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Meet the Scientists Running for Office

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Science doesn’t have opinions — and it’s not especially interested in any that you’ve got either. Science does have hypotheses, and it does have data and it does run a whole lot of experiments to get still more data. And then it has results. You may or may not like the results, but if the work has been done right, you don’t get to deny them.

In an era in which facts must wrestle with “alternative facts,” that is a memo that fewer and fewer elected officials seem to have gotten — or at least they haven’t read it.

For every researcher studying childhood development who concludes that sexual orientation is fixed from birth, there’s a politician saying nope, it’s a choice. For every epidemiologist or virologist who shows again and again that vaccines are safe and effective, there’s a politician who insists that somewhere in a Big Pharma lab, someone is sneaking autism sauce into the shots. For every environmental researcher who explains that climate change is real, deadly and in large measure our fault, there is a politician — actually there are lots and lots of politicians — who call it a hoax. (Worse, a Chinese hoax.)

At last, it seems, the scientists have had enough, as a new TIME video makes clear. Faced with a President who originated the Chinese hoax canard, an Environmental Protection Agency Administrator who has said he “would not agree” that carbon dioxide is a principle cause of climate change, and the likes of anti-vaccine fabulist Robert Kennedy, Jr. possibly offering advice to the administration on vaccine safety, the empiricists are fighting back.

In 2016, pharmaceutical chemist Shaughnessy Naughton, a former Congressional candidate from Pennsylvania, founded 314 Action — a science-based nonprofit group that fights for evidence-based policies and recruits scientists to run for office. The group, which takes its just-right name from the first three digits of pi, claims to have already been approached by more than 4,000 potential candidates who hope to add letters like “D, Pa” or “R, Fla” to names already followed by MD, MS or PhD.

The government could clearly use their help . There are just five senators or representatives in the current Congress who identify as scientists — that’s 0.9% of the 535-person membership. There is just a single, lonely physicist — Representative Bill Foster of Illinois. In a Congress stuffed with lawyers (222 of them) and bankers and other businesspeople (at least 99) that’s not nearly enough.

In fairness to the current era, things weren’t a whole lot better in earlier generations. Once you get past former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a licensed pharmacist; former President Jimmy Carter, who studied nuclear energy in the Navy; and physicists Ernest Moniz and Stephen Chu, who served as Energy Secretaries under Barack Obama, there have not been terribly many public officials who ever did a day’s paying work in a lab.

Certainly, no one says you have to be a scientist to know how listen to people who are, and then to write laws accordingly — just like you don’t have to be an economist or a general or a civil engineer to enact good monetary or military or infrastructure policy. What’s different now is that in the past, the scientists got the same kind of reasoned deference the other experts still do. In the current era of willful know-nothingism, they don’t.

If it is true, as William F. Buckley famously said, that the job of a conservative is “to stand athwart history, yelling stop,” it is increasingly true that the job of the civic-minded scientist is to stand athwart nonsense, shouting exactly the same thing. In a democracy, voters get the government they choose. It is time — past time, really — to choose more.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the proportion of members of Congress who identify as scientists. It is 0.9%, not 0.09%.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com