The Biggest Problem With Politics, According to Richard Feynman

The Biggest Problem With Politics, According to Richard Feynman
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Numerous problems plague politics. For starters, there's too much money, not enough openness, and a current disdain for compromise.

Complications like these come and go, but there is one that has remained prevalent for decades: Politics is far too unscientific.

Mind you, I don't mean "unscientific" for lack of citing studies or funding scientific endeavors (though our elected officials can and should do more of both). I mean "unscientific" by Carl Sagan's fundamental definition of science, as a "way of thinking".

Come election season, candidates do their best to distill all nuance out of complicated issues, instead campaigning with an unscientific mixture of absolutism, oversimplification, and straw man arguments. Even worse, when politicians actually attempt to talk issues, the media simplifies their speeches and comments to sound bites, usually the most controversial. Reasoned ideas simply don't stand up to an entertaining narrative.

The outspoken and enlightening theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was keenly aware of this disconcerting situation back in April 1963, when he gave a series of public lectures. In one of those lectures, "This Unscientific Age," Feynman described a troubling -- and all too often true -- scenario:

Suppose two politicians are running for president, and one... is asked, "What are you going to do about the farm question?" And he knows right away— bang, bang, bang.

The next presidential candidate the same question, yet his reply is more honest and thoughtful:

"Well, I don't know. I used to be a general, and I don't know anything about farming. But it seems to me it must be a very difficult problem, because for twelve, fifteen, twenty years people have been struggling with it, and people say that they know how to solve the farm problem... So the way that I intend to solve the farm problem is to gather around me a lot of people who know something about it, to look at all the experience that we have had with this problem before, to take a certain amount of time at it, and then to come to some conclusion in a reasonable way about it. Now, I can't tell you ahead of time the conclusion, but I can give you some of the principles I'll try to use..."

According to Feynman, the authenticity and rationality embodied in this answer almost always doom a politician.

"Such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think... This is in the attitude of mind of the populace, that they have to have an answer and that a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around. And the result of this of course is that the politician must give an answer. And the result of this is that political promises can never be kept... The result of that is that nobody believes campaign promises. And the result of that is a general disparaging of politics, a general lack of respect for the people who are trying to solve problems, and so forth. It's all generated from the very beginning (maybe—this is a simple analysis). It's all generated, maybe, by the fact that the attitude of the populace is to try to find the answer instead of trying to find a man who has a way of getting at the answer."

It is ironic that in this age of information we still take our politics simplified, spoon-fed, and unscientific. This election, let's demand a more scientific way of thinking from our politicians, our media sources, and ourselves.

Source: Richard Feynman. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist. 2005

(Image: Tamiko Thiel)

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