The Congress of Neil DeGrasse Tyson


Donald Trump is running for president.  There are many people who believe that his experience as a businessman is an attribute for a potential president.  There are many people who believe that business experience will not translate well into the political, or more precisely, presidential realm.  Should politicians be politicians only?  Can a person successfully move from a certain profession into the political realm?  Thinking this over, I remembered once seeing Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Real Time with Bill Maher lamenting that Congress is made up mostly of lawyers and the occasional businessman.  “No scientists?” he questions, “Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of life represented here?”  This elicited raucous applause from the audience – no terrible feat.  Making a crowd break out in applause is easy enough if one knows their audience.  Give them what they want.  The volume (decibel level) of a crowd does not correlate definitely, if at all, to the verity of the statements they are applauding and cheering – something easily forgotten and exploited.

Do we really need more engineers and scientists in Congress?  Do we even want them there?  The immediate answer for many would be yes.  Why discriminate?  I admit that when I first viewed this appearance by Mr. Tyson, I agreed completely and would have applauded with the crowd had I been there.  Lately, however, I think it’s rather silly.

In 2014, at the end of a five-minute address to the House of Representatives, South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy ended with the wonderfully succinct and powerful sentence “We make Law.”  Congress is well represented by lawyers because that is where law is made.  I think the people most qualified to make laws are those who know Law, those who have studied Law, those who have practiced Law.  Now, I concede that laws are not made in a vacuum (or at least ought not to be) and therefore legislators must stay abreast with the current climate of the nation, the world.  Congress must be aware of developments cultural, medical, scientific, technological, etc.  Perhaps Congress should have more scientists and engineers in order to ensure such knowledge is ever in their midst.  This sounds like a good idea except when considered more fully.  There is no need for a legislative body to be made up of, at least in part, scientists and engineers.  They can simply be appealed to when their input is needed.  Also, when a scientist becomes a congressman, he removes himself from one world and places himself in another.  How much science can a congressman get done?  We need the scientists to do science.  We need them to do their work in their respective fields to provide knowledge which can better guide our legislators in decisions regarding abortion, drugs, the environment, etc.  I submit that, in general, we would slow our scientific, civil, and civic progress, by having more of our scientists and engineers working as congressmen and politicians.

Another question to be considered: which type of scientist would be most desirable in Congress?  Science is quite broad and all-encompassing.  What if we found ourselves with a handful of mycologists in Congress?  Could they apply their knowledge of mycelium to gun legislation?  Could a geologist weigh in, appealing to his knowledge of minerals, on legislation regarding immigration reform?  Could a seismologist who has studied plate tectonics for years use such knowledge in a debate about Planned Parenthood funding? These examples illustrate that there likely are some scientists less desirable than others for a position in Congress.  So we would be discriminating after all, and discriminating by profession, not viewpoint.

Now I should like to turn Mr. Tyson’s suggestion on him.  Why, when I watch a broadcast on NASA TV, do I not see more lawyers in mission control?  One after the other is a scientist, an engineer.  No lawyers?  Where are the businessmen?  Where is the rest of life represented here? The answer is simple: they are not needed there.  The lawyer’s knowledge there is out of place.  We could go a bit further with this: would Mr. Tyson prefer to be represented in a court of law by a lawyer or an engineer?  Would he rather have someone who has studied and practiced Law, someone who has knowledge of the punishments suitable for crimes in the nation in which he practices, or someone who knows how to build a bridge?  Knowledge in engineering is no small thing and I am not discounting it at all.  I only want to show that knowledge in certain fields does not necessarily translate into others.  It may be reasonable to suggest that since what goes on at mission control does not affect the lives of a nation, it doesn’t matter if different positions are represented.  To which I would reply that a case has yet to be made for why since what does go on in Congress affects the lives of a nation, that different professions should be represented.  Different viewpoints are indeed needed, but viewpoints are not necessarily tethered to professions.

Why would Neil DeGrasse Tyson think it strange that Congress is for the most part made up of lawyers?  He answers this question by displaying his ignorance of what Law is when he says, in the same clip, “Law is, well, what happens in the courtroom.  It doesn’t go to what’s right.  It goes to who argues best. [T]he entire profession is founded on who the best arguers are.”  This reduces an entire profession and philosophy to one practice within it and although there’s nothing wrong with such reducing, I don’t think it is an accurate reduction.  Suppose I claimed that the entire profession of scientists comes down to who’s the best at obtaining grants and funding.  Although procuring funds is necessary in the field of science and it is something that does happen, it is not an accurate reduction of it.  The entire profession of the lawyer, or Law, comes down to protecting rights and meting out punishment; and to do this, it is of course necessary to “argue” at times.  Most importantly, Law is not what happens in the courtroom.  Justice happens in the courtroom by appealing to Law.

I am no lawyer, but I do work for lawyers.  Law, like science, is broad and all-encompassing and broken into many fields of expertise.  The firm I work at is an intellectual property firm.  Interestingly, the lawyers there are also engineers.  There, patents are drafted and submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  The patent attorney will use his knowledge of engineering to ensure that the invention is properly explained and detailed so the examiner at the USPTO can fully understand it, thus being able to decide if it is indeed new and novel and worthy of protection in the form of a patent.  This is what this profession is “about.”  It is about ensuring protection of property – in this case intellectual property.  True, litigation (arguing) is needed at times and, to be sure, there is good money to be made in litigation.  However, the profession of a patent attorney is not founded on who the best arguer is but on the fact that people who come up with a new idea want to protect it.  It is founded on the maintenance of property rights.

By claiming that the profession of the lawyer is only about arguing is to appeal to the not wholly unfounded sentiment that lawyers are cold, profit-driven people who will do anything to make more money, even arguing for things they don’t believe.  It is true that there are despicable, unscrupulous lawyers to be found such as the ambulance-chaser or the patent troll, but just as there are scientists who fudge data to ensure funding, we needn’t discount the idea of the profession because people are imperfect.  Moreover, it seems that by making the claim that the profession of law is based on who the best arguer is and intimating the above-mentioned sentiment, Tyson implies that it is preferable to have scientists and engineers.  Why?  Because unlike the lawyer who will flip-flop as benefits him, the scientist is only guided by the facts and is thus more suited to be in the legislative branch.  Ideally, yes, scientists are only guided by the facts, but a scientist is still a human.  They still bring their prejudices, beliefs, and agendas with them to work.

I take no issue with the amount of lawyers and businessmen in Congress.  I also have no problem with scientists and engineers running for Congress or the doctors that are and have been in Congress.  I do however, recognize that there is a case to be made for the presence of those who specialize in Law.  I am not perplexed by their presence there in the least.  Mr. Tyson says that these statements of his come from a realization he had when he was twelve years old.  It seems he hasn’t thought the matter over much since.


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