Kevin Williamson at NRO punts on a fairly interesting question about why we should care that politicians understand science. His basis: because science is hard, and a specialist field, electeds can’t really know the answer to a scientific question in any meaningful way, making it impossible to judge them for their knowledge, or lack thereof.
But it is a rare politician indeed who is remotely qualified to accept or dispute any scientific question of any real significance. Politicians are here to consider political questions.
I have not argued that scientific knowledge does not matter. I have argued that the scientific opinions of people who do not know the first thing about science do not matter.
Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge.
This is a cop out of a very specific kind. Much like the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica, Williamson’s response is basically a surrender to modernity. Simply put, the epistemological uncertainty of being “correct” about everything new in the world is no excuse for incompetence. Granting that members of the general public can’t really know science as well as professional scientists, we, as members of a technological society, should understand it at least well enough to remain proficient in our chosen professions. And it is the function of democratic representatives to make decisions for the rest of us.
Necessarily, no one politician can know everything necessary to the faithful discharge of that duty. But he must know when (and where) to turn to for expert advice, and be able to rely on it. When politicians tolerate or embrace scientific ignorance — by rejecting fundamental knowledge, on the basis of faith — they’re telling us that adherence to a personal creed matters more to them than the ability to make informed decisions based on both reality, and a healthy, necessary trust of those who know better than him. This is fine for some professions: admirable, even, in others. But for a politician, it represents a dereliction of the elected official’s first duty: to make informed decisions based on objective reality that are binding on the rest of us.
As such, the question, “are you a creationist?” is not just a helpful question when evaluating a politician. It’s a central one, because a “yes” answer proves the respondent is either (1) deliberately ignorant, (2) a shill for an offensively narrow view of Christianity, or (3) a shameless panderer. None of those is a quality I would like to see in my representative.
Ah. For the sake of staying positive: it is a good thing for politicians to engage with difficult facts on an objective basis. We should expect as much from all politicians.