Scientific ignorance among lawmakers is unacceptable, bad for policy

Michael Jensen

It’s well known that lawyers are overrepresented in government, with 220 out of 535 congressmen holding law degrees in 2013. These legislators grasp that understanding the country’s legal system is a prerequisite for substantive legislation. However, there are other laws which govern our lives.

Laws of science, which are more universal than man-made laws and far less open to interpretation, are dismissed by politicians who neither trust nor understand them. In the face of threats like climate change and disease, we can no longer accept the willful ignorance of so many of our leaders.

Scientists are sorely underrepresented in government, with only two currently in congress. The effect this has on public policy is comical but more so disheartening. North Carolina literally banned scientists from measuring rising sea levels and presidential candidates have condemned a cancer preventing vaccine. It’s tempting to laugh, but 2015 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record and previously eradicated diseases like measles are reappearing — this isn’t funny.

The absurd ways lawmakers treat science affects more than just climate policy and public health. Most scientific research is federally funded, and scientists can find it difficult to explain and defend their research to scientifically illiterate legislators.

Neurobiology senior Morgan Merriman expressed her frustration with the way politicians dismiss scientific research, making it difficult for scientists to secure funding.

“Politicians are dumb dingbats,” Merriman said. “Every few years people who work in basic science have to go defend what they do. There is a huge push for translational science that is directly clinically relevant. However, a lot of that stuff starts at basic science. That’s why when people ask me what I do, I say alcoholism research. To them, it sounds better than saying ‘I study the proteins that change in the brain in certain areas after alcohol drinking that are part of a pathway involved in alcoholism in mice.’”

Unfamiliarity with science also makes lawmakers more susceptible to manipulation. Sahotra Sarkar, integrative biology and philosophy professor, said he believes unscrupulous special interests exploit the ignorance of lawmakers to influence legislation.

“Lawmakers are systematically misled by fraudulent self-styled experts. For instance, those who argue against compulsory vaccination,” Sarkar said. “In the case of climate change they are also misled by those whose narrow interests (dependent on fossil fuels) can be affected. So, it is not just a case of scientific illiteracy. It is also a case of deliberate deceit on the part of special interests.”

Not every politician needs to be an expert, but basic scientific literacy among lawmakers is necessary for sensible public policy. Questions of legality and constitutionality are important for lawmakers to consider. However, so are questions of science — ultimately, we all live in the real world, even if politicians seem to forget it sometimes.

Jensen is a neuroscience junior from Houston. Follow him on Twitter @michaeltangible.