Why are there few scientists/engineers in politics?

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Lots of scientists go to Wall Street after getting their PhD. But not many go on to make political careers for themselves. One of my favorite physicists ever was Edward Teller, who spent most of his later years advising the White House on the Russian ICBM threat. Why aren't there more people like him today?
 

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  • #2
phinds
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Being a science adviser should not be called "going into politics".

Scientists are taught to tell the truth and politicians are taught to lie. Oil and water.
 
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  • #3
AlephZero
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Old Chinese proverb: wise men should not argue with fools, because those who overhear the argument may judge wrongly who is wise and who is foolish.
 
  • #4
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Lots of scientists go to Wall Street after getting their PhD. But not many go on to make political careers for themselves. One of my favorite physicists ever was Edward Teller, who spent most of his later years advising the White House on the Russian ICBM threat. Why aren't there more people like him today?
Feynman was pretty much installed at Cal Tech by the government in order to be on tap for the Atomic Energy Commission. When someone from the AEC called with a question, he dropped everything else to address it.

I would imagine the government currently has scores of scientists all over the country who are "on tap" in this way. The need for their advise is probably not constant enough to give them a dedicated full-time advisor job.
 
  • #5
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Objection. Assumes facts not in evidence.

There are 2 physicists, 3 other scientists, 1 mathematician and 6 engineers in Congress now. There are a lot of lawyers in Congress, to be sure, but there are also a lot of lawyers in society - there are about 50x as many law school graduates as physics graduates.
 
  • #6
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Feynman was pretty much installed at Cal Tech by the government in order to be on tap for the Atomic Energy Commission.
Do you have a reference for this?
 
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Margaret Thatcher was a chemist.
 
  • #8
russ_watters
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Why bother with all the hard work learning something irrelevant if you just want to be a politician?
 
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Why bother with all the hard work learning something irrelevant if you just want to be a politician?
Could say the same for Wall Street, but there are plenty of scientists there.
 
  • #10
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Could say the same for Wall Street, but there are plenty of scientists there.
They do the math for the big time traders. Anyone ever see the documentary Quants the Alchemists of Wall Street?

 
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Margaret Thatcher was a chemist.
Angela Merkel chancellor of Germany was a research scientist.Merkel worked and studied at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Adlershof from 1978 to 1990. After being awarded a doctorate (Dr. rer. nat.) for her thesis on quantum chemistry,[22] she worked as a researcher and published several papers.
What is it with chemistry and the first high office acheived by women in western democratic countries.
 
  • #13
SteamKing
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Feynman was pretty much installed at Cal Tech by the government in order to be on tap for the Atomic Energy Commission.
This is quite a fanciful proposition. I can't imagine Feynman being 'installed' in any position, by the government or any one else.

Before the Manhattan Project, Feynman was an assistant prof. at U. Wisconsin-Madison. During the war, he was on a leave of absence from this position while he worked for the Army. After the war, Feynman had taught at Cornell U. in Ithaca, NY for 5 years. He had turned down an offer to work at IAS at Princeton because he wanted to teach. Eventually, Feynman chose to accept an offer from Caltech, in no small part because of the climate, because he hated having to put tire chains on his car during a snow storm at Ithaca (from his autobio "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman").

Certainly, if the govt. had wanted Feynman or any other scientist 'on tap', they would have found a position for him closer to DC. It is difficult to remember now, but during the war, Feynman was not as big a deal as he became later in his career. He was a newly minted PhD. who was an assistant prof. at a midwestern state U. in 1942 with no atomic energy cred. It wasn't until long after the war that he began the work which led to his Nobel Prize, and he was not one of the scientists who worked on the H-bomb, having become depressed following his work on the A-bomb..
 
  • #14
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This question isn't about Feynman, or about the JASONs, or any other technical advisor to the government. There's a huge difference between being a technical advisor to the government and being a politician, i.e., someone who is elected by some constituency to some public office.

This New York Times editorial proffers a reason: Americans don't like scientists and engineers. Our knowledge and our rational behavior run contrary to the intentional ignorance and irrational beliefs of large chunks of the US electorate. There has long been an anti-intellectual tilt to the US (e.g., bumper stickers that read "my son beat up your honor student") that is not nearly as strong in other developed countries.

This blog at DailyKos proffers a simpler reason: While it is highly advantageous for lawyers to enter into politic, it is highly disadvantageous for scientists and engineers to do so. We can't afford take the time off our workaholic / highly competitive careers to campaign, let alone win the election. Winning the election means our careers as scientists and engineers are sunk. A scientist who is two years out of date is an ex-scientist.
 
  • #15
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This New York Times editorial proffers a reason: Americans don't like scientists and engineers. Our knowledge and our rational behavior run contrary to the intentional ignorance and irrational beliefs of large chunks of the US electorate. There has long been an anti-intellectual tilt to the US (e.g., bumper stickers that read "my son beat up your honor student") that is not nearly as strong in other developed countries.

This blog at DailyKos proffers a simpler reason: While it is highly advantageous for lawyers to enter into politic, it is highly disadvantageous for scientists and engineers to do so. We can't afford take the time off our workaholic / highly competitive careers to campaign, let alone win the election. Winning the election means our careers as scientists and engineers are sunk. A scientist who is two years out of date is an ex-scientist.
It's the same theme that I've stated quite a while back when I had a front-seat look at the closing of the High Flux Beam Reactor at Brookhaven. It is why I continue to have a skeptical and pessimistic view that the general public can make a rational, informed decision on anything, and why a scientist, without any bells and whistles, would not make it.

When I attended a TIPP conference a few years ago, Bill Foster had just lost his congressional seat, and he came and gave a talk on the final day about life as a scientist in the US Congress. His main point was that the overwhelming majority of our elected officials ".. simply don't quite grasp quantitative versus qualitative information..." In other words, simple persuasive arguments are often sufficient without proper data or anything to back those arguments. (You may still get a copy of his Powerpoint presentation at this link).

Unfortunately, if scientists simply brush off politics, we will let the ignorant run the place. This old article from the NY Times (Vernon Ehlers has since retired) showed how ignorant certain politicians can be, AND, are too lazy to even do simple, basic research. I can cite many more instances where these politicians simply had no clue about what they decided on, AND, didn't feel any problem on making a decision based on pure ignorance.

So these are some of the type of people that got elected and got to make legislation. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn't it?

Zz.
 
  • #16
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Lots of scientists/engineers are on wall street because they have the skills that are required for the job, it is relatively easy to enter, and there is a lot of money on tap. If you have the right skills you can apply and get a 6 figure job in a firm without too much hassle.

On the other hand, if I wanted to be a representative and I am not independently rich I would have to spend a lot of time working up the political ladder, getting connections for political and monetary support to fuel my campaign. Becoming a politician is a lot more additional work for someone who already has math and programming skills than getting a job on wall street.
 
  • #17
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This is quite a fanciful proposition. I can't imagine Feynman being 'installed' in any position, by the government or any one else.

Before the Manhattan Project, Feynman was an assistant prof. at U. Wisconsin-Madison. During the war, he was on a leave of absence from this position while he worked for the Army. After the war, Feynman had taught at Cornell U. in Ithaca, NY for 5 years. He had turned down an offer to work at IAS at Princeton because he wanted to teach. Eventually, Feynman chose to accept an offer from Caltech, in no small part because of the climate, because he hated having to put tire chains on his car during a snow storm at Ithaca (from his autobio "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman").

Certainly, if the govt. had wanted Feynman or any other scientist 'on tap', they would have found a position for him closer to DC. It is difficult to remember now, but during the war, Feynman was not as big a deal as he became later in his career. He was a newly minted PhD. who was an assistant prof. at a midwestern state U. in 1942 with no atomic energy cred. It wasn't until long after the war that he began the work which led to his Nobel Prize, and he was not one of the scientists who worked on the H-bomb, having become depressed following his work on the A-bomb..
As I recall (making no guarantees about my memory), this "installation" was done through Oppenheimer. The government asked Oppenheimer who he thought were the important voices in nuclear physics and he named Feynman among others. The offer from CalTech was prompted by either the government or Oppenheimer on behalf of the government, asking them to make this offer.

As I said, I don't have a copy of the book in which I suspect this is laid out. I do have a copy of Genius by James Gleick in which there is an allusion to the government's hand behind Feynman being at Cal Tech:

"Feynman made his escape shortly after arriving in Pasadena. He accepted Caltech's offer of an immediate sabbatical year and fled to the most exotic place he could find [Brazil]. The State Department had subsidized his salary. For the first time since Far Rockaway he could spend days at the beach..."

p.283
 
  • #18
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Physics, like a lot of professions, has an 'old boy' network. Certainly, a reference from Oppenheimer would open a lot of doors to a relative unknown like Feynman.

I base my opinion on a personal appraisal of Feynman's various autobios. (Surely, You're joking ...). IMO, Feynman was not one to be easily pegged into a safe teaching position for the convenience of the government. I think Feynman was not one who was awed by government or large institutions, which was why his work on the Rogers Commission (which investigated the Challenger disaster) was so pointed and illuminating: there was more to his work on this inquiry than the famous O-ring demonstration he performed for the cameras.

Although Feynman later worked on QED and other questions dealing with atomic structure, he seems to have avoided working on atomic energy and does not appear to have been a hawk, like Edward Teller. His time at Los Alamos was a source of lifelong personal sadness due to the illness and death of his first wife. While Feynman appears willing to serve when an interesting question arose, as it did with the Challenger, I can't see him as a 'hired gun' for the govt. or anyone else.
 
  • #19
ZapperZ
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I'm finding it very hard to find the relevance on the issue of who hired Feynman at CalTech with the topic of discussion of this thread.

Zz.
 
  • #20
SteamKing
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This New York Times editorial proffers a reason: Americans don't like scientists and engineers. Our knowledge and our rational behavior run contrary to the intentional ignorance and irrational beliefs of large chunks of the US electorate. There has long been an anti-intellectual tilt to the US (e.g., bumper stickers that read "my son beat up your honor student") that is not nearly as strong in other developed countries.
I wouldn't worry too much that more scientists are in key positions of the Chinese government than in the US government. After all, it's not like the typical Chinese official had to run a campaign except where it counted: to the Chinese Communist Party.

In the West, study of the law gives an edge to the aspiring politician first because if, once elected, you are not writing the law, you are charged with enforcing or administering the law. Second, the law student is exposed to and trained in the forensic arts, where he must persuade others to his point of view by oral or written debate. This training and experience are invaluable in such a visible undertaking as politics. Science and engineering by their nature do not lend themselves to such advantages in the preparation of the aspiring statesman.

The notion that in the US the scientist or engineer is at a disadvantage to entering politics due to some supposed unpopularity of these professions to the public at large betrays IMO a prejudice held in certain quarters of the editorial corral. It used to be that a Thomas Edison, a Henry Ford, a Henry Kaiser, could make news like the most awful of today's celebrities and were just as popular. To be sure, these men all had personal flaws, but at least they tried to leave a better world behind.
 
  • #21
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I'm finding it very hard to find the relevance on the issue of who hired Feynman at CalTech with the topic of discussion of this thread.

Zz.
One of my favorite physicists ever was Edward Teller, who spent most of his later years advising the White House on the Russian ICBM threat. Why aren't there more people like him today?
The OP clearly wants to discuss scientific advisors to the government.
 
  • #22
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I still think the premise is wrong. How many scientists should there be in Congress? Should we replace Congress by a Science Council? That didn't work out so well for Krypton.
 
  • #23
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Physics, like a lot of professions, has an 'old boy' network. Certainly, a reference from Oppenheimer would open a lot of doors to a relative unknown like Feynman.
There's more to this than Oppenheimer giving an old colleague a job reference. Notice the part about Feynman's Caltech salary being subsidized by the State Department.

IMO, Feynman was not one to be easily pegged into a safe teaching position for the convenience of the government. I think Feynman was not one who was awed by government or large institutions...
There's no indication in the quote I posted that Feynman did this under duress. He seems to have accepted the offer because it was a sweet deal. He gets to live in Ca. and, right off the bat, he gets to take a whole year off.
 
  • #24
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I still think the premise is wrong. How many scientists should there be in Congress? Should we replace Congress by a Science Council? That didn't work out so well for Krypton.
I just remembered that Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel in 1952. He replied:

"I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel [to serve as President], and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions. For these reasons alone I should be unsuited to fulfill the duties of that high office, even if advancing age was not making increasing inroads on my strength. I am the more distressed over these circumstances because my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world."

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/einsteinlet.html
 
  • #25
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Lots of scientists go to Wall Street after getting their PhD. But not many go on to make political careers for themselves.
Herbert Hoover was an engineer. Fourier was governor of Egypt and did a pretty good job, I believe. Legendre (or someone like that) was given a government post after the French Revolution and was a flop. Napoleon said "He brought the spirit of the infinitely small to politics."

Anyone who is dedicated to truth is going to have a tough time as a politician. You will get much further telling people what they want to hear.

People want to hear what they want to hear.

People don't want to hear what they don't want to hear.

Feynman couldn't tolerate politics. He quit the Nobel committee because of it. He almost refused to sign the Challenger disaster report because everyone else on the committee was more concerned about pleasing the powerful than telling the truth. That's how you get ahead in politics.
 
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