Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Domain-knowledge balance in parliaments

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-02-24

Imagine if political parties pre-qualified their candidates for scientific literacy!  Imagine if the statistical curves for a standardized test were published!

As politicians recognize that scientific literacy is important to the nation, and political decisions increasingly involve complex scientific issues, surely they must recognize that scientific literacy among those making decisions affecting the nation is critical.

Quotas and/or pressure about gender balance have changed the demographics of candidates (for the better), so surely there can be no logical objection to changed educational profile of candidates.  I’m not saying they should all be Ph.D’s, as many bright people are quite literate outside their fields of formal study, so all that is needed when selecting candidates is to ask them to be assessed.

I can recall a survey of parliamentarians around the world.  A huge number of US senators and congressmen, who make decisions about nuclear issues, couldn’t tell the difference between a neutron and an electron.

Further, it cannot be denied that scientific training promotes the idea of getting to the real truth, as opposed to that of lawyers and accountants which often rewards the ability to twist the truth to suit them.

I dare political parties to ask an independent educational body to develop and mark such a test, and release statistics for how their parliamentarians fare.

You can bet this wouldn’t happen if individual tests weren’t anonymous!

The parties are happy to criticize the economic literacy of their foes, and Joh Bjelke-Petersen (the infamous Queensland premier) was ridiculed for being unable to say what is meant by the "doctrine of separation of powers", so maybe a literacy test on a range of domains, including science and economics, is the way to go.

Imagine Channel 10 having a TV show called "Australia’s most scientifically literate politician" like their Australia’s smartest kid/comedian/etc series, but whittling them down week after week a la Australian Idol, starting with the whole lot of them!

Yeah, fat chance, even though ratings would probably go through the roof.

Anyone care to nominate questions that politicians MUST be able to answer?


5 Responses to “Domain-knowledge balance in parliaments”

  1. Dave Bath said

    Here’s a question:
    True or false: If a right angle triangle has two sides 3cm and 4cm long, the remaining side must be 5cm long.
    Eject anyone who answers "True" (although some who answer "False" might still be idiots, too dumb to be sucked in).

  2. zombinol said

    Not so much about scientific knowledge but about specific domain expertise.

    How about:

    True of false: Minister for ‘x’, have you been educated in ‘x’ at degree level or above?

    True of false: Minister for ‘x’, have you had any accredited ‘x’ industry training?

    True of false: Minister for ‘x’, are you able to be employed as a senior or executive level ‘x’ professional?

    True of false: Minister for ‘x’, is it prudent for ‘x’ sector employers to employ persons with no prior experience in the field of ‘x’ at a senior or executive level?

    True of false: Minister for ‘x’, do you have the necessary skills to identify incorrect statements from experts in industry ‘x’?

  3. Dave Bath said

    The problem is that many people have a good understanding of issues without formal training. You don’t need to be an MBBS or epidemiologist to be a good health minister (indeed, statisticians would probably make better health ministers than doctors!)

    I managed to tutor a few 3rd year honors philosophy students to distinctions and high distinctions even though I had only 1 first year philosophy unit, and have been working in IT for decades, with a high degree of expertise, with only 1 first year unit.

    The problem is not necessarily ministers either – they only get one vote in the house. If members had appropriate levels of literacy in domains, that would provide a pool for choosing ministers.

    Yes, Gareth Evans was an excellent AG after being a law lecturer, but Keating was an excellent treasurer after being the manager of a rock band.

  4. Zombinol said

    Fair point, I guess the problem that I see is that lawyers are especially trained to perform and provide ambiguous or constructed answers as opposed to truthful direct answers and many Ministers are former lawyers, as for economists who are Ministers, I am not entirely sure that they consider in an empathetic way the human factors in their answers and decisions.

  5. Dave Bath said

    Zombinol: “I am not entirely sure that they consider in an empathetic way the human factors” (on lawyers and/or economists who are ministers)

    This is another issue apart from literacy across domains, however economics and law do NOT preclude heart.
    Law: Justice Michael Kirby, Lord Justice Denning
    Economics: John Kenneth Galbraith

    Look around the blogosphere, and you’ll note many people with economics and/or law backgrounds who also demonstrate heart: even some those who label themselves as "conservatives".

    Aaah, back to Aristotle’s "Politics", which he described as the "highest art", requiring competence in ethics, logic, psychology, economics, sociology, yada yada yada.

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