05 January 2006

When astronauts go bad

Much has been made lately of the dangers of letting politicians tread onto scientists' territory. (see Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science for a primer on how poorly most members of government understand the scientific process.) But there is a corollary that gets far less attention.

I refer to the dangers of letting scientists set public policy, and a speech this week by a former astronaut seeking a seat in Canada's Parliament is a timely reminder. Marc Garneau, who is running for the center-right Liberal Party in a rural riding (what congressional districts are called in the Great White North) between Ottawa and Montreal, had this to say about Quebec separatism:
"I believe that there are a lot of sovereigntists who have not worked this through to the end. It's a little bit like the United States going into Baghdad. It happened very quickly but what after that?" (Globe and Mail, Jan. 5)
Yeah. He really said that. I kid you not.

Now, I have no objection to astronauts running for public office. In the U.S., pioneering astronaut John Glenn distinguished himself, modestly at least, in the U.S. Senate. Legislatures can only benefit from a wide variety of perspective among their members. Why not welcome a scientist like Garneau to the halls of power?

He has a doctorate in electrical engineering and was Canada's first astronaut, a "mission specialist" rather than a space pilot. And like Sen. Glenn, he can draw on military experience. But even a bright guy who "designed a simulator for use in training weapons officers in the use of missile systems aboard Tribal class destroyers," may not be qualified to weigh in on matters of state.

Garneau's leader, Prime Minister Paul Martin, introduced the neophyte candidate by glibly observing that "Space and Parliament can be kind of similar at times" CBC, Nov. 30). He was joking (I hope), but if that's the best argument that Martin could find to justify Garneau's nomination, then we have a problem.

Of course scientists can make good politicians. In theory. Lawyers can make good politicians, too. There are even some half-decent men of the cloth holding public office (although we should probably keep a close eye on anyone who wants to mix theology and democracy). But just as legal acumen in of itself does not warrant political responsibility, so excellence in science is insufficient, as Garneau's bizarre comparison of Iraq and Québec makes all too clear.

More evidence that Garneau may not be ready for prime time, from the same Globe story:
Earlier in the campaign, he had to apologize to a Québec paraplegic association for a speech he gave in 1986 when, as he tried to argue the importance of financing science and technology, he suggested that government grants to handicapped people weren't as profitable.
By all means, let's welcome more scientists into public office. A little experience with professional skepticism would really help right about now. But let's make sure they're more than just students of nature. Humans don't behave with mathematical predictability or precision. Besides, the last thing we need is a scientist embarrassing the whole scientific community by saying daft things in public.


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