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TSA Essay Example

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Would society be better if there were more scientists in positions of political power?

​This question is incredibly pertinent to a world with significant environmental challenges, technological dilemmas and global health policies that continually disregard scientific advice. In this discussion, I will explore the issues of representation, skill-sets and incompatible values and philosophies that offer different perspectives on how and why politically powerful scientists could influence society.

Firstly, the plausible reason for the lack of scientists in many prominent political positions, is that science is a culture of neutrality. The anthropologist Hugh Gusterson said that “science is the culture that pretends it isn’t.” This ‘culture of cultural absence’ that most scientists subscribe to involves an objective distance from the social issues that could cloud their reasoning or credibility. This is the idea that the veracity and trustworthy nature of science is brought into question by political interests. In so far as scientists are ‘gatekeepers’ of factual knowledge – knowledge that has yielded nuclear weaponry and cured the small pox – they already hold a great deal of responsibility. It is easy to see why scientists would feel their loyalty to science and their social responsibilities as scientists should be uncompromised by political power. Otherwise, scientists cannot speak ‘truth to power.’ So this is the argument that scientists ultimately serve society better by serving science as their first and only master.

However, scientists are woefully underrepresented in positions of leadership at a time of great scientific need. The French philosopher, Bruno Latour, has coined the term “climato-quietism” to describe the widespread inaction in the face of impending environmental doom. This state of pacification is down to the belief that someone or something will save us – a trust in salvation. Who will save us if not scientists? Scientists are under enormous pressure to come to our rescue and unless they are empowered to be leaders and political actors, they cannot enact the policies and imperatives they need to be society’s saviours. It may well be this very power of scientific salvation that powerful political incumbents resent or are suspicious towards.

Perhaps this suspicion is not unfounded. What would scientists do with political power if they possessed it? Not only are scientists bound to their scientific value system, but they are also not specialists in the skills necessary to be successful in politics. We know this from the public relations failure of many scientific endeavours, such as declining interest in the NASA missions and misconceptions surrounding the evidence of climate change.  Informing society involves the ability to wield political finesse, not just relay the facts. Persuasive and compelling dialogue with the public is needed for progress. For better or worse, this is why politics has been professionalised. While some scientists are able to offer this emotive rhetoric, most are trained to build consensus rather than argue their corner. Representative democracies depend on passionate advocates to fight for their communities and for the issues that matter to their voters.

However, persuasive ability may no longer be the hallmark of politics. Politicians themselves have become increasingly unpopular and viewed as ‘out-of-touch.’ Many social commentators believe that the age of political rhetoric has long passed and that, today, political culture is what matters. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has theorised that political emotions that emerge from cultural practices are what truly change society. In this way, scientists that involve themselves in social media, activism and public debate are better placed to enhance society, than their counterparts who seek office. But if the symbolism of the office still holds resonance, then – like Al Gore – it may be the only logical choice for scientists who want to effect meaningful change.

Arguably, society would be better with more scientists in positions of political power – but are there not more pressing issues of race and gender representation that impact society more? Many people would consider Angela Merkel’s symbolic status as a female political leader more significant than her identity as a physicist. Besides,  Besides, science itself has been accused of being an arena of privilege. Until scientists are more representative of society, their views and outlook may not offer any diversity to the legislature.

But equally, politics has to reform itself to science. Its short-termism, sensationalism and elitism will never gel with the scientific project. In short, politics has to become more scientifically literate to encourage the participation of scientists. I think this would unquestionably benefit society. I would argue that the separation of the social sphere and the scientific sphere is the true problem raised by this question. It is an issue of philosophical identity that is just as important as any other problem of representation. The science-politics divide is an artificial dichotomy, a false binary that has been created by society to its own detriment. The writer and chemist CP Snow highlighted this in his famous speech entitled ‘The Two Cultures.’ Snow traces the problem back to a split narrative formed at the Industrial Revolution – a fissure between those of us that have a working relationship with the technological and those of us served or threatened by that relationship. I think society would be better if scientists were present in the decision-making of politics but this is a top-down solution for a bottom-up problem. Educational polarisation and cultural boundaries have to be tackled so that social and scientific philosophies integrate in childhood public consciousness and careers.

Ultimately, the incompatibilities of skill-sets and values in politics and science respectively perhaps reveals a need for more rounded politicians who are the product of a better, less binary society. Surely more scientific voices and faces in the corridors of power can only advance this outcome.
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