Among the 435 members of the House, there is one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, and 6 engineers.His reasoning for this is clear: scientists and mathematicians are secretly dismissed by the American electorate because technical-minded people are elitist.
Let's pause for a minute here, and please someone tell me how a microbiologist is an elitist but Mitt Romney isn't? Your average mid-career scientist probably makes around $56,000 as a salary. That's how much Mitt Romney makes in a single day. But the scientists are the elitists. You know, because they solve problems instead of create them.
Paulos goes on with this gem:
Politicians, whose job is in many ways more difficult than that of scientists, naturally try to sway their disparate constituencies, but the prevailing celebrity-infatuated, money-driven culture and their personal ambitions often lead them to employ rhetorical tricks rather than logical arguments.My italics. Yes, yes...politicians are the ones with the difficult jobs. Back when I was in grad school (long before I became the jaded, vindictive jerkblogger I am today) I had a research professor that mentored me. He had a wife and four kids, and lived in a modest home in a decent area. His research involved the upper extremiti - the arm - and building 3D models of the bones in them without having to take xrays or do surgery. Using this method, if he could achieve it, the source of people's arthritis and other maladies could be sourced much quicker and more cheaply.
But getting funding was difficult. Many funding sources focus on the lower extremity, because knee problems are so prevalent in this country and where the problem is, the money goes. On one occasion he and I attended a bioengineering conference in San Diego. The lower extremity was divided into four 1-hour sessions, one for the foot, one for the hip, and two for the knee. At the knee sessions, there were hundreds of people and it was standing room only. The next day Upper Extremity was held in the same room, and including my professor and me, twelve people were in attendance. After the presenters finished, everyone stood around and talked about the difficulty of funding, and how ridiculous it was. How strange that humans can get around in a handicap-accessible world with bad legs (or even no legs) but if you lose your arms you are almost helpless. And yet NIH funding, VA funding, and NIBIB funding went largely to "the knee people."
It was a battle for my professor to feed me. One semester he couldn't, and I had to teach a class and generally scrape through with student loans. But my two years with him was the culmination of a five-year effort to extract validation data for his model. The specimens my predecessors and I tested and the results obtained allowed him to finally win an NIH R01 which guaranteed him five years of solid funding. At which point, he'll be back at zero unless he finds more money to continue his work.
But no, Paulos is right, politicians are the ones with the difficult job.
One more criticism about this piece. Paulos claims some of the blame for the "culture chasm" between scientists and politicians lies at the feet of the scientists:
Too few scientists are willing to engage in public debates, to explain the relevance of their fields clearly and without jargon, and, in the process, to risk some jeering from a few colleagues. Nevertheless, American scientists do more on this front that those in most other countries.The thing about science, though, is that it is a international concept. While Federal debt is a sovereign problem...lupus infects humans all over the world. I submit that Paulos need only attend a scientific conference on...well anything...to see that not only do scientists regularly engage in public and sometimes raucous debate, but when they do so they often need translators because of the number of foreign scientists that attend these events. I know this because I have been to them. Since 2005 I have attended three major and two minor conferences on biomedicine, and during each the format was the same: scientist gave 15 minute lecture on his/her research, then for five minutes anyone...literally anyone...in the audience could come up to the microphone and ask a question. Often rival scientists would come up and try to poke holes in the theory; a befuddled grad student presenting work that was but a cog in the gear of their sponsoring professors' decade long work would wilt under the hammering criticism. Then the professor would stand up and the two (or more) rival colleagues would go after each other in loud voices and thick accents. This was often the case in the aforementioned knee sessions. A lot of grant money was sitting in that room, and being right was fiscally prudent.
Nevertheless, on some things Paulos is right. For instance:
Skepticism enjoins scientists — in fact all of us — to suspend belief until strong evidence is forthcoming, but this tentativeness is no match for the certainty of ideologues and seems to suggest to many the absurd idea that all opinions are equally valid. The chimera of the fiercely independent everyman reigns. What else explains the seemingly equal weight accorded to the statements of entertainers and biological researchers on childhood vaccines? Or to pronouncements of industry lobbyists and climate scientists? Or to economic prescriptions like 9-9-9 and those of Nobel-prize winning economists?The answer is that stupid people get to vote, but they don't get to award grants. If we were to consider a politician's election campaign (and the promises made therein) and a scientist's grant application (and the research topics proposed) as apples to apples, one quickly sees that the politician must promise whatever it takes to win voters. The scientist, on the other hand, has to convince a bunch of PhD grant reviewers that the work will produce significant social progress, is feasible and timely, and can be produced within a budget.
Let me finish with this: I am not trying to trash the vocation of politicians. I just want to point out that I find it less likely that scientists are unelectable in America, and more likely that scientists in America simply aren't interested in getting elected.