Despite the title, this isn’t about those the politics of science, or even the science of politics. It’s about talking in public.
Watching President Obama’s first press conference, I was struck as I usually am by the sheer uselessness of it all. The press either asks bilious trivialities (baseball steroids, the usefulness of “bipartisanship”, etc) or thinly veiled “gotcha” traps generally in service of the reporter’s ideology (Helen Thomas’ hilariously transparent nuke question, etc). In return, the politicians answer with lengthy and meandering essays on nothing which still nonetheless manages to contain lots of airy crystalline rhetoric about his or her own party and policies and a grim monody about their opponents party and policies. Useful exchange of meaningful information is low on the list of priorities. Constructive engagement for mutual edification? Ha!
Later that week, in a nondescript room in a nondescript building in Texas, a half dozen professors and around two dozen graduate students (I was one of them) watched a few people present talks on their research. Like a press conference, there were questions – many of them intensely skeptical and probing. But unlike a press conference, there was never even the remotest hint of malice. The questions were all honestly interested, and trying to get to the truth. The person being questioned never tried to dodge or give a non-answer. In every case he did his best to give a true answer, or say he didn’t know. This led to back-and-forth exchange of thoughts and ideas until everyone figured out what was really physically happening or until they hashed out the possibilities and deferred their solution until further thinking and experiments. Both the questioners and the people giving the talks were more than happy to admit their lack of understanding of the things they didn’t understand, because the entire point is to understand things that no one has understood before. It’s very hard work, and everyone in the room is working toward the same goal.
By the time everyone left, there were many new pressing and interesting questions to think about. And may pressing and interesting questions had been answered. I’m not saying politics can be like this, or even that it would be good if it were. I do think it would be a good idea for every politician to sit in on a meeting of working scientists discussing their research. They might learn something about how two people can fire back and forth with feisty and difficult questions and yet both be thrilled to be able to mutually increase their understanding.