Don’t teach Congress about science and technology; teach the voters

M. Anthony Mills has a short piece at Politico advocating the return of the OTA (Office of Technology Assessment), which was defunded in the 1990s as a budget cutting measure.  The argument is that congress needs to know more about science and technology, that maybe if they knew more, they’d make better decisions.

Except, politics doesn’t work that way.  Individual senators and representatives in Congress make decisions largely based on what their constituents demand from them, or at least what those constituents will tolerate.  Of course, the demands of major donors also come into the picture, which is often the real reason anti-science decisions happen.

The solution to this problem isn’t to educate those senators or representatives.  Even if they sit still long enough to receive that education, it won’t work, since the sentiment of their constituents and major donors will win out.

What will work is educating those constituents, that is, the voting public.  That’s admittedly harder since the public is far larger, and getting them to sit still for education is just as difficult.  Yet, in a democracy, there really is no other path.  Getting movement on climate change and other areas will only happen when voters overwhelmingly demand it, with enough force to override the influence of major donors.

Incidentally, this applies to just about any other policy area anyone wants to see progress on.  Progress on gay and lesbian acceptance only happened once it was clear that the voting public was on board.  (The show Will & Grace did more to bring it about than any direct lobbying of politicians.)  Likewise for movement on sexual harassment issues.  This fits the historical pattern, where civil rights only happened once the public demanded it.

Politicians don’t lead, they represent, and representatives, if they want to keep their job, recognize swings in voter sentiment.  To see change, don’t focus on the politician.  Focus on the voter.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

24 thoughts on “Don’t teach Congress about science and technology; teach the voters

    1. Not particularly. I think the money would be better spent on science outreach grants. Of course, who those grants were awarded to would inevitably be a political issue.

      But I think we’ll get a lot more from shows like Cosmos than from a group of people writing reports for politicians.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “Politicians don’t lead, they represent,”

    And they only barely do that (if at all).

    “Focus on the voter.”

    Oh, I agree. Like all liberals I see the solution to so many problems as, basically: People need to be better. (I’ve written so many posts to that effect.)

    The question is how? Especially in these anti-intellectual, anti-empirical, anti-rational times?

    Remember when there we all those educational cable channels? They died for lack of interest.

    And then factor in that intelligent educated people can have different worldviews. For example, it’s a perfectly valid view to think space exploration is pointless and that all our efforts should be directed here. It’s also perfectly valid to think otherwise.

    You want to know the real problem? There’s too damn many of us. We evolved to live in tribes or villages. We’re herd animals. The current situation is more like a termite mound.

    The good news is that we’ve poisoned our nest and climate change will kill billions in the next handful of decades. That’ll thin the herd. Maybe the survivors will get their heads on straight.

    One can only hope.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “The question is how?”

      That’s the question. As I noted in the post, educating people on science isn’t easy. I’ve just spent the last couple of days intensely working on a presentation, and one of the questions we had to start with was, why should the people receiving the presentation care? We had to start with things in terms of their interests, and then work our way to the complex technical requirements (and money) that are required. Effective outreach to the general public probably won’t look like the way we like to take in our scientific information.

      “The good news is that we’ve poisoned our nest and climate change will kill billions in the next handful of decades.”

      That’s pretty pessimistic. I’m not there, although I do think climate change will cause a lot of suffering over the next century.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “I’m not there, although I do think climate change will cause a lot of suffering over the next century.”

        More than, perhaps, many people realize once we factor in how much the loss of low-lying land forces migration, the effects on croplands and growing seasons, the potential for stronger storms, various changes to sealife and the oceans, and “snowball” effects from loss of ice packs.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. Exactly. If that ice sheet melts entirely, it’ll raise the sea level about 20 feet (6 meters to you 😉 ), and there goes most of Florida and a lot of other land. (Check out a topographical map and see how much coastal territory is 20 feet or less!)

            If the Antarctic ice sheet were to melt (which probably isn’t all that likely), it would raise the sea level 60 meters (200 feet for us USAnians). That would be seriously catastrophic!

            Liked by 2 people

  2. Educating voters? isn’t that what schools are for? I think your example of the show Will & Grace tells us a lot. Fiction is a great way to communicate. People will absorb stories just as readily as they will repel facts. TV might just be the saviour of democracy. The question is, how to raise the quality of TV shows?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve always considered the media to be the most powerful influence on the masses. In fact, the media openly acknowledges that it is their responsibility and role to shape our culture and society at large. Media becomes the great puppet master of public figures, a power which most public figures are more than willing to play the the role of marionette. Unfortunately, the media uses their power to spread descent, incite and create controversy. The medial could use their power for constructive purposes, but just like the ideal of a theoretically system called communism, where both success and failure is shared equally amongst the masses, a socialist society, just like the media still requires a priesthood consisting of human beings to administer that system.

      There is something seriously wrong with human beings. I consider it a genetic defect in the underlying form of reasoning and rationality. “Know thyself.” Unless or until one is willing to address the genetic defect in the underlying form of reasoning and rationality nothing will change.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “Fiction is a great way to communicate.”

      Totally agree, although sometimes it has to be subtle or almost subversive. People always reject things being forced down their throat.

      There is also that our stories tend to reflect us as well as guide us — there’s a feedback loop of sorts. (For instance, many of our stories reflect our belief that violence is a viable solution to many problems. Aspects of our gun problem come from that feedback.)

      But parables go a long way back in our history for good reason!

      Liked by 3 people

    3. I agree with these thoughts, although rather than talking of it purely in terms of ‘teaching’ or ‘fiction’, perhaps it’s about constructing a narrative that links actionable information to the things voters care about, in an attractive way. This is quite a skill and perhaps needs to be better understood.

      Liked by 2 people

    4. “isn’t that what schools are for? ”

      Sure, in theory. I don’t know about the UK, but the contents of text books and curricula of schools in the US is often a very political matter. For instance, I never learned about evolution in school. (They didn’t tech us creationism either. The teachers apparently decided the best strategy was just to avoid the subject.) I learned it from watching Carl Sagan in the original Cosmos.

      “The question is, how to raise the quality of TV shows?”

      That’s the problem. Often crap shows are just as popular as well researched ones. Ultimately it comes down to the writers and producers wanting to make something better. And compromises are always necessary. Gene Roddenberry took a lot of grief with the scientific implausibilities in the original Star Trek, but that show was the first step in inspiring a lot of future scientists.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I think you’re exactly right about this. In fact, I suspect that Congress is better informed about science than they let on. But as you said, major donors have a lot of influence. It takes well informed voters to hold politicians accountable.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s the issue. A lot of Congress aren’t necessarily anti-science, but science is just not a priority for them. Even for the ones where it is a priority, a lot of times it is solely for political reasons. But every competent politician is tuned in to what the voters in their base care about.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. In simple terms, I see it as a four-way play between the electorate (usually a majority section of the citizenry), the embedded political system with its protocols, the mainstream media, and lastly corporate lobbying interests (being pandered to in the legislature). The latter three work together to influence the electorate, at least insofar as convincing them that ‘This is the way things work’ and in so doing provide a very limited socio-economic model. If we speak of the electorate educating itself, then I’m all for that; though first we need the educators to be free of corporate influence and control. I’m Gramscian in that, I guess.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Where in that framework do you put social media? I ask because it seems to have a large effect on the professional media’s coverage of events.

      You made me lookup “Gramscian”. Thanks you! A reference to Antonio Gramsci?

      I’m personally not a Marxist, but I’m also not a pure capitalist either. A mixed economy, to me, seems like the best solution. Granted, it’s a messy one, and it leads to endless arguments about what belongs in the public sector vs the private one, but I’m not convinced the other solutions are any less messy.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Antonio Gramsci, yes Mike. I’m certainly like-minded on a mixed economy, with what I consider public goods — such as money supply, transport, energy, education, water/sanitation, health provision, ‘social’ (i.e. low-cost) housing, recreational space, even some foodstuffs — being provided by the Nation State (i.e. under public ownership in perpetuity) and subject to strict price and quality controls of that State’s legislation, free from ‘market’ interference. Essentially, I see the neoliberal project of the past 40 years as having failed demonstrably, notwithstanding the apparently sunlit uplands of the 80s and undeniable technological progress achieved during that period. I think this failure is being sensed most keenly at the current time, and hence the widespread disaffection towards the political class and its corporate tendrils.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m with you on the failure of neoliberalism. My own sense is that what’s driving the current populist wave across the developed world are the related effects of globalization. The message of society to those negatively affected by it needs to be more than, “Gee, sucks to be you.” Until it is, we’re going to continue to see the Trumps and Johnsons rising up. They’re symptoms of a deeper problem.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Bravo, agreed.

        We could add automation to the list of populist engines too. I’ve been interested recently in how AI systems can generate articles that may put academic philosophers out of business. How will our relationship with change evolve when it’s not just blue collar people being hurt by globalization and automation? The following article gives a taste:

        The deeper problem I see is that our society is operating from an outdated “more is better” relationship with knowledge. Ripe territory for philosophers, imho.

        Liked by 1 person

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.