Politicians Ignorant of Science Because We Are
Representative Todd Akin's severely misinformed remarks on rape and pregnancy earlier this week served as a stark reminder that politicians, by and large, are not scientists. To be precise, a mere thirty members of the House of Representatives were employed in science- or medically-related fields before taking office.
This number should be higher, but it's actually not as dismal as it appears. Statistically, the percentage of representatives with a science-related background is on par with, and actually slightly higher than, the share of doctors, engineers, scientists, and mathematicians in the United States: 6.9% in the House versus approximately 6.4% in the country as a whole.
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.
Only 28% of Americans are estimated to be scientifically literate, a quality defined as the "knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity." In light of that substandard figure, it's no surprise that our politicians are similarly uninformed on science and technology.
For example, U.S. Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia once hilariously posited that the island of Guam could "tip over and capsize" due to overpopulation. And former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens remarked that the Internet is a "series of tubes" that can be "filled."
Considering that 36% of Americans believe that aliens have visited Earth, it's not surprising that Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich once admitted seeing a UFO when he was visiting actress Shirley MacLaine at her house in Washington state. During the incident he supposedly "felt a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind."
Forty-six percent of Americans believe that humans were created at one time in the past 10,000 years, despite a vast ocean of evidence that Homo sapiens have existed for about 250,000 years. So it also should come as no surprise that former Minnesota State Representative Allen Quist, the current Republican nominee for Congress in Minnesota's 1st District, believes that dinosaurs co-existed with man. "People and stegosaurs were living at the same time," he wrote.
Moreover, scientific ignorance begets outrageous state political platforms, like that of the Texas GOP, which opposes "the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that... have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority." Does the GOP really want to ban critical thinking in schools?
Democracy is indisputably the greatest political system ever devised. The system's brilliance derives from the notion that an elected body is a mirror image of the people who chose it. Unfortunately, across the country, our elected legislatures and leaders reflect the fact that we are largely a scientifically illiterate populace.
Is it because we're stupid? Certainly not. Anyone with a library card, Internet access, and a willing mind can attain a basic understanding of science should they so choose. The lack of understanding is willful. People just don't care.
But science, which is, in essence, the pursuit of truth, is something we all should care about. Many of our Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were staunch supporters of science. According to James Madison, "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."
Indeed, we have the means to acquire the information of which Madison spoke. But do we have the will power to learn?
Science is undoubtedly mankind's quintessential tool for improving our lives and our world. We must not wield this instrument with ignorance, or we will fail to maximize its benefits. Or worse, we will end up repeating the mistakes of our past.