Monthly Archives: October 2015

Doctors, Lawyers, and Businessmen in Politics

I’m teaching my annual course on Research Methodology this semester, which probably sounds as dull as dirt to most people.  What I do with the course, however, is not simply teach students where to look things up, but rather how to think critically (as well as I understand such a subjective term).  This requires getting the students to unlearn a lot of what they learned about how to think and write.  Mostly, they’ve learned a very lawyerly approach to knowledge in which all facts are somewhat subjective, cherry-picked quotations from authoritative “experts” make for good evidence, and making a convincing argument is more important than how the argument was derived in the first place (admittedly, this blog does those things as well).  Most students leave college having learned this argument-in-search-of-evidence approach to thinking and learning, which is probably why some evidence suggests that higher education is not very good at teaching critical thinking.  Some of those students will go on to be future leaders.

I, like many people, do not have the impression that most of our current leaders and would-be leaders are particularly good at thinking critically about the issues of the day.  As it stands now, Donald Trump and Ben Carson lead the Republican field by a relatively large margin in polls, while Hillary Clinton holds a large lead over her only other viable competitor.  Donald Trump may be seen as a consummate outsider and Clinton as a consummate insider, but their backgrounds in law and business are shared by about half of Congress.  Carson, on the other hand, is one of a relatively small minority of doctors in Congress, who only make up approximately 5% of the combined House and Senate.  It is worth asking, however, what being a businessman, doctor, or lawyer really brings to the table intellectually when it comes to whether these are the best backgrounds for our leaders.

Let’s start with the businessman.  If you’re reading this blog, Donald Trump likely comes across to you as laughable, cringe-worthy, or somewhere in between.  However, many people who support Trump would cite his experience in running businesses as a reasonable qualification for running a country.  Aside from the question of whether Trump was actually a good businessman, would being one qualify someone to run the country.  Perhaps when it comes to interpersonal skills the answer might be yes. However, if the question is whether business leaders necessarily understand macro-economics, the answer is clearly no.  For a detailed explanation of why a company is not a country click here , but a lot of what it gets down to is that, as we witnessed in 2008, what might be in the individual self-interest of companies can turn out to be collectively disastrous. The problem, however, is not simply that Trump’s business experience would not necessarily translate into economic success. When he boasts that he will be “the greatest jobs President God has ever created,”, it’s not clear that Trump himself understands the limits of his background.

Which brings us to the doctor.  Ben Carson arguably overestimates his own qualifications more than Trump.  Since he was a neurosurgeon, many of his supporters undoubtedly think of him as a scientist as well.  However, his pronouncements on issues from the big bang to evolution have, to say the least, raised a few eyebrows among actual scientists.  The reason for this disconnect is that doctors are not, as a profession, scientists (although some do choose to pursue both routes) any more than construction workers are engineers.  The practices and treatments underlying medicine are developed by scientists, but doctors are applied practitioners, not researchers, and thus are often unfamiliar with both the mindset and methods that scientists employ (this is especially true of areas outside of the health sciences, but often times even within.  When I visited the neurosurgeon who once operated on my spinal cord, he told me he was afraid I would catch a cold because I had worn shorts to his office that day.  He wasn’t kidding).

The large majority of doctors who are in Congress are Republicans.  It is unlikely that very many of them understand how out of their element they are when discussing issues like climate change.  Like Carson, most are simply ignorant of their ignorance, and yet venerated by many of those who elect and pay them to understand complicated issues.

So, what about lawyers – the single largest professional background of our national leaders?  For reasons I started off discussing, I often suggest to my students that legal reasoning is pretty much the opposite of scientific reasoning.  Does that mean Clinton is also unqualified to lead?  Well, not necessarily.  First, she hasn’t been a lawyer in a long time, and has had lots of time, as an insider, to learn valuable lessons about policy.  Second, since lawyers don’t even claim to be scientists or economists, they are at least able to consider different claims and counterclaims with a more open-mind than someone who wrongly consider themselves experts on a subject.

Nevertheless, those with legal backgrounds in government almost certainly tend to base their judgments more on their political and personal biases than any deep understanding of the issues they consider – even when they end up on the right side of an issue.

If business leaders, doctors, and lawyers all have major shortcomings when it comes to handling the complex issues of the age, what professional backgrounds might be better off replacing some of their seats in government?

For starters, how about more actual scientists and economists?  Out of 535 members of Congress, there are currently two natural scientists with higher level degrees and one economist.  Let’s hope that the rest of Congress and the presidential candidates at least have a few actual experts cued up in their cell phones.  Or better yet, is there still time for Neil Degrasse Tyson to throw his hat in the ring?