The number of political leaders who have science or technology backgrounds is disturbingly low. It's not just the specifics of issues such as climate change, cybersecurity and COVID-19, but rather democracy itself and being able to dialogue with those who have lost trust in the facts that the governments are giving us.
PARIS — Ahead of the upcoming French national election, Paris-based daily Les Échos published a tally of the educational background of past presidents. Writer and economist Jean Peyrelevade found that in the post-War period, only one head of state (Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a 1951 graduate of the École Polytechnique) claimed a math or science degree.
Every other past president had studied law, political science, philosophy and the like — just like all the major candidate on the ballot this spring.
“Is it serious, doctor?” Peyrelevade asks rhetorically. “In my opinion, yes, very serious. The decline of the scientific spirit weakens our democracy enormously.”
Xi Jinping is a trained chemist
A similar count was conducted two years ago in the United States, where a total of only 14 science and math majors were sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, out of the 535 total members of Congress. The most pressing issues in 2019 already included STEM-related topics like climate change and cybersecurity. Now, two years into a global pandemic, we might appear even more unequipped to push ahead with informed public decisions that will impact our future for decades.
It’s worth noting that China’s President Xi Jinping studied chemical engineering and that chemistry accounts for over 50% of China’s natural-sciences research, according to the Nature Index. Yes, the global race for the future, both to pursue solutions and respond to crises, requires the best technical minds.
Still, French President Emmanuel Macron didn’t need a degree in machine learning to realize a $1.85 billion investment in AI would keep his country — and, as an EU state, Europe — competitive with the US and China. Yet Macron is up for reelection in a country where coronavirus and anti-vaxxers are raging. A few weeks ago, he was so frustrated with the backlash against his proposed vaccine mandate that he openly insulted citizens who refused to get injected. Protests subsequently erupted all over the country, with signs that read confiance rompue, or “broken trust.”
How do we talk to the anti-vaxxers?
Would the 105,000 dissenters who took to the streets trust Macron’s protocol if he’d possessed a medical degree? Perhaps not, but it is worth pondering the vast gap in educational pursuits of the West’s political leaders and the current nature of discourse.
Back in the States, eschewing evidence-based policy is just as much a matter of dogma as it is trust. In September 2020, when Trump’s controversial leadership during the coronavirus and America’s anti-vax movement were peaking, a report by the Pew Research Center found 7 in 10 Americans felt it was a priority for the United States to be a world leader in scientific achievements. Even as allegations of fake news abound, it seems Americans don’t look down on science itself, but rather question the sources of the government’s facts.
Is there still space for debate? What do we do about both the conspiracy theorists on the one hand, and the pressing need to compete on the frontiers of science and technology? Perhaps it can only start by opening a dialogue between empirically-minded politicians with true technical experience and those skeptics of government who still believe in the value of science. And that requires we have more opportunities to vote for science in flesh and bones.
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