Policy & Politics

Political Scientist

Physicist Rush Holt Jr. discusses his time in Congress and why scientists should embrace the political realm.

By Jacob Roberts | June 5, 2017

Holt addresses National Science Foundation summer interns on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, July 2011.

National Science Foundation

DM Holt.jpg

Physicist Rush Holt served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years before becoming CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Associated Press

Rush Dew Holt Jr. is the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District. Before running for office Holt received a PhD in physics from New York University and taught at Swarthmore College in the 1980s. He has championed a national Darwin Day honoring the renowned naturalist, has defeated IBM’s Watson in a game of Jeopardy!, and was one of only a handful of nonmedical scientists in Congress during his 16-year career.

With one foot in the world of science and another in the world of politics, Holt has a unique perspective on science’s role in policy and government. Distillations writer Jacob Roberts spoke with Holt about the March for Science, the rise of “alternative facts,” and why science has become inaccessible to most Americans. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why do you think there aren’t more scientists in politics?

A: There’s nothing philosophically incompatible with science and politics. After all, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush are two examples from Philadelphia. There are good reasons why scientists should be involved in the public square but not necessarily in office.

But there seem to be psychological hurdles that scientists have to overcome. One of them is this misconception that science is pure and politics is dirty. Neither side of that is completely true. It’s not a good justification, but it may be something of an explanation.

Of course, science is hard work, and people are busy with their laboratory work, or their writing, or their meetings, or whatever. The ethic in the profession is that you stick to your science, and if you’re interested in how science affects public policy or public questions, just let the facts speak for themselves. Of course, there’s a fallacy there, too. Facts are, by themselves, voiceless.

One of my parents was a scientist, a science teacher, but also in politics. My other parent was in politics. I grew up interested in how things work (that’s science) and how people get along (that’s politics). I saw no incompatibility. When the opportunity presented itself to me to run for Congress, I didn’t have to overcome a psychological hurdle.

My father died when I was quite young, but for decades after he died I would run into complete strangers who would tell me how much my father meant to them and how much he helped them. I always knew that through politics you can help people.

Q: When you took office, did you have any science-related priorities?

A: No. I had worked on Capitol Hill almost 20 years before I ran for Congress. [In the 1980s Holt worked as a congressional science fellow and as a nuclear arms–control expert at the U.S. State Department.] I knew it would be foolish to come into Congress with lots of ambitions to advance science because science is largely an afterthought. It’s a secondary consideration in Congress. However persuasive a freshman member or a sophomore member or somebody who’s been there 10 years might be, you’re not going to get much science onto the agenda.

I just had to look for every opportunity I could find to step in and get in a word for science. You know, if there’s one amendment that they’re considering that would harm or help science, I might be able to give it a nudge one way or another. I might be able to get a word in with the chair or whatever to affect that.

I was very interested in science education, getting standards for science education. I was very much aware and very interested in seeing that science was included in environmental regulations. For example, there was legislation to say that science advisory committees of the Environmental Protection Agency should have more nonscientist members. I said, “That doesn’t make sense.” I could try to stop things like that or try to advance things here and there that were beneficial to science.

Q: Can you think of any particular science-related bills you tried to push through that were controversial?

A: Well, sure. The most interesting are those bills that are not explicitly and obviously about science, but where science is embedded in them.

Take voting, for example. After the 2000 election, where there were hanging chads [partially punched ballots] and disputed voting, Congress passed a Help America Vote Act. Most people thought that had nothing to do with science. We were just talking about how people vote.

Well, what they did in the Help America Vote Act is push election jurisdictions all over the country to go out and buy electronic voting machines with no way for the voter to verify what she or he intended to do. Was the vote recorded the way that the voter wanted? Nobody will ever know. You can check the electronics of the system to see whether the memory system works, but the voter, who is the only person who knows how she intended to vote, cannot verify that the vote was recorded the way she wanted; so an audit is meaningless.

Computer scientists looked at that, and they were aghast. They said, “No, no, no. You can’t have an unverifiable voting system.” And yet millions of Americans to this day are still voting on unverifiable voting systems.

Was that a science vote? It turns out it was because it has a lot to do with measurement and verification, but nobody saw that as a science vote. [Electronic voting machines] are so easy to use; that’s good. It makes it possible for someone who is blind to vote because you can do it audibly, so that improves accessibility. But [the bill’s sponsors] were completely oblivious to the fact that this is an invitation for bugs or hacking to distort the vote.

Q: Did that come up at all during the deliberations about the vote?

A: No, it didn’t. I was aware of the issue, and I said to the authors of the bill, “Now, I hope you’re putting in provisions for verification, for verifiable voting.” They said, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” Evidently, they didn’t even know what I meant. Because out came the bill—and I’m not a computer scientist—but like the computer scientists, I was aghast. I spent years trying to correct it without success.

Q: How would you explain the science behind a piece of legislation to a nonscientist lawmaker?

A: Most communication with people, including elected officials, is personal. Most people make decisions on the basis of anecdote. There’s nothing wrong with that. You hope that the anecdotes are consistent with the validated data, but I think the best thing to do in a situation like that is to find someone the representative trusts and have that person tell the representative a little story about why A or B is the better vote. You have to condense it and personalize it. It’s just the way people work.

Sending them a well-reasoned argument through the mail might have some effect, but more likely a quick conversation with somebody that the person trusts is better. This is true for you if you’re buying a car or if your cousin is trying to decide where to go to college. You can do all the studies you want and look at all the data you want. It’s going to be an anecdote from a trusted friend that makes the difference.

Q: Do you think there should be a required basic level of science education for elected officials?

A: I always get a laugh when I say members of Congress are happy to talk about things in which they are not expert. I say that only slightly in jest. In fact, you want your representative to be able to think and act intelligently on a huge range of issues.

The most interesting thing is, when it comes to science, they’ll say, “I can’t do that.” They can do transportation, and international affairs, and international security, and any number of things in which they are not expert, but when it comes to science, they’ll say, “Well, I’m not a scientist. I don’t have any opinion on that.”

It’s a problem we’ve created in our society. It might be traced back—this is a suggestion—to the 1958 National Defense Education Act, where we said we would produce a generation of scientists and engineers like the world has never seen. [The legislation was, in part, a response to the Soviets’ 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite.] And we did. And we left behind about 80% of the population because we teach science in the schools primarily for future scientists.

That’s unfortunate because it means most Americans feel pretty far removed from science. They are pretty quick to dismiss scientists as arrogant aristocrats. Of course, nothing is further from the truth because most scientists will tell you they are slaves to the evidence and that the genius is not the person but the system. The genius of science is that it will make ordinary people capable of making very smart decisions.

We’ve lost that idea. It means that a lot of ordinary Americans feel they not only can’t comprehend evidence but that it has little relevance for them and has no place in their lives. Climate change comes along and instead of asking, “What’s the evidence,” they say, “I don’t believe in it.”

What does belief have to do with it?

Q: So in a perfect world do you think there should be required reading in science for people entering Congress?

A: No, probably [we need science education] for all citizens. I mentioned Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, but you can talk about John Adams or Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine. These people really got it about science.

When they wrote our founding documents, the Constitution and The Federalist Papers, they talked about experiment over and over and over again. They were very empirical in their thinking, and that’s an American characteristic I hope we can recapture: that on public questions, publicly vetted evidence—in other words, scientifically based thinking—is your best bet.

Your best chance of getting a good and sustainable solution is if you go with the science, go with the evidence. The founders of the country understood that. It was a characteristic that ran deep in our culture for a couple of centuries, and we seem to be losing it now.

Q: What do you think about the March for Science?

A: A lot of people said to me, “Oh, we shouldn’t politicize science.” I said, “This has nothing to do with politicizing science.” Whatever experiment you’re working on, whatever theory you’re developing, make sure you don’t let your own personal biases, you don’t let any ideologies, you don’t let any wishful thinking interfere with your science.

The March for Science sprang up spontaneously after the March for Women following the inauguration of President Trump. It’s really interesting. People were carrying signs reading, “Evidence matters.” Some people showed up in lab coats at the Women’s March. There were three young scientists in California, Texas, and New York who happened to notice this and said, “There seems to be some energy here. Let’s try to capture that energy of people who want to be out there defending science.”

What’s so interesting is it’s the first time, I think, anybody can point to in decades where there has been a spontaneous effort to defend the idea of science. It’s not a march pro or con GMOs or pro or con nuclear power. It’s about the value of science and the power of evidence. People are understandably and correctly outraged that in so many areas of public policy ideology is crowding out evidence, that evidence seems to be optional in the fashioning of public policy, and that you have officials using phrases like alternative fact.

That dismays and outrages scientists. That’s what we see going on here, I think. Suddenly people realize that they need to defend the conditions in which science can thrive, that too many people in our society have forgotten how important science is to them and how important it is that we all defend the conditions where science can thrive.

Of course, it’s related to the immigration ban [the Trump administration’s executive order suspending immigration from a group of predominantly Muslim countries] because lots of scientists realize that freedom to communicate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to form diverse research teams are important to science.

They feel it’s really important that the reliable knowledge that is gained through science be brought to bear where it’s relevant to make policy. They’re concerned that there seems to be a disrespect for science in so many areas.

Q: Going forward, what do you think scientists and scientifically minded people can do to ensure that science is informing policy?

A: Get out into the public square. Whether that’s teaching beyond your doctoral students or working as an adviser to your local city council member, or even running for office, as I did for eight elections. There are many things that need to be done. I think with the March for Science, the best thing that might come out of this will be that scientists will feel motivated to do what the march organizers say in their slogan: “Step out of the lab and into the street.” Figuratively, there are many things you can do in the street. It’s a mistake to say scientists shouldn’t do that for fear of contaminating their science.