A physicist for president?

Jim Al’Khalili has an article in Scientific American called [a] physicist for president? Jim is a physicist, so he’s probably being somewhat provactive. Also, he’s mostly arguing for someone who applies the scientific method to thinking and decision-making and is largely motivated by current events. However, I do think the suggestion is really rather silly.

credit : xkcd

I certainly don’t think that physicists are somehow better at avoiding motivated reasoning than others; it’s not as if physicists aren’t amongst some of the most well-known climate sceptics. Also, as Arthur points out in a comment on Stoat’s post that covered this, it’s not as if physicists are noted for their humility. The last thing I think we need are people who regard themselves as so clever that they don’t think they really need to listen to other experts.

There are, however, a couple of more fundamental issues with the basic suggestion. Scientific evidence doesn’t tell us what decisions we should make. So, just because someone has a good grasp of the scientific method doesn’t immediately mean that they would then make the optimal decisions. I think I understand climate science relatively well, but I certainly don’t think that means that I now know what we should do about climate change. Scientific information can, and often should, be an important part of decision making, but it’s far from the only relevant information. We need to consider what we should do, if anything, how we should do it, and the possible implications of doing so (there are almost always consequences to decision making).

On top of that, I think it would be dreadful if our political leaders were people who thought that decision making simply required considering the scientific evidence. I think it’s important that our political leaders have some kind of ideology; their political leadership should be motivated by how they think our societies should be run, not simply by a sense that they can consider some evidence and then make decisions. This doesn’t mean that we all have to agree with their ideology, just that they should have one.

To be clear, I do think that there will be occasions when the scientific evidence should play a key role in decision making and maybe even some occasion (like now) where the evidence indicates pretty clearly what we should do. However, this really requires a leader who is willing to listen to experts and who knows when to put their ideology to one side and make what might be difficult decisions. The problems we might be currently facing in the UK and the US aren’t a consequence of our leaders not having any scientific training; it’s because they’re largely unsuitable for the role. No amount of scientific training would overcome this.

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51 Responses to A physicist for president?

  1. Willard says:

    Counterpoint:

    In fairness, Angela only has a PhD in quantum chemistry.

  2. Willard,
    Indeed, but I don’t think having a scientific background means that one can’t be an effective political leader 🙂

  3. morpheusonacid says:

    [Try not to be on acid, Allan. – W]

  4. being anti-science probably means you can’t be a responsible and effective political leader in the world where we now exist. The limitations and drawbacks from an anti-science and anti-expert approach are all too obvious in the US. Being a stable genius and being anti-science at the same time is probably not possible.

  5. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: Here’s an article that addresses the larger context of how truth is being accepted throughout the world. The current situation is troublesome to say the least.

    The truth about coronavirus is scary. The global war on truth is even scarier. Analysis by Caroline Orr, Canada’s National Observer, Mar 13, 2020

    The concluding paragraphs of this article…

    The Trump administration’s attack on the truth may not be as overt as what we’ve seen in countries like China and Iran, but it’s every bit as dangerous.

    During disease outbreaks and other health emergencies, people need to know about the risks they face and what they can do to protect themselves and their communities. Healthcare workers need real-time information about the crisis in order to adequately prepare for it, and public health officials need data on cases and outcomes to gauge the effectiveness of the response. When people lose trust in the information coming from authorities, they’re less likely to take recommended precautions to prevent the spread of disease and more likely to engage in risky behaviors that endanger everyone’s health.

    Misinformation is a serious threat to public health, but the coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated something that researchers have been trying to tell us for a while: The real crisis we’re facing is a lack of trust in our institutions and a corresponding loss of confidence in authoritative sources of information. As hard as it is to contain a disease once it starts to spread, we know it can be done because we’ve done it so many times before. But how do we rebuild trust when it’s constantly being abused? That’s a challenge that will stay with us long after the pandemic has come to an end.

    https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/03/13/analysis/truth-about-coronavirus-scary-global-war-truth-even-scarier

  6. Mal Adapted says:

    What exquisite irony: I realize you don’t control the ads that accompany email notification of your posts, but the one I got for this post touts “The George Gilder Report” (“America’s #1 Futurist Sees Something Big Happening”). Gilder is an evolution denier, and is co-founder of the Discovery Institute!

  7. 𝑹𝒐𝑩𝑰𝑵 🌋 says:

    “I certainly don’t think that physicists are somehow better at avoiding motivated reasoning than others; it’s not as if physicists aren’t amongst some of the most well-known climate sceptics”

    Sorry, but objective reasoning and reaching evidenced-based conclusions is their job, to which they are scrupulously held to account by the rest of the scientific community. All scientists reach the best conclusions they can, given the evidence, which is the most accurate way we have of finding truths. Deciding how to tackle these difficult problems flows naturally from scientific investigations, in the same way that technology does when engineers apply what is known from science.

  8. David B Benson says:

    #Trumpedemic

  9. David B Benson says:

    An American-born physicist who is a successful manager:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Stewart_Witherell

  10. Robin,
    I agree with you when it comes to a physicist’s domain of expertise (although there are some who hold on to ideas well beyond the point where the evidence is against them). I don’t think, though, that it’s the case that physicist would necessarily be similarly objective when it came to other occasions when they needed to assess evidence in order to make a decision. There’s no reason to think, for example, that a physicist would make a better decision about education policy that someone with a different background.

  11. David,
    Sure, I don’t think there is some reason why physicists can’t be excellent managers/leaders. I’m just not convinced that there is some reason why we would expect them to be especially suited to this when compared to others.

  12. David B Benson says:

    aTTP — Of course not. In looking for one I earlier noticed that the best regarded of the DoE national laboratory managers was a biologist.

    Then there is the famous mathematician
    https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gaspard-Monge-comte-de-Peluse
    who was active in public affairs, enough so that there is a major Rue Monge in left bank Paris.

  13. dikranmarsupial says:

    Edging towards scientism. “We live in a complex world full of conflicting ideologies” is rather the problem, scientific method can’t be applied to every problem, especially ones involving ethics or values. Has scientific method solved the trolley problem?

    One wonders if identity-protection applies to those who identify as scientists? ;o)

  14. Willard says:

    This is obviously the optimal solution to the trolley problem.

  15. dikranmarsupial says:

    For one particular set of values, yes! ;o)

  16. Bob Loblaw says:

    The set of values being “I am better off whenever all the other people are worse off”???

  17. Dikran Marsupial says:

    Bob, it’s understandable when you are two, as long as you grow out of it by, say 73 ;o)

    Nice example of “expectations confounded” humour though!

  18. Willard says:

    Minimum effort with maximum impact.

    A bit like here:

  19. John Mashey says:

    Mal:
    George Gilder also played a key role in this story:
    https://www.desmogblog.com/2015/06/10/willie-soon-and-friends-early-days
    Art Robinson:
    “00:37 “A couple years ago, during the Kyoto meeting, George Gilder suggested to Max Boot at the Wall Street Journal that we could write an editorial that might be good on global warming, and I got this phone call from Max Boot asking for it and of course I said it would be on your desk tomorrow morning.” and then Oregon Petition

  20. Steven Mosher says:

    evil capitalist does not like degrowth

  21. Willard says:

  22. JCH says:

    Arne – nobody else is doing what China did. That’s good news for China, and for the countries that accept their help, like Iran, but bad news for all the others that appear to still be fighting, and now losing, the Cold War. Russia has probably flipped sides as their aren’t enough vodka-free brains in that country to field a baseball team.

  23. keep it simple, Mosh: capitalists don’t like degrowth. I think capitalism is about growth. Economic activities that can do fine without growth might be described as simple commerce. Capitalism is complex commerce. That’s the way I am thinking about that stuff this morning. But, I do have other things on my mind right now that are requiring more computing cycles than Econ 101

  24. Chris says:

    Al’Khalili conforms quite closely to the cartoon on ‘annoying physicists’ above! He did a Horizon (I think; maybe it was Equinox*) programme on ‘Quantum Biology’ some time ago in which he pitched quantum effects (especially quantum tunnelling) as having a considerable contribution to biological phenomena. An unsatisfying, and non-educational presentation with vague, but sexily-portrayed-using-meaningless-graphics, assertions (a tennis ball hitting a wall – maybe it has enough energy to bounce over – no -look! – it goes through the wall! – maybe that’s how protons are transferred in enzyme reactions!!!).

    One of the ruses is to suggest that we don’t know what we do know and therefore “it could be quantum effects!”. This especially in relation to enzyme mechanisms (quite well understood in general). It’s sort of staking out a claim for an influence in a subject where it isn’t really merited (bit like some social scientists in relation to global warming!?)

    Good luck to him, but not that sort of physicist for President please! Anyway, It seems that golf is now the main required expertise for contemporary Presidents…
    …….
    * For non-UK readers Horizon and Equinox are/were BBC and Channel 4 science programmes, respectively -very good if sometimes very annoying..

  25. izen says:

    A good educational background is an advantage. But the primary, and exclusionary, qualification for President or political leader/head of state is that they should be female with at least one living child under 18.

  26. Mal Adapted says:

    OP:

    I certainly don’t think that physicists are somehow better at avoiding motivated reasoning than others; it’s not as if physicists aren’t amongst some of the most well-known climate sceptics. Also, as Arthur points out in a comment on Stoat’s post that covered this, it’s not as if physicists are noted for their humility. The last thing I think we need are people who regard themselves as so clever that they don’t think they really need to listen to other experts.

    I submit the late Freeman Dyson as the exemplar of this, graphically depicted by Randall Munroe. Dyson was a giant of a physcist, whose public dismissal of climate science exposed a tragic cognitive flaw. With respect and gratitude, he can now be relegated to history. Richard Muller, OTOH, demonstrated that some arrogant physicists can overcome their cognitive motivators with scientific training and discipline, pursuant to the rule of not fooling oneself. No guarantees, though. I’m glad neither of them is POTUS.

  27. Mal Adapted says:

    RoBIN:

    Sorry, but objective reasoning and reaching evidenced-based conclusions is their job, to which they are scrupulously held to account by the rest of the scientific community.

    This is a norm of scientific culture, to be instilled into junior investigators by conscientious mentoring and peer discipline. I agree it should be at least aspirational. In the real world, we see that it succeeds to varying degrees. IMHO, shortfalls are ultimately attributable to the mediocrity principle, i.e. all humans develop cognitive motivators, and all scientists (to date) are human.

  28. mrkenfabian says:

    I don’t know that Richard Muller is a great example of an open mind on climate change; as far as I can tell he still blames “alarmists” for climate science denial, not climate science deniers. To me it looked like he shifted a bit, to lukewarmer or some variant, that is still more about facing off against those awful alarmists and their “worst cases” than treating the alarming science based advice seriously.

  29. The other issue that I can see with Richard Muller is that rather than trusting other experts, he seemed to need to check for himself. Nothing necessarily wrong with that from a scientific perspective (although it’s not the most effecient way to make scientific progress) but it wouldn’t be ideal for someone who was expected to make decisions.

  30. David B Benson says:

    Two presidents that most agree were among the very best were Abraham Lincoln and FDR. Both trained as lawyers and then became politicians.

    Let’s let physicists just do physics; there are plenty of interesting questions, including those in astronomy and cosmology.

  31. Steven Mosher says:
  32. Steven Mosher says:

    The f-35 is a cluster fuck.
    It was doomed from day 1.

  33. dikranmarsupial says:

    … or, and I’m just putting this idea out there, we could elect leaders based on their actual personal qualities, rather than just sweeping generalisations?

  34. I would be happy to see that a condition for assuming elected office would be the movement of all personal assets into a blind trust to prevent corruption and greed from overwhelming other skills and personal qualities. This would only kick in if personal assets were at some level, maybe 25 or 100 times the average wealth of US citizen. It’s a public service job with good perks and a decent salary, it would function better if the elected officials had more reason to think about the average citizen. Training? Judgment? Let the voters decide. But if you want an elected position, you persuade the citizens/voters and if elected, the arrangement is adjusted to help keep the citizen/voter’s best interest at heart.

  35. Mal Adapted says:

    Thanks, Steven, I wasn’t aware of Muller’s physics primer “for Future Presidents”. From the introduction, the gist of it is:

    Are you baflled, bewildered and befuddled by physics and high technology?
    If so, then you are not ready to be President.

    He published it in 2008, so the timing is interesting. Most of what I read in the sample you linked, from the “Terrorism” chapters, is unobjectionable, but some of it has IMHO a techno-optimist slant.

    Hold on, I just located a podcast of an interview with Muller in 2018. He declares for pseudo-skepticism:

    If you read An Inconvenient Truth, the movie by Al Gore, I went through it in detail because I’m trying to learn this subject, and every time he said something I would look it up, and I found in 80% of the claims he makes, were either misleading, wrong, or backwards. The movie itself was really nothing more than propaganda.

    IMHO, Muller’s still not ready to be President himself.

  36. Muller’s Physics For Future Presidents contains a good oil depletion chapter #7. I always thought he was somewhat agnostic about climate change because he understood that oil production was already declining, and later was quoted as saying that natural gas would be transition fuel.

  37. David B Benson says:

    A reminder that when you drive the car
    just drive the car:
    https://m.techxplore.com/news/2020-03-car-audio-pose-greater-dangers.html

  38. mrkenfabian says:

    “..rather than trusting other experts, he seemed to need to check for himself.”

    Whether truly the case or not, Pr Muller appeared to have begun BEST with the presumption that other estimates for rising temperatures were wrong and it looked like the results came as a surprise. Good of him to take the effort to check but that presumption of incompetence and/or bias in scientist peers in other fields does look too much like the XKCD hubistic stereotype; that other scientists are competent should not be any kind of surprise. Blaming that surprise on political advocates saying stuff that is wrong doesn’t excuse it; in this case the middle range of the mainstream advice looks downright alarming enough to be, well, alarmed by, and the principle responses should address that advice directly rather than get diverted with “look, over there, crazy greenies!” distractions.

    I see (as an interested non-scientist) scientific scepticism as about avoiding those kinds of assumptions – your not knowing that others are right does not mean they should be presumed wrong; presuming anything you do not, cannot or choose not to understand is wrong until you are personally satisfied ends up being a way to declare anything you choose to be wrong. Even some scientists seem to use faux scepticism.

    An unstated element in this is the raising up of Environmentalism, as if the whole climate issue depends and revolves around what advocates say – that an advocate like Gore saying something that can be found to be wrong is a black mark against the IPCC or NASA-GISS or NOAA etc looks like a flaw of critical thinking, not an expression of superior science.

    I think there has been a ‘raise them up in order to tear them down’ element in ceding the podium to climate advocacy. ‘You care so much, you fix it’ sounds like you bear no resonsibility for anything you do so long as you don’t care. But not caring looks like negligence to me.

    Whatever is proposed from such quarters to fix it can readily be deemed – presumed, even – to be inappropriate and extreme but I think it is political sleight of hand; the responsibility does not actually rest with those advocacy organisations, neither to make policy makers and public aware nor to develop appropriate and acceptable responses. Those holding actual positions of trust should not getting away with abrogating their responsibility by pointing fingers at “alarmists” for not providing acceptable policy options.

  39. David B Benson says:

    mrkenfabian, I fear that there are no “acceptable policy options”. What is necessary is considered to be too expensive.

    As example, consider the lack of preparation for the current pandemic. There are plenty more with inadequate preparation.

  40. izen says:

    @-David B
    “What is necessary is considered to be too expensive.”

    What drives a lot of ‘luckwarmism’ is not a dispute about the science that would be solved in the man in charge was scientifically literate.
    It is the economic fear that –
    “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,”

    That of course is Trump, and a large quorum of the neo-liberal(?) economists who regard the prospect of a lack of Groooowth, in fact a shrinkage of money and the economy as a much more serious problem than loss of human life.
    Or causing an unstable climate and ecology.

  41. David B Benson says:

    izen — Far too many policy makers have never heard “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” nor would believe it if they did.

  42. mrkenfabian says:

    David Benson – I think objecting to policy options proposed by climate adcocates and environmentailists still looks a lot easier and politically palatable than having the people in positions of leadership and responsibility come up with their own unacceptable options and facing objections to those. In any case I think it is only by not counting the climate costs at all – made easy by rejecting the science, not caring about it and blaming extremists for keeping on about it – that makes what is necessary appear too expensive.

    I think the reality is that failure to do what is necessary is what will truly prove too expensive – that preventing a cumulative and irreversible burden of costs is the point. But I accept the science and I care, which is apparently enough to make me an extremist who should not be listened to.

  43. David B Benson says:

    mrkenfabian, I think that economists would express the questions as how rapidly we discount the future. You and I want an exceedingly low discount rate, so that effects hundreds of years from now effect our current actions.

    However, the current markets seem to be having troubles with 3–5 years in the future.

    I don’t know how to convince them to my view of affairs.

  44. izen says:

    @-David B
    “However, the current markets seem to be having troubles with 3–5 years in the future.”

    It doesn’t help that many board members, CEOs and top politicians are near or beyond their biblical shelf-life.

    @-“I don’t know how to convince them to my view of affairs.”

    Having young children can give an individual a different view of the discount rate.
    Which is why I suggest an UPPER age limit for business/political leaders and best if female with kids.

  45. Mal Adapted says:

    mrkenfabian:

    An unstated element in this is the raising up of Environmentalism, as if the whole climate issue depends and revolves around what advocates say – that an advocate like Gore saying something that can be found to be wrong is a black mark against the IPCC or NASA-GISS or NOAA etc looks like a flaw of critical thinking, not an expression of superior science.

    Good comment. Muller’s bashing of “alarmists”, and his casting of Gore as the arch-alarmist, is transparently informed by ideology. It reveals him as a casualty of the AGW-denialist disinformation campaign by fossil-fuel investors. Jerry Taylor, a former US Libertarian Party ideologue and Cato Institute Vice President, was a soldier in that campaign but eventually realized that “Ideology = Motivated Cognition”:

    I have abandoned that libertarian project, however, because I have come to abandon ideology. This essay is an invitation for you to do likewise — to walk out of the “clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” Ideology encourages dodgy reasoning due to what psychologists call “motivated cognition,” which is the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there. Worse, it encourages fanaticism, disregard for social outcomes, and invites irresolvable philosophical disputes. It also threatens social pluralism — which is to say, it threatens freedom.

    Taylor says his mind changed when he recognized the kind of people he was working for:

    Jon [libertarian economist Jonathan Adler] wrote a very interesting paper in which he argued that even if the skeptic narratives are correct, the old narratives I was telling wasn’t an argument against climate action. Just because the costs and the benefits are more or less going to be a wash, he said, that doesn’t mean that the losers in climate change are just going to have to suck it up so Exxon and Koch Industries can make a good chunk of money.

    IMHO, that’s genuine skepticism. Taylor confirms that scientific training isn’t required to overcome self-deception. If only more soi-disant “conservatives” would achieve the same clarity!

  46. John Hartz says:

    We have more than enough observations to conclude that a “Stable Genius” makes a lousy POTUS. BTW, he’s about to go full Dr Strangeglove when he encourages Americans to resume their normal activities long before the current piecemeal lockdown should be maintained and strengthened

    PS: The Lt Gov of Texas has already gone full Dr. Strangeglove:

    https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/24/covid-19-texas-official-suggests-elderly-willing-die-economy/2905990001/

    After the COVID-19 has run its course in the US, the population size of of bed-rock Libertarians and fundamentalist Christian Evangelicals will be significantly reduced.

  47. Mal Adapted says:

    mrkenfabian:

    presumption of incompetence and/or bias in scientist peers in other fields

    Heh. IIUC, childhood skepticism of the intellectual abilities of one’s peers sensu lato may foreshadow a career in science 8^D. When directed by an adult scientist against entire fields in which the pugnacious doubter isn’t a peer sensu stricto, OTOH, it’s merely narcissistic. Self-aware, seasoned investigators such as our host will acknowledge that. I wouldn’t expect them to set other scientists up as political strawmen, either. Muller’s undertaking of BEST to avoid fooling himself is praiseworthy, but his gratuitous screed against “alarmists” personified by Al Gore exposes a tragic cognitive flaw. IMHO, of course.

  48. Phillip Helbig says:

    “In fairness, Angela only has a PhD in quantum chemistry.”

    Yes, I was going to point out that Merkel is a physicist. She is also married to Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor.

    Maggie Thatcher was a chemist. That demonstrates that just being a scientist does not mean that one would be a good leader.

  49. dikranmarsupial says:

    IIRC Thatcher was a very good leader, the problem was more the direction in which she wanted to lead us!

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