Science in The House (of Representatives)!

Charles Wofford | Politics & Government | Commentary | February 22nd, 2018

According to The Huffington Post, more scientists than ever are running for office in 2018. [1] This includes roughly 60 PhD scientists running for federal offices, some 200 people of STEM backgrounds running for various state level seats, and the political action group 314 Action ("members of the STEM community, grassroots supporters, and political activists who believe in science") is apparently pressing upwards of 500 other scientists to run for office at various levels. Why is this happening? The obvious answer is that scientists across the board are alarmed at the failure of our legislature to do anything about climate change. So, there is an effort to get a strong scientific presence in government in order to influence policy on energy and climate change. This is likely a very good thing.

However, we ought to be critical in our embrace of the scientific community's political efforts. I have written recently about the efforts of the right to gut education of its political content. [2] The emphasis on "vocational education" on the part of the Right is part of a larger effort to discourage would-be students from studying "useless" topics like history, philosophy, literature, or others that tend to lead to politicization (the Republican phrase for "politicization of students" is "learning to hate America"). If successful, this effort would create a whole generation of Americans educated in "vocational" fields and who tend to simply "do their job" without questioning the political motives behind their jobs.

Unfortunately, many scientists in the United States are politically naïve. This lends itself to similar thinking about education in "useless" topics like history, philosophy, literature, etc. Observe Stephen Hawking's solemn declaration that "philosophy is dead" from his book The Grand Design. Or Steven Pinker's obnoxious preaching about how "the truth can't be sexist" or how "political correctness" is ruining America. [3] Similar comments may be found on biologist and University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne's popular blog, Why Evolution is True. Neuroscientist and popular science advocate, Sam Harris, disdains to do meaningful research into any number of historical and political topics on which he comments (see his encounter with Noam Chomsky, where, in response to Chomsky's thorough citations refuting his claims, Harris accuses Chomsky of "running into the weeds"). Observe also the pathetic attempts of others to "debunk" gender studies because it threatens their sense of manhood. [4] Many of these people are major, popular scientists who, when discussing topics related to the humanities, sound like creationists trying to talk about science. Chomsky himself blasted this narrowness of political thought among intellectuals in the 1960s. [5] He is worth mentioning, as he is one of the only major scientists to be politically knowledgeable; usually one must look toward historians like Howard Zinn and Michael Parenti (a political scientist by trade), philosophers and revolutionaries like Angela Davis and Cornel West, or literature professors like Edward Said.

Will the presence of scientists in government help us combat climate change? The obvious answer is yes. However, there may be ways that the political ignorance of many scientists could be used against them. For example, a hypothetical bill that apparently seems to help combat climate change can easily be given at the expense of some technicality buried within its language. The result would be that the bill, ostensibly aimed toward providing climate change relief, would in fact further hamper the powers of the government to do just that. This hypothetical issue has been born out in practice: for example, the fall of apartheid in South Africa was done on the condition that the economy be almost totally privatized. Today, much of the South African economy is held by those who benefited from apartheid. [6] The result is that while apartheid is formally gone, the government was unable to do much to help the real conditions of people, and apartheid lives on today in the South African economy. [7] Similarly, a bill aimed toward, say "combating the effects of climate change," might be misleadingly named. There is no reason to think that scientists, merely by virtue of their scientific expertise, would be less vulnerable to those kinds of tricks. To think otherwise is to fall into the liberal trap that we live in an ideal, perfect political system, and the only problem is that the wrong people somehow got a hold of it. Anyone who knows about the history of the United States (not the idealized history taught in many schools, but the real history) and the explicit intentions of the founding fathers in framing the constitution knows that this is simply not true. [8] There is a class element to our political structures that must be dealt with, and if it is not, then the inclusion of a scientific content to the neoliberal governmental structure will result in even more destruction.

Furthermore, we ought to recognize the many political spaces scientists occupy in the United States. True, the religious Right despises science and has a worrisome amount of political power. However, in other senses, American society fetishizes science. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan are cultural giants (Sagan's admiration of Trotsky is rarely brought up). Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Noam Chomsky are loved and supported by millions. With the possible exception of Chomsky and the long-deceased Sagan, these people are more likely to be sympathetic toward, rather than critical of, an ideology that promotes "innovation" in a "free marketplace of ideas." Isn't innovation, in a sense, what science is all about? And the peer-reviewed scientific process is one of ruthless competition. Daniel Dennett, a major philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist, has emphasized the need for science to be competitive. What a convenient opinion for one who happens to be a well-respected and well-paid figure. One wonders why science cannot be cooperative, especially since more and more of it is; most major studies published these days are done by teams of experts working together: theoretical and particle physicists working with mathematicians, etc. The point here is that much of the American scientistic ideology correlates with the intentions of the Right in gutting political education. And the celebrity status of scientists can be manipulated for political ends in much the same way as the celebrity status of anyone else. There is no reason to think that scientists would be above that sort of flattering attention. Indeed, judging by the arrogance of many a popular scientist, they seem ripe for the picking.

We ought to be wary of the scientist in power. Like all political forms, a scientocracy must be held to the glaring light of criticism by an organized and agitated populace that does not trust its leaders, no matter who they are. Scientocracy is not democracy, but another form of oligarchy based on the fallacy of merit, and as Michael Parenti put it, "democracy is not about's about accountability." Scientists often speak a big game about competition, but they despise criticism directed toward them that does not jump through their particular hoops, sometimes going so far as to attempt to totally discredit those critics by means of hoax publications. It is incumbent on us not to engage only in the kind of competition and challenge that the scientific community insists is legitimate.

It would be good to have more scientists in government. It would also be good to have more writers, philosophers, artists, musicians, librarians, plumbers, cashiers, janitors, more of the unemployed, more of the disabled, more of those who are homeless, and more of the spectrum of life in general in government. The only special space for scientists is the scientific arena - not the political one.

Charles Wofford is a socialist activist in Boulder, CO


[1] Alexander C. Kaufman, "The Largest Number of Scientists in Modern U.S. History are Running for Office in 2018," Washington Post, 2/3/2018.

[2] Charles Wofford, "Presidential nonsense and Warmongering," Boulder Daily Camera, 2/1/2018.

[3] Steven Pinker, "Steven Pinker at Davos: Excessive Political Correctness Feeds Radical Ideas," Big Think, 1/31/2018.

[4] James McWilliams, "The Hoax that Backfired: How an Attempt to Discredit Gender Studies will Only Strengthen it," Pacific Standard, 5/31/2017.

[5] Noam Chomsky, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," New York review of Books, 2/23/1967.

[6] Rachel L. Swarns, "Rarity of Black-Run Businesses Worries South Africa's Leaders," New York Times, 11/13/2002.

[7] Haydn Cornish-Jenkins, "Despite 1994 Political Victory Against Apartheid, its Economic Legacy Persists," South African History Online, 6/15/2015.

[8] James Madison, "Federalist Paper No. 10," 11/23/1787.