physicsfocus online, March 4, 2014.

[5] Hannan, Daniel, Why all politicians should study some science,’ The Telegraph, November 17, 2008.

[6] Bloudoff-Indelicato, Mollie, ‘Physicist elected to Congress calls for more scientists-statesmen,Nature, November 15, 2012.

[7] Samles, Jonathan, ‘From Particles to Politics: Congressman Foster discusses scientific background, political present during Woodridge Rotary luncheon,’ The Bugle, May 29, 2013.

[8] Smith, Adam, ‘Kicking down the doors: how to give scientific advice to governments,’ The Guardian, May 11 2012.

[9] See for example Cliche, Jean-François, ‘Seulement 13% des candidates ont une formation scientifique,leSoleil, March 21, 2014 or Bekkers, Florian, ‘Politiek heeft meer mensen met exacte achtergrond nodig,’ Groenlinks, September 19, 2010.

[10] Paulos, J. A., ‘Why don’t Americans Elect Scientists?,’ The New York Times, February 13, 2012.

[11] Abrams, Lindsay, ‘Neil deGrasse Tyson exclusive: “I don’t know what kind of democracy that is, if you’re gonna cherry-pick … science because it conflicts with your philosophy”,Salon, July 23, 2014.

[12] Pomeroy, Ross, ‘Politicians Ignorant of Science Because We Are,’ Real Clear Science, August 23, 2012.

[13] Smith, Adam, ‘Making an impact: when science and politics collide,The Guardian, June 1, 2012.