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What if politicians thought like scientists?

The scientific community is about to lose one of its major champions in the United States House of Representatives. One of the two physicists in Congress, Rush Holt (D-NJ), has decided not to seek reelection when his term ends. Representative Holt previously worked as assistant director of Princeton's Plasma Physics Laboratory before becoming a politician; he also beat IBM supercomputer "Watson" on Jeopardy. Holt has been a champion for science during his congressional tenure and continues to speak out about scientific issues. He's a prime example of how "thinking like a scientist" can be an asset for politicians.

Last May, Yale's undergraduate politics journal, The Politic, published a really interesting interview with Holt (alongside equally interesting comments from fellow Congressional physicist Bill Foster). The story highlights how learning to think like a scientist truly does change the way one examines all sorts of issues. For Holt, scientific inquiry in the public sector means, "asking questions in ways that they can be answered based on evidence, and then subjecting your answers to scrutiny by others so you don't become trapped in a self-delusion." He says many politicians don't approach issues this way—instead they're looking for confirmation of a specific view. He also notes that there isn't an inherent incompatibility between science and politics. Instead, he posits that many politicians aren't even aware of the possibility of evidence-based thinking.

In the interview, Holt highlights one key difference between how scientists and politicians often view issues: "Politics is almost always practiced with an eye towards the here-and-now. It's the temporary balancing of interests, whereas science always has an eye towards the future." But since political actions can have lasting ramifications, it's even more crucial that politicians try to approach decisionmaking like scientists. As Holt says, "Continually asking and refining questions so that they can be answered empirically—with evidence—is a much better prescription for getting towards future-oriented solutions that will hold up over time."

According to Holt, this inability to consider the future is a huge problem when politicians approach the issue of climate change. Before he leaves office, Holt is speaking out on the importance of science in politics and in dealing with climate change in particular. Despite some criticisim, he maintains that the scientific evidence heavily weighs against the climate change skeptics. For example, in a recent interview with Salon, Holt said, "because of droughts, and agricultural disruption, and changes in diseases — disease patterns and epidemiology — millions are already dying, or have died, as a result of changes in the climate."

While Holt has argued that you don't have to be a scientist to think like a scientist, he also said on a recent televised interview, "Until we reach that golden age where all Americans know how to think like scientists, know how to think comfortably about science, we will need some trained scientists and engineers in Congress."

I agree with Holt. It's time for more politicians to think like scientists, which will require better scientific training in schools. But it's also time for more scientists to get involved in the political process—either by running for office or by being more vocal about how science impacts important political issues.

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