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What Do Politicians Actually Need To Know?

By Eleanor Price
3 Nov 2014

“I’m not a scientist” is the most common response made by Republican Party members when discussing climate change. New York Times “Political Memo” by Carol Davenport humorously discusses this rather banal avoidance of the issue. But what comes across at first as a simple political mechanism actually raises an interesting question: should politicians — or law-makers, or anyone who can influence public policy, for that matter — have an ethical responsibility to be educated in the subjects they make policies about?

On one hand, expecting that politicians have sufficient background knowledge about every issue they might encounter is probably excessive or unrealistic. As a society, we’re well aware the people we are putting in office are mostly lawyers and businessmen, not engineers and mathematicians.In most cases, we seem to be okay with that. “Most politicians aren’t scientists,” says energy lobbyist Michael McKenna, “but they vote on science policy. They have opinions on Ebola, but they’re not epidemiologists. They shape highway and infrastructure laws, but they’re not engineers.”

However, a little education can go a long way, and perhaps refresher courses in various sciences might better inform our nation’s policy-makers, and therefore our policies. Science can help dictate our collective thought process on more issues than just climate change (for example, last election season’s debates on abortion, and more recently how to deal with Ebola), and politicians’ comprehension of the issues can help us move forward.

Eleanor is a current musicology PhD student at the Eastman School of Music and a former Graduate Fellow at the Prindle Institute for Ethics, where she worked to edit the Prindle Post and coproduce the Examining Ethics podcast. She graduated from DePauw University in 2017 as an Honor Scholar with a dual degree in Flute Performance and English Literature.
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