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Rush Holt and the Loss of a Science Advocate


So I’m a little behind the times, it’s true, but I just saw today that Representative Rush Holt will not be seeking reelection in the next cycle. If you’re not familiar with Representative Holt, he is one of two physicists in the House of Representatives; a past 5-time Jeopardy! who beat the supercomputer Watson in head to head combat; and, perhaps most important in today’s environment, a tireless advocate for science and the use of accurate scientific information in policy formation. Aside from the sort of vague existential pleasure I get from knowing that Holt’s constituents in New Jersey (New Jersey!) are prone to driving around with bumper stickers that read ‘My Congressman IS a rocket scientists’, Holt’s departure is troubling in other ways.

As many people have noted, this is a pretty troubled time for science and public understanding of science in the US. Aside from the anti-vaccination movement, which has led to an outbreak of measles due to people declining to vaccinate their children, citing completely debunked claims that vaccines can cause autism (don’t get me started on anti-vaxers. Seriously, don’t), there is a recent study National Science Foundation that reported that 1 in 4 Americans believe that the sun goes around the earth. Which is somewhat more understandable in light of another study from California that 40% of elementary teachers reported that their students received 60 minutes or less of science instruction per week and 13% of elementary teachers reported that their students received 30 minutes or less.

Granted, part of this is about belief. Asking people whether humans evolved from animals or if the universe was created by a Big Bang is less a question of their knowledge of science -they may know that scientists think that evolution is true, even if they don’t believe it – than a litmus test for certain forms of Christianity. And in this respect, televised debates featuring science personalities debating radical creationists on the truth of evolution probably do nothing to sway beliefs on either side. But there’s another aspect to all of this, which is that there are interests that are actively muddying the waters of science understanding and particularly science understanding in policy. As The New Yorker revealed in February, according to their internal records, at least one major corporation responded to a scientific publication that suggested their product might be unsafe with public ad hominem attacks on the author, a sustained campaign of media discrediting, and assigning someone to attend his every public appearance in order to ask disparaging questions. These sorts of tactics echo the so-called ‘Sound Science’ approach to public policy, which “reflects sophisticated public relations campaigns controlled by industry executives and lawyers whose aim is to manipulate the standards of scientific proof to serve the corporate interests of their clients.”

All of which is quintessential to what people mean when they decrythe politicization of science.’ But this hand wringing is disingenuous. Science is political. It is primarily funded by the government, it is regulated by the government and it is deeply, intrinsically necessary as an input to almost any policy decision. To want a science that is not political is to want a science that has nothing to do with human society. What we really want is not for science to get out of politics but for politics to do better science. Or, as Rush Holt has said, politicians should think more like scientists (the counter imperative for scientists to think like politicians has long been addressed by the academic tenure system.) All of which is to say that we desperately need men like Representative Holt in the policy-making process. He will be missed.

And if someone put a rocket scientists on my ballot, I would totally buy that bumper sticker.