If you are sick, the chances are you want to go to a trained medical professional — a doctor, a nurse, etc. — to help you get better.
Similarly, if you have car trouble, you probably want to go to a qualified automobile mechanic to fix your vehicle.
So why is it that, when it comes to shaping public policy in areas where scientific knowledge is key, we keep electing non-scientists? Or indeed, far too often, people who outright reject scientific information?
This is the problem that 314 Action — a non-profit political action committee that helps scientists run for political office — is trying to solve. And they're doing it by endorsing a series of scientists for important congressional races.
One of the candidates they've endorsed, Mai Khanh Tran, is a Vietnamese refugee who worked her way through Harvard as a janitor and through Pell Grants before graduating from Dartmouth-Brown Medical School and completing her residency in pediatrics at UCLA. For more than a quarter century, she worked as a pediatrician in Orange County, California, but then an experience she had volunteering for Hillary Clinton's campaign in Nevada changed her life.
"The morning after the election, one of the first patients I saw was a little girl with a brain tumor," Tran told Salon in an email. "Her mother works at a nail salon, and she will lose her coverage if the ACA is repealed."
Tran lives in the 39th congressional district in California, which is represented by Republican Rep. Ed Royce, who wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
"I couldn't imagine that our district was being represented by someone who thought that a child with a brain tumor shouldn't have health care, and it reminds me that it's so important for everyone in this country to have coverage," Tran said. "We need people in Congress who understand the healthcare system, and who know what it's like day in and day out to provide care."
Another candidate endorsed by 314 Action is Joseph Kopser, a West Point trained Aerospace Engineer who later became a successful entrepreneur. He is running against Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, a staunch climate change denier — and, alas, the chairman of the House Science Committee — who has received nearly $700,000 in donations from the oil and gas industry since entering Congress in 1987.
"For Lamar Smith to be in denial of climate science puts our standing as a credible world leader at risk," Kopser told Salon in an email. "At home, we are seeing the effects of climate change in our district. A large portion of the economy in the Hill Country portion of our district is agriculture — particularly peach crop. This year, peach farmers took a huge hit on their yield. This past winter never got cold enough to kill off the pest population in the region, and when Spring came they fed on the planted peach crop. Congressman Smith's insistence on denying science is literally taking the food off the tables of his constituents."
Kopser added: "Furthermore, his attack on science here in the United States could hurt us long-term as a future generation of young scientists might not be as inspired as previous generations were as they watched lunar landings, space shuttle flights, and the wonders of computer technology come alive."
The races against Royce and Smith are not isolated phenomena. They are part of what Shaughnessy Naughton, Board President and founder of 314 Action as well as a chemist and former Congressional candidate herself, told Salon by email is "a war on science" that is being waged by President Donald Trump's administration.
"Unfortunately it has not been science but the discrediting of science that has taken a central role in shaping American political discourse," Naughton explained. "The reason we are endorsing these candidates and the reason I founded 314 Action is to bring those who understand the importance of evidence-based decision-making into positions where they can influence policy."
The point here is not that one should agree with scientists on every political issue. When it comes to policy matters that fall outside their purview, members of the scientific community should be met with the same critical skepticism as everyone else.
At the same time, when a doctor explains that the Affordable Care Act will make the difference between life or death for her patients, politicians and their constituents should listen. The same is true when an aerospace engineer warns that global warming is real. While there are a minority of scientists who will sell out the hard facts in order to curry favor with right-wing ideologues (looking at you Dr. Ben Carson or Dr. Roy Spencer), the vast majority are simply following the most basic precept of the scientific method: to analyze the world empirically and draw conclusions based on reason, not ideology.
Considering that lives are at stake when it comes to the issues of climate change and health care reform, as well as countless others, we should listen to them.