Built on Facts

Scientists vs. Politicians

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.


  1. #1 Frank
    February 16, 2009

    I think politicians are press alike are both in it for the points-scoring when it comes to this kind of public interaction. Which is sad, because as you point out, intellectual sparring is so much more interesting and rewarding.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 16, 2009

    Nice post, dude! I think that politicians who attended a scientific seminar would be absolutely appalled, and run away screaming. This is because, more than anything else, politicians need to “control the message”, and good audiences at seminars do the exact opposite: they push speakers off message.

  3. #3 T. Hunt
    February 16, 2009

    Are you daft or looney or just completely out of touch? Do you really think that nothing like your conference ever goes on in the political arena? Do you seriously believe that Pres. Obama or even W never got together with advisors and had a spirited discussion of what to do about a particular national or world problem? And that all the parties involved didn’t put their best arguments forward and ask probing questions? (It’s hard for me to see W in that setting but I’m sure it happened; it just doesn’t seem to have produced much in the way of useful results.)

    The difference between your conference and a press conference is that if someone in a press conference ever admitted that ‘he didn’t know’, that would be the story for the next week. Nothing else would talked about at all. No one in the press, on either side, is actually interested in the truth; they all want headlines and sound bites. All the better to reinforce their particular take on any given question.

    No politician is ever able to speak freely because the atmosphere in a press conference and with the media is never one even approaching that of your scientific get together. And free exchange of ideas is done behind closed doors for the simple reason that folks like you can’t understand the process. How do you expect politicians to debate issues with passion and sincerity in front of cameras when those holding the cameras are only looking for ‘gotcha’ moments? I doubt your conference would be anywhere near as open and fact based as you claim if there were a group filming you just so they could run 5 second clips of you stumbling over some part of your presentation rather than reporting the essence of what you were getting at.

    If news programs, both at the local and at the national level, were not ratings driven and pandering to the audience of ‘Laverne and Shirley”, it might be a bit different. Try to take that into account the next time you’re wondering why politicians aren’t more forthcoming with the ‘press’.

  4. #4 Matt Springer
    February 16, 2009

    Let me help you with your reading comprehension there, sport:

    “I’m not saying politics can be like this, or even that it would be good if it were.”

    Regardless, your last three paragraphs are just a restatement of my second paragraph. I doubt that it’s possible for politics to be like science anyway. Fundamentally science is about is, politics is about ought. So long as people have fundamental disagreements over the nature and extent of the rights of citizens, the relationship between people with different views is going to be at least somewhat antagonistic. Which is how it has to be in a free country. I can live with that.

  5. #5 Paul Johnson
    February 16, 2009

    i think you hit the nail on the head there

  6. #6 T. Hunt
    February 16, 2009

    My reading comprehension is just fine, sport. What I take issue with is your last paragraph, specifically this:

    “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.”

    Do you seriously believe that no politician ever does this and that ALL substanitive discussions are carried out in front of the press corps? Why is it that the only people that can have rational, passionate, “somewhat antagonistic” discussions are academics? Presidents, senators, city council members and the board of any local church often have discussions just like you do. They argue passionately about the course they think their organization should take, they have differing views and differing adgendas. But they trade serious ideas, mostly civily, to come to a concensus. The press conferrence is just the public announcement of a decision already reached. And the press has no hand in that decision, unlike all of the participants in your scientific conference. There, the questioners have the same stake in the outcome as the people presenting the papers; the truth. Whatever the politicians’ aim, the press has a radically different one.

    I understand that politics and science are two endeavors that have fundamentally different aims. I agree, “science is about ‘is’, politics is about ‘ought'”. Science is a search for truth, politics is a search for compromise. And since I believe that you understand this as well, it is even more baffling that you bring this whole “why can’t politics be more like science” screed up in the first place. If you know the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, what do you expect from a press conference? When was a press conference ever different than they are now? Maybe back in the days of FDR and Truman (I don’t know) but not in my adult lifetime.

  7. #7 Willyb
    February 16, 2009

    As a person who has been lucky enough to have seen and participated in both the science/engineering conference(as a systems engineer working for a contractor at NASA HQ.on the Apollo Program) and the political news conference(as an attorney serving as a Prosecutor), I would like to add to the comments of both Matt and T. Hunt. In my opinion, the primary difference between the two types of gatherings is the press – in attendance at one and not at the other. The Program Manager(Air Force General) was free to tell a G-18 government scientist while discussing booster problems in a meeting attended by fewer than a dozen engineers – and NO PRESS- that his suggestion to vote on a particular solution was out of line because he wasn’t “running a g..d…democracy here.” Can you imagine how that type of comment would have been played in the press the next day? For the same reason in reverse – presence of the press – I’ve never heard a prosecutor discuss the problems with his case, only its strengths.

    I don’t believe it is an inherently virtuous regard for the truth on the part of the engineers and scientists nor an inherent desire of politicians to deceive that accounts for the difference in behavior in the two settings. If the public was not satisfied with a thoughtless sound-bite in its search for political “truth,” the press could not afford to play to the lowest common denominator. In that case (which even my normally optimistic nature won’t allow me to believe will ever happen) the politicians would enjoy the same room for lively intelligent discussion of all aspects of an issue that engineers and scientists can enjoy. I would love to see that happen, but don’t expect to live long enough to ever see it.

  8. #8 Matt Springer
    February 16, 2009

    I understand what you mean, T. Hunt. (Sorry about the snarkiness, by the way – I should take my own advice!) It’s certainly true that the dog-and-pony show we see at press events is not even remotely similar to the serious discussions held in the Oval Office and other meetings of people in government. The things crowds like to hear are not necessarily the realities that have to be deal with seriously.

    And all that’s fine. But also keep in mind that in a republic, the politicians in theory work for the people and to some extent the press serves as one of the important interfaces between the politicians and the voters. Therefore I think it might be an improvement for that particular interface to be conducted with something more closely resembling seriousness.

    In short, I think Willyb is right on. I think it’s true that in many cases “politicians would enjoy the same room for lively intelligent discussion of all aspects of an issue that engineers and scientists can enjoy”. But I don’t think it’s possible either. And that’s a shame.

  9. #9 Peter
    February 16, 2009

    Do not blame the press – it is the public audience that has been so dumbed down. They can no longer handle the truth which is nearly allways grey, and insist on only black or white from whichever colour of media they subscribe to.

    The politicians therfore speak in double talk to provide as little truth as possible and the media does its best to provide a story from that, draped only in their colour of choice.

    For politicians to murmur the truth would require the public to be knowledgeable and openminded – don’t hold your breath in an age were anyone can form an opinion (chose a colour) and never have to consider any other by simply picking and chosing their sources of information to reinforce that opinion.

  10. #10 Martin Regnen
    February 17, 2009

    From what I’ve heard of Texas A&M, thesis defenses in the accounting department can be remarkably brutal as professors with different views than your thesis advisors will show up and argue among each other for hours. That was about five years ago, but maybe you should go attend a defense in accounting to see if there’s any truth to it.

  11. #11 Art
    February 17, 2009

    I wouldn’t judge them too harshly.

    Politicians are forced by fifty years of fairy tales, misconceptions and built up mythology about American uniqueness, power, divine right, and sugared fantasies about being able to live beyond our means, sometimes beyond the laws of physics, to talk straight.

    The systems are all set up to perpetuate the status quo and the last best hope of anything short of a train wreck is that the sleeping masses continue to spend until we can get some other sector of economy to function.

    Politicians are forced to talk to the American people like they might to a sleepwalker who thinks he can fly and is standing on the edge of a cliff. The choices are to either play along with the dream, like GOP rhetoric and talk radio triumphalism does, or to slowly introduce them to reality.

    We are running out of dream space. Half a century of claims that we are special, escalating to the point that some really think we are demi-gods and that it is only a conspiracy that keeps the rest of the world from seeing this and keeps them from having their flying car and vacation home on the moon. The American people have been systematically seduced to ever higher expectations for ever lower levels of expenditure, talent and attention.

    The frustration of the middle and blue collar classes, the increase in conspiracy theories and supernaturalism are attempt to span the space between reality and the great things that we were told were our right and destiny.

    How do we talk the sleepwalker who thinks he has wings off the ledge. Shouting for them to ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’ will end in disappointment so deep they will jump off in despair.

    If the average American heard, and absorbed, the truth about their role in this world. That there is really nothing special about us, our history, our place on earth. That we are hard against limits on money, power, influence. That we alone still think we are special. There would be hell to pay because too much of our economic, political and conceptual infrastructure is invested in feeding itself by feeding the illusion.

    That it will take time to exercise and build up the reality based portions of our economy. That if we can slowly ween the American public off their overblown expectations we can get their feet to meet the ground without a catastrophic crash.

    In the mean time politicians and the media will be sending out waves of warm reassurance. Reams of sweet nothings that are intended to relax the masses as they are told that they are not special but that that is still okay. That stepping down from world domination is a good thing. That they and their children will do alright, possibly even better, if we aren’t trying to control everything.

    So get used to vacuous press conferences that say nothing. The message being sent isn’t in the words. The message is in the warm tone, reasonable, and reassuring presentation that says that while we are facing disappointments we will all get along and get through this together.

  12. #12 A
    February 17, 2009

    Notice that the question on A-Rod’s steroid use was asked by the reporter of the Washington Post,
    in a press conference on the biggest economic crisis affecting the U.S.
    Helen Thomas’ questions have often been the only serious ones in the last few years. (And her questions on who had nukes in the middle east was a serious one, I’d think).

    I wouldn’t blame the politicians as much as I blame the press/ main stream media.
    As you noticed, the journalists mainly ask trivialities; they also do not follow up on any non-answers; and if some problem has a basis in facts, they do not report on those facts, but, at best, come up with a he-said – she-said narrative.
    If President Bush had said that the earth is flat, the Washington Post headline would read ‘Opinions on shape of earth differ,’ dutifully quoting the talking point, and a rebuttal by the Democrats on page A23. There would be no satellite picture of the earth. And it is an opinion anyway, about which polite people may differ.
    That’s why so many people still think that Saddam Hussein/Iraq caused the 9/11 attacks, that one dollar spent by the government is one dollar less spent by the private sector, not to talk about anything quantitative, such as the federal budget, where journalists fail particularly in providing a scale (such as giving some billion-dollar figure as percent of GDP, or as per person in the U.S.)
    Many examples of Journamalism are at Brad Delong’s blog:

  13. #13 coolstar
    March 2, 2009

    Can’t wait until you attend your first faculty meeting Matt. You have a very rude awakening in your future….Or maybe you should attend a scientific PRESS conference? They’re not usually quite as bad as political press conferences, but there are lots of similarities. Or give a talk at a meeting where FAMOUS SCIENTIST A just loves to chew grad students into tiny little pieces…..(I’ve seen it happen, more than once, and it ain’t pretty).

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