In “My Fair Lady” Professor Higgins is asking plaintively, “why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The answer, alas, is not simple. It is a function of biology, culture, and misconceptions on the part of the good professor. So is the answer to my plaintive question just as complex?
Why do they make dumb laws? It is easy to ascribe stupid laws to the stupidity of legislators. Indeed, some of them readily qualify. Others believe in magical/religious thinking –and there is nothing we can do about them, except vote them out of office. But the vast majority of the legislators, both Republicans and Democrats sound reasonably intelligent –so why the stupid policies?
I think that to a large extent it is due to the lack of a scientific way of thinking, and more specifically –quantitative/statistical thinking.
Examples abound. Alzheimer’s disease costs the U.S $200 billion a year, and is projected to grow rapidly as the population grows older. How much do we spend on research on the disease? In 2011 we spent, both public and private sources, $500 million. That’s 1:400 ratio! Did anybody teach our representatives the elements of ROI (return on investment)? Any CEO should have been fired for limiting the budget to no more than $1 to correct a $400 problem. The same is true for other health-related science, which has been shown to have huge returns on investment. Same is true for investment in infrastructure, with a 10 fold ROI. Can anybody estimate the ROI of the internet, invented with Federal funds? It has been calculated that for the price of a 20-year stint in prison society could have provided a Harvard education and created a doctor or a scientist, or an engineer instead of a hardened criminal. So why aren’t we investing more in education?
Once a month the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the unemployment data. Republicans ferociously attack the policies of the Obama administration as an abject failure when unemployment rises by 25,000. The administration crows when employment rises by the same number. Did anybody tell our politicos that the margin of error of those numbers is +/- 100,000 at the 90% confidence level? In other words, the 25,000 figure is just statistical “noise”.
The problem is that most of the American public is uneducated in quantitative/analytical thinking. And this opens the way for demagogues and ignorami to bamboozle the people. To wit: climate change is not a hypothesis anymore, it is a reality staring us in the face. Yet, failure to comprehend the statistical evidence that it is us, humans, who are responsible for the rapid buildup of the disaster, allowed crackpots like senator Inhoff of Oklahoma, to propagate the myth of a massive scientific conspiracy.
To the credit of President Obama, this administration has a science dream team. John Holdren, the president’s science adviser, is a physicist. Lisa Jackson, head of EPA, is a chemical engineer. Stephen Chu, Secretary of the Energy department, is a Nobel-prize laureate in Physics. Francis Collins, head of NIH, is a well-known geneticist. Jane Lubchenco who runs national Oceanographic and atmospheric administration (NOAA) is a respected marine biologist. And so on, and so on. Dr. Holdren, in his capacity as head of the Office of Science and Technology, issued, at Obama’s request, the Guidelines for Scientific Integrity, designed to put science above politics and to once and for all thwart attempts to repeat the Bush administration’s dismal record of subverting science in the service of political ideology.
But this is obviously not enough. Despite an unprecedented respect for science and its contribution to public policy, our legislators are as ignorant as is the public at large, of scientific thinking. What is required is a fundamental change in our educational system. We need to teach our future citizens critical thinking, based on quantitative analysis. We need to inculcate in them the concepts of probability, the fact that nothing is 100% certain, that the likelihood of errors is built into any science-based analysis. Above all, we need to teach them to insist on evidence, to flush out empty phraseology, to demand science-based, not faith-based, policies. In the interim, while we are waiting for the new generation to reach voting age, we need to compel our representatives to take an introductory course in statistics and critical thinking as part of their duties. Too radical? Considering the damage wrought by the ignorants in Washington, I don’t think so. As somebody said, extreme circumstances require extreme measures.