Why are there so few scientists in politics?

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The scientific process is radically different from the political process. With a few exceptions, scientists follow the scientific method, which is to try to make sense of observations by forming a "first cut" theory (called an hypothesis) to explain them, then devising experiments to test it. If the hypothesis survives the tests, it becomes better-established, but not conclusively proved.

Experiments are not enough. The scientific method also requires that the hypothesis be capable of making predictions that are consistent with the emerging theory. Any prediction (or experiment) that is inconsistent with the current hypotheses undermines the hypothesis, which must then be either modified or abandoned.

Another requirement is that the new or modified hypothesis has also to explain all the observations that led to any existing theory that it will replace. History cannot be rewritten. Audit trails are as important to scientific developments as to financial accounting.

No scientific hypothesis can be regarded as conclusively proved, because any experiment or observation that is inconsistent with it can at any time undermine it. The longer that it survives, and the more reliably it supports predictions, the better it fares, until it is secure enough to be called a Theory.

Politics works quite differently. Most politicians either invent their own theories or believe in one (or more) invented by other politicians. The political method is to work up a political theory, then argue in order to convince others that it is "right". It is very diificult indeed to persuade a politician to change his mind about his political views.
Even when it is quite clear that a political idea has entirely failed to achieve what it set out to do, there will still be politicians who will argue a case for it. If all else fails, a politician will argue that, even though the declared aims were not achieved, something else good came of it.

The thought processes are different

The constrast can be summarised like this:
  • A scientist is prepared to abandon or modify his hypothesis if it is undermined by experimental observation or fails to predict a consistent outcome. The key point is that a single inconsistent observation is enough to demolish an inadequate hypothesis. Majority voting has no place in a scientific debate.
  • A politician will rarely abandon his position, even when his ideas have demonstrably failed to work. He will, however, accept a majority decision, even if he continues to argue against it.

    That could be why there are very few scientists in politics. It is largely peopled by advocates - lawyers, journalists and the like - who have particular axes to grind and who are more committed to persuading others to their viewpoint than to understanding how things really work.

    I would argue that we need both ...

    ... but that we need to be careful not to confuse one with the other.
    We also need to be aware that scientists are human and have prejudices, too. The line between refining an hypothesis to accommodate it to observations that tend to undermine it and arguing irrationally against accumulating evidence can become thin. So it is a good idea to listen carefully when scientific hypotheses enter a political debate. It is quite possible for a scientist to become a politician, which is OK, as long as he does not abandon the open-mindedness without which he cannot remain true to scientific principles.

    How can you tell?

    There are some clues, though you can never be sure. The strongest clue is hearing a scientist tell you that there is a "consensus" within the scientific community about something - especially something new, or with political connotations. Good science is not achieved by majority voting, so if you hear "majority" in the conversation, be very sceptical.

    Another clue is the word "model". If you hear "models predict", be very suspicious that the prediction may not be much better than a guess.
    If you hear "consensus" or "majority" and "model" in the same conversation, you can be almost certain that the speaker, though he may have impeccable scientific credentials, is speaking not as a scientist, but as a politician.

    Updated 6 Apr 07