Monday, September 14, 2009

The "Science Cabinet"

High Power
I'm really going to cut all political posts for a while, I promise. We've got the Japanese upper house election next July and the Swedish elections in September and I don't want to burn out on the subject beforehand.

However, I do want to reflect a bit over a piece in Yomiuri Shinbun that dubs the upcoming government the "science cabinet". It turns out that not only does incoming prime minister Hatoyama have a science background (he's got an engineering PhD), but so does Hirofumi Hirano (cabinet secretary) and Naoto Kan (state strategy minister, whatever that means) who both have undergraduate science degrees. The article correctly points out that a science background is pretty rare in the world of politics where most people tend to be lawyers or economists.

Of course, when three ministers are lawyers you don't call it a "legal cabinet". The article really has a strong vibe of a reporter short on ideas and short on time desperately trying to come up with a new angle on the incoming cabinet. But fluff piece or not, it does bring up a relevant question: how will the cabinet change when some of the main members have a science background?
Mostly it won't change at all. The piece tries to push the "logical technocrat" angle, but frankly, anybody looking for a Mr. Spock would have better luck at the movies or book store than in a real university science department. A science background doesn't make you immune to biases, rationalizations, wishful thinking or outright denial of reality - as engineers and physicians connected to "young earth" creationism, Aum Shinrikyo and other bizarre cults can attest.

Competence in one field doesn't necessarily translate to competence in another1. What really distinguishes the sciences from other fields is its method of inquiry, but that's not really applicable to political decision-making. To the extent that experiments, observational studies or modeling can be applied to politics, social science and economy, those fields are already doing it. Besides, of the people above only Hatoyama has experience in doing science rather than applying it. Decision making won't change in any material way.

Neither does it mean you finally get "smart" people in charge. It's popular to bash politicians as incompetent and dumb, but that's simply not true. Anybody that manages to rise to the top in politics - or any competitive field - and stay at the top for years is likely to be intelligent and fairly competent (that, or they're great at surrounding themselves with people who are - which can be even better). They might be crooked, they might be dishonest, and they might even be evil, manipulating and greedy, but they're generally not stupid or ignorant. The educational background doesn't matter.

With that said, this might mean a welcome improvement in one small way: a science or engineering background means you're familiar and comfortable with numbers. Innumeracy - the inability to or interest in reading and understanding numeral amounts, charts, statistics and so on - is a serious impediment for a decision maker, and distressingly common even among otherwise intelligent, rational people. But whether you like it or not, numeracy is necessary in order to fully grasp complex situations and understand the pros and cons of different courses of action. If you rely on other people to interpret statistics and and explain probabilities to you, you're effectively delegating part of your decision power to them2. Imagine, if you will, an illiterate politician, completely dependent on his assistants, lobbyists and colleagues to read and explain the gist of printed text for him. Consider how much power he gives them all to color things according to their own biases and expectations, even when they try to be completely neutral. An innumerate decision maker is in the same situation; it's just less obvious to onlookers (some of whom may be innumerate themselves).

In any case, we're talking about three people in a cabinet of a couple of dozen, and only one with an actual background as a scientist. Even if scientists and engineers really had been a breed apart in politics, this wouldn't have mattered much. It's mostly a curiosity that gives Hatoyama a bit of personal colour, like Icelandic prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir being openly gay, or former Czech president Vaclav Havel being a celebrated playwright. Mildly interesting but not a big deal.


#1 This is another reason I write little about science here. I don't want posts about things I do know about to lend authority to posts about things I don't (which, frankly, is pretty much every single word on this blog)

#2 This is reportedly why scientists and statisticians are rarely asked to serve on trial juries in the US - neither the prosecution nor the defence wants to lose their power to interpret the evidence for the jury.

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