The United States has elected one of the most anti-science Congresses in the democratic world. Mainstream leaders unabashedly espouse scientifically untenable positions in areas such as climate change, vaccinations, and evolution.
In a world that is becoming increasingly technologically driven, it would be remiss if STEM programs did not encourage more of their students to pursue legislative careers.
It may be surprising then to learn that there are about the same number of scientists and engineers (11) in Congress as there are radio talk show hosts (7). What lessons can be drawn from the political success of talk radio?
At the narrow intersection of MIT alumni and celebrity radio personalities we find Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Affectionately known as “Click and Clack”, Tom and Ray were co-hosts of NPR’s Peabody Award winning automotive call-in show Car Talk. Listening to re-runs of Car Talk is one of my favourite ways to pass the time on long road trips.
In addition to their ridiculous puns, hilarious reproductions of car noises, and contagious laughter, what makes the show great is their ability to explain the mechanics of cars in a way that non-mechanics can understand.
This vitally important and hard-to-learn skill is not emphasized at academic institutions. Too few researchers are encouraged to present their work clearly and without jargon to a non-technical audience.
More often than not, the engineering students I’ve interacted with focus their presentations on the minutiae of their calculations, often missing the forest for the trees. If more scientists are to be elected to government, then they will have to be trained to communicate what can sometimes be dry or counterintuitive facts in a way that is, as Einstein put it, as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Tom and Ray’s clarity were not the only attributes that kept listeners tuning in weekly. Equally important were their affable, magnetic personalities. Scientists, on the other hand, are often tone-deaf to their social environment, which can lead to a perceived aloofness when debating culturally sensitive issues.
Now, I don’t think academic institutions should be training scientists and engineers to be likeable, but I do think they can do a better job of teaching students to be engaging and persuasive. The presentations and reports of incredibly bright students here at MIT often read as long lists of bullet points.
We can’t all be likeable, let alone inspiring, but we can at least learn to make persuasive and compelling arguments. This skill will be essential for any scientist with political ambitions if they want to persuade their disparate constituencies with logical arguments rather than rhetorical tricks.
Why does this matter? In a toxic environment where it has become the norm to provide “alternative” facts, now, more than ever, the U.S. could benefit from scientifically trained government leaders trained to push for evidence-based policies.
As President Reif described in his op-ed in the Boston Globe, the world is becoming ever more technologically sophisticated, in large part thanks to work that is being done here at MIT.
We’re at an inflection point where a scientific outlook is going to be critical, and so my advice to STEM students is to get involved as if the tuition tax is at stake. We’ve learned quantum mechanics. It’s time we try to learn politics.