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When Scientists Star in Political Theater

June 22, 2010

There’s some discussion on Praj’s Blog about what we should expect from Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winning Secretary of Energy, who at Obama’s bidding has swooped in to solve the Gulf Oil problem. I’m glad Praj posted this critique, because it raises a frustration I feel every time I hear someone reporting on this story. Does a Nobel Prize winning physicist possess any special ability to come up with a solution to this problem? I would say no.

Sending Chu down to the Gulf to roll up his sleeves and solve this thing is political theater, period. It’s no different from Obama going down there. Political theater is useful to the Obama administration, and it might even be helpful to the people down there in certain ways. But let’s not kid ourselves about the reasons for it.

The Obama Administration is taking advantage of the myth of the heroic individual scientist–of the idea that scientists are different kinds of people. (See this editorial by Bruce Alberts for an example of such silliness, and then be sure to read the rebuttal)

Some of the argument has focused on whether Chu would be better than other non-experts. Well, Chu is probably better equipped than, say, Toni Morrison (another Nobel winner) or Joe the Plumber, but that’s not really the point, is it? It’s not a question of “experts or non-experts?” It’s “which experts?”

I think that based on what we know about experts dealing with complex systems, Chu is unlikely to be very helpful, compared with other experts. Good solutions are likely to come from people who not only have vast knowledge of these complex technologies, but also have enough experience with them (i.e. decades) that they understand them intuitively.

Who knows, maybe Chu is a phenomenal team leader, or has some uncanny ability to get other people to think outside of the box or something. But none of that has anything to do with trapping atoms with lasers. It’s social skills and management. But you don’t hear anyone talking about that. It’s all about the Nobel Prize.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tregonsee permalink
    June 22, 2010 9:51 pm

    Actually, Joe the Plumber is probably the best qualified of the three when it comes to leaks. Not well qualified, but perhaps less unqualified.

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