That’s not really very many scientists

Oh, look. We’re supposed to be impressed with All the Candidates With Science Backgrounds Who Just Got Elected. I condensed down the list; there are 21 with “science backgrounds” out of the 435 in the US House of Representatives, and when you look closely, the list has been padded quite a bit, mainly because journalists (and the general public) don’t have a very good idea of what science is.

  1. Lauren Underwood (D) Nursing and public health
  2. Joe Cunningham (D) Ocean engineer & attorney
  3. Elaine Luria (D) Nuclear engineer
  4. Chrissy Houlahan (D) Engineering degree
  5. Jacky Rosen (D) Bachelor’s in Psychology
  6. Sean Casten (D) Molecular biology and biochemistry
  7. Kim Schrier (D) Pediatrician
  8. Ami Bera (D) Clinical medicine
  9. Jerry McNerny (D) Mathematics, engineering
  10. Tony Cardenas (D) Electrical engineering
  11. Ted Lieu (D) Computer science
  12. Raul Ruiz (D) Medicine, public health
  13. Dan Lipinski (D) Mechanical engineering
  14. Brad Schneider (D) Industrial engineering
  15. Bill Foster (D) Physics
  16. Steve Watkins (R) Army engineer
  17. Martin Heinrich (D) Mechanical engineering
  18. Jeffrey Van Drew (D) Dentistry
  19. Paul Tonko (D) Mechanical engineering
  20. Chris Collins (R) Mechanical engineering
  21. Kevin Hern (R) Engineering

Not to disrespect them at all, but engineering and medicine are not science. It’s also hard to argue any more that any Republican is actually pro-science, given that the party is a deranged mob of science denialists right now.

So I’d actually say only four (in blue) actually have science backgrounds — the others have backgrounds more in applied science (Again, that’s not a bad thing at all). Foster and Casten in particular have advanced degrees in physics and biology, respectively, and have definitely earned the acknowledgment.

The others, though, are also important, because they’ll at least contribute to a more favorable attitude towards science in congress. But I don’t think it does them any favors to inflate their credentials or misrepresent them. Nursing and medicine and engineering and dentistry are all demanding and credible disciplines without pretending they’re something they’re not.


  1. Snarki, child of Loki says

    If they’re actually well trained, skilled, and experienced in science, I think you can make a strong case that they do better service to humanity by doing science, but I guess in these times everyone has to pitch in to hold back the tide of Stupid.

  2. ridana says

    Yeah, counting physicians and other medical specialties doesn’t exactly fill me with optimism on the science front. Before this election we already had 16 doctors in Congress, all of them men and 14 Republicans. Remember, Rand Paul is supposedly an ophthalmologist, if a self-certified one.

  3. says

    Well, some M.D.s are actual scientists. I don’t know about any of these specifically, most just practice medicine. However, they do need to learn a lot of science in order to do so.

  4. tmartin says

    I’d argue that applied science is better … because they’re stuff actually has to work and is thus must be consistent with reality and the way the world actually behaves (unlike theoretical scientists … I’m looking at you string theorists).

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    engineering and medicine are not science.

    I object, personally. Both are methods of using science, neither exists without science. Anyone in those two fields ignorant of science are “frauds”. I can only agree with a modified rephrasing of it into “Engineers and Medicine are not Scientists”, basically “mechanics” using science to achieve their ends.
    thank you for letting me get defensive. I understand and agree with the point PZ was making. Only objecting to the phrasing he used. thank you.

  6. cvoinescu says

    I am reluctant to count Computer Science as science. Sure, it has science in the name, but so does Library Science. And it involves mathematics, but so does engineering. The average CS graduate ends up doing software development anyway — and software development, while cool, is an unscientific mess. (Any attempts at order have created methodologies, which are more religion than science.)

    I don’t deny that a small number of Computer Science graduates do scientific research in the field. I’m just saying that the qualification alone does not make one a scientist, or even give one a “science background”.

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    html failure: bolding was supposed to end with tists, the rest was to be plain text. oops

  8. nifty says

    Schrier’s undergraduate degree was in astrophysics, which is certainly not the most common premed degree.

  9. Gnu Atheist says

    As an MD, I’ve always thought of myself as a scientist. But, I realize that the classical definition of a scientist includes someone conducting research using scientific method and publishing peer-reviewed papers, etc. I am not one of those. Most physicians are going to have at least bachelor’s level training in a scientific discipline, like biology or chemistry. I would hope that such training would affect the way they think about the world and things like evidence and pseudoscience. That’s likely an overly optimistic viewpoint.

  10. bobphillips says

    Until recently, (many, most?) medical schools didn’t require an evolutionary biology course. This–coupled with the fact that physicians are more likely to be religious and have the associated biases–has been responsible for our present problem with antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of over- and unappropriate-prescribing. Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson are easy examples of physicians with religious biases and profound lack of understanding of science who were put on a pedistal by the public and the media because of their (mostly irrelevant) medical credentials.

  11. euclide says

    Jerry McNerney has a PHD in Mathematics and worked at Sandia National Laboratories
    Ted Lieu has a BS in computer science

    You can argue that mathematics is not science, but then computer science certainly isn’t

  12. Ed Seedhouse says

    Well, I was certainly hoping that the team that turned me off, cut open my chest, disconnected my heart and stopped my breathing, pulled out that heart and gave it a new Aortic valve and four bypasses, restarted said heart, made me breath on my own again and sewed me back up were sort of basing their act on an understanding of science at least. Turned out that they knew enough so that I not only survived but feel a whole lot better since.

    Now I’m hoping that the people who took a cow valve and shaped it into an apparently successful replacement for mine also knew their stuff, which I imagine is at least somewhat based on some kind of scientific understanding.

  13. Wharrrrrrgarbl says

    I am a physician; my wife is a translational scientist. The stuff we read to stay informed has some overlap, but what we actually do at work, and the kind of thinking involved, really doesn’t.

    For a bit more detail, she spends her day thinking of new ideas and new ways to test them. When I see patients who require novel thinking for their cases, I get worried – it’s much better to treat people with established, evidence-based treatments. Understanding that requires understanding some science, and there’s an unfortunately number of providers who get by on the asserted conclusions in the abstracts of papers without much in the way of evaluating the scientific claims (e.g. the many examples catalogued at of methodolatry).

    This is kind of a long winded way to say that, despite CME requirements, it’s definitely possible to keep your license without ever really engaging with scientific thinking.

  14. archangelospumoni says

    Dr Kim Schrier’s opponent just conceded and she is the first D ever elected from that district.
    B.A., Astrophysics, Cal, Berkeley 1991.
    M.D. Cal, Davis 1997.
    Completed residency at Stanford University School of Medicine 2000.

    I’m good with the science part.

  15. stumble says

    Doctors are tricky. My family is loaded with MD’s and while most are primarily practitioners most of them have substantial research credentials and have published more than one peer reviewed studies. So while I tend to think that the practice of medicine is much more like a mechanic than a scientist, the same degree can easily be applied to pure research depending on how your career ends up… Just my anecdotal evidence…

    Uncle – Practicing Eye surgeon primarily, also pioneered cryogenic research in surgery
    Uncle 2 – Practicing Internist (Hyperbaric Dr.), did a lot of fundamental research into SCUBA related hyperbaric, as well as burn treatments using hyperbaric. He got his start as a NAVY diving Dr. on a submarine
    Cousin – Practicing pediatrician, no real research to my knowledge
    Mom – Practicing GP, also wrote one of the largest longitudinal studies on symptomology of child sexual abuse

    Good friend – Research nero-biologist (holds a MD, and a PHDin neurobiology). has never seen a patient outside of a research project to my knowledge.

  16. umvue says

    Many who work in medicine also work in clinical trials and similar which is pretty darned science-y.

  17. Sean Boyd says


    OT, but that district was drawn up specifically to give the incumbent an easier time of things after he squeaked by in a few elections. It’s not too far from where I live…I’m shocked that district would vote blue. Compared to the real-estate jackass she was running against, though, that MD and astrophysics undergrad look just fine to me, scientist or no.

  18. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    Hm? Of course there are tons of scientists who are physicians. I work for two of them. Hell, I am one myself. Lots of physicians work in wet labs, do clinical studies, publish in scientific journals…
    The question here is whether these folks have worked as scientists or purely as clinicians. But to say that medicine is only applied science, that’s just… bizarre to me.

  19. says

    I don’t get it. Is working in applied science not a science background? It doesn’t say “scientists”.

    Applied science folks don’t do the work of producing data, but we do do the work of interpreting and using it. Isn’t that a science thing, indeed the very sort of science thing you want to see in lawmakers?

  20. Sean Boyd says

    @20 Saganite, a haunter of demons,

    I’ve encountered physicians who have published: both my dad’s oncologist and his nephrologist, for instance. So I’m familiar with the notion of a physician having feet in each world. I’m curious whether that is a phenomenon seen more in certain specialties than in others. If this is a garbage question, feel free to let me know…it’s just something I know very little about.

    Even knowing the two aspects of the profession can co-exist, I still can’t imagine Rand Paul conducting research of any kind, given his demonstrated ability to ignore and/or misinterpret reality.

  21. JustaTech says

    Is public health not science? Or is it too broad (there’s the microbiology lab end and the sociology end) to be considered “science”? There’s a lot of statistics and hypothesis generation and hypothesis testing, which all feels like science. But there’s also policy writing and non-profit organization, so that’s not science.

    Now I’ve confused myself. Is “data-driven” enough to be science.

  22. isochron says

    Computer science is not science. It is engineering. Engineering is great, it gives us shiny toys of all kinds but it is not science.

  23. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    @22 Sean Boyd
    To be fair, I can’t necessarily speak to the situation in the US specifically, but in Germany at least – while specialty may matter – there are scientists in all manner of fields. There’s even a specialty for general practitioners now and they have scientific journals that deal, among other things, with a lot of interesting epidemiological studies or clinical trials in the outpatient setting – where the number of potential participants is far greater and epidemiological data can be generated on a large scale.
    However, some specialties certainly are more easily compatible with science and some are even more easily compatible with basic science (such as diagnostic specialties, like pathology, clinical chemistry, medical microbiology and virology and so on, where most medical work already takes place in a laboratory, anyway).
    But that’s not to say that more clinically oriented specialties don’t do science, it just tends towards clinical trials and epidemiology or “bench to bedside”/”bedside to bench” approaches (where you either develop a hypothesis you came up with in the lab for clinical trials or take findings from clinical practice and bring them into the lab for animal or cell culture trials and the like, respectively).
    Honestly, I’d say it mostly depends on the setting, around here at least: A cardiologist at a university hospital, for example, is almost guaranteed to have a research project on the side (or even get an exemption from patient-care for a given period of time to focus solely on the experiments), while a cardiologist in outpatient care either wouldn’t or would participate in studies only in a secondary manner, mostly focusing on the day-to-day diagnostic and therapeutic handling of patients.

  24. stumble says

    @22 I suspect that there is a pretty heavy tilt from specialty to speciality in terms of how much research you could expect, but I am not sure which speciality you would expect the most research in. My guess, and it is just that, is that the more specialized the doctor the more likely they are to specialize. My Uncle is a board certified internists, but he is sub-specialized in Hyperbaric Medicine, he is then hyper-specialized in decompression sickness. All of his published research was in decompression related issues, as you might expect. But his partner who is a also a hyperbaric specialist and has no subspecialty, also has no published work.

  25. JustaTech says

    isochron @24: Computer science can also be mathematics (albeit applied mathematics). One of my college roommates was a computer scientist of the mathematical persuasion. She couldn’t fix anyone’s computer, she didn’t care about the operating system, but she could build some amazing algorithms. (And is still doing it now.)

  26. says

    For reporters, the shorthand is probably that if you have a Bachelor’s of Science, you’re a scientist. It puts you on a different side of the academic field. Seeing how many politicians have a BA in something like English or Philosophy and then go on to get law degrees, if you got a BS you took a good number of science courses and you were EXPOSED to scientific thinking in a way that a lot of your colleagues from a legal background may never have been (at least not after high school).

    I do agree that engineering isn’t “science” in the same way physics is. The way I think of it is that engineers only care about HOW things work so they can build stuff. Scientists care about WHY things work so they can explain stuff.

    I would actually throw Jerry McNerby into the scientist camp since he has a degree in Mathematics. There’s a point where mathematics gets out of the realm of practicality and starts becoming very, very theoretical. Since it overlaps m-universe physics and other esoteric sciences, it feels more like a science than just a practical endeavor.

  27. jack16 says

    Suggestion. . . Send a copy of “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe” to each of your representatives and senators.

  28. Matrim says

    Medicine absolutely can be a science and doctors/nurses absolutely can be scientists. Granted not all, or even most, necessarily are, but there are medical practitioners who do medical research.

    Engineering, though. That’s practical application of science and math, but it isn’t science in and of itself.

  29. nomdeplume says

    The point of such a list is to see how many politicians have the ability to think in a scientific way – assess evidence, develop hypotheses, test them, modify them and so on. This way of thinking is the opposite of politicians who, like the religious, almost always work from ideology and fit the facts to it. Applied scientists, medicos, engineers and so on, are somewhere in between – applying formulae or processes they have learned by heart to produce a result. That isn’t much different to the politicians in fact. Think Ben Carson – presumably a skilled surgeon, but useless as a human being working with other human beings to try to deal with complex issues like housing. Also think about climate change denial, which can come from people like engineers claiming to be scientists. We need a lot more scientific thinkers in politics, not more technicians.

  30. says

    TIL engineering and other applied science fields are devoid of all creative and critical thinking and are performed entirely by rote.

    Thanks, #35! I can relax at my job now that I know no intellect is needed.

  31. jack16 says

    Speculate, test, verify that your speculation matches the real world. You are a scientist!

  32. nomdeplume says

    @36 not what I meant! But while engineers and medicos do research into the best ways to do engineering and medicine, they don’t do research into fundamental physics or biology. Wasn’t trying to be insulting, just to rease out what I think is an important difference in relation to politician’s qualifications. To give another example, one of our (Australian) politicians is a virulent climate change denier who claims scientific expertise when in fact his qualifications and experience are in ceramic engineering (think that’s the term, ceramics anyway) which of course give him no expertise in climate science in particular, nor expertise in evaluating fundamental science.

  33. wzrd1 says

    @23, public health degree holders move into either research or deal with public health, typically at various levels of government. Some do both, alternating between the two.
    And they use the darkest of the dark arts, statistics to guide policies and halt epidemics. Something I’ve been right in the middle of and assisting with and the data gathering, then vaccination campaigns.

    @all, engineering can be applied engineering, there is some research, such as materials sciences and assorted other areas with advanced scientific research. Most tend to be civil engineers, builders and maintainers of great things.
    Army engineer is a subject of great mirth to me, as I was assigned to a combat engineer battalion for quite a few years and the closest thing to engineering mathematics I ever saw them do was calculate the amount of explosives to use to cut steel – and get it wrong more often than not. Still, we did have a few structural engineers present in the unit, but an army engineer can be anything from someone with a shovel up to an advanced civil engineer. Hence, I take that “qualification” with a grain of salt the size of Gibraltar.

  34. Rob Grigjanis says

    nomdelume @35: That all seems rather naive and arbitrary. Some scientists can spend their careers doing things by rote, and some engineers have to be very creative in their applications of principles.

    @38: Your Australian politician is simply an idiot who can’t (or won’t admit) the limits of their expertise. And that’s a far too common trait among scientists (and engineers, for that matter).

  35. bobphillips says

    I think an issue here is how we define “science” and “scientist”. Having an MD or PhD in a science subject does not automatically mean one is a scientist or necessarily thinks like a scientist. For example, I do not respect as a scientist anyone who has credentials in any biology-related field (zoology, botany, genetics, medicine, paleontology, etc.) if they do not know that evolution is a fact and is at the core of biological science. Likewise if they have young-earth, global flood, or god-based creation beliefs. One can develop new surgical techniques or therapy protocols and publish them in peer-reviewed journals (such as JAMA) and still be within the subset of “practitioner”. Engineers and physicians outside of research settings are practitioners. And, this isn’t to say that the work and intelligence required to be an excellent practitioner isn’t equivalent and of the highest order–it is. It is also true that one can understand and do good science without credentials.

  36. says

    The fact is that what we actually want here is the ability to think critically and scientifically.

    Being a scientist is not a guarantee of this: there exist that 1-3% of scientists who deny climate change after all. I have no issue with the idea that those who are trained as and worked as scientists are the likeliest demographic to possess this ability.

    I do have issue with those who espouse the idea that those who work with applied science necessarily don’t have this ability, which includes nomdeplume and PZ and everyone else who is splitting snobbish hairs about what ‘scientific background’ means. I assert, and I don’t think it’s controversial, that this skill is likelier to be present among applied science people than among the population at large. Is it less likely than among Real Scientists(tm)? Probably. But still better, statistically, than just about anyone else.

    And that’s what everyone is skipping the hell over. These are STATISTICAL LIKELIHOODS for a particular desirable trait based on job history! They actually tell us nothing about what each individual person can or can’t do, and this is not really about statistics, it’s about the 21 individuals listed above and what they can and will do in their legislative roles. You have only to look at the commentariat here to see plenty of examples of individuals in all sorts of jobs who consider critical and scientific thinking extremely important and regularly engage in it. You have only to look at Ben Carson or Jordan Peterson or any bucket of cranks you like to see people with science-oriented training of one kind or another who jammed critical thinking down the garbage disposal long ago.

    All this chatter about whether people in this job or that job are CAPABLE of critical/scientific thinking cannot affect the facts at hand and can only serve to be insulting (or occasionally unnecessary aggrandizing) to someone.

  37. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I recall seeing somewhere that most STEM graduates after five years of receiving a degree, only 25% were still doing “work”in that field. Most had moved on to middle management (ie, project management, where engineering training helps) or gone elsewhere. I think those who go on to advanced degrees, like PhD or MD, tend to stay nearer to the field than those obtaining only a BS. Once working, people gravitate toward what interests them and where they can make a living.

  38. Ed Seedhouse says

    @31: “Computer science can also be mathematics”

    We have computers because of science and mathematics. Turing was a mathematician and a damn good one. The transistor, basis of all modern computing, came out of quantum theory.

    Sure, engineers are not scientists, but they apply science and this application has changed our world. Engineering I would definitely call a “science based” occupation (occupations actually).

    It’s good to have people who work in fact based occupations in power – I don’t much care if they are engineers or scientists. Being either doesn’t guarantee that your politics will be fact based, but it seems to me electing such people is a good start. Nice to see more of them in your congress, but of course there are still not enough of them.

  39. sarah00 says

    Critical thinking and curiosity are far more important skills than the field in which they’re applied. Having specific scientific knowledge would be very useful if you’re on, say, the science and technology committee, but even then I wouldn’t say they’re a prerequisite. I think scientists really need to move away from the idea that they’re the only ones who can think critically and apply the scientific method (especially when it’s clear that not all of them can anyway).

    For many of the most important issues facing us the science is the easy bit – look at climate change as an example. The science is sorted: we’re pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere too quickly and it’s screwing the climate. The difficulty arises with how we fix that, and that requires an understanding of economics, sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology, and all those other subjects that are often derided by scientists as being “soft science”. In my own field of fisheries, it’s clear we’re overfishing and need to reduce the amount of fish we catch. More research isn’t going to change that fact, but how we actually go about reducing the amount of fish caught is really difficult and far outside my scientific expertise. Again, it requires an understanding of economics on global, national and local scales, an understanding of the cultural drivers of overfishing, and the provision of practical alternatives in terms of both employment and nutrition. None of which require a degree in science, but all require an ability to critically interpret and synthesise information and come up with conclusions (tools which any degree should be providing).

    Curiosity is equally important because there’s no point having those skills if you’re not curious enough about a subject to want to apply them. In the UK we’ve had the Northern Ireland secretary admit she knew nothing about the politics of Northern Ireland and just the other day we had the Brexit secretary Dominic Raab finally realise that the UK is an island that is quite close to France. How these people attained adulthood, let along high political office, without knowing such basic facts is quite beyond me.

  40. nematoady says

    When we were fighting the know-nothings on the State School Board trying to eliminate evolution (and plate tectonics and the age of the earth and the speed of light being constant) from the science standards down here in Brownbackistan, it became almost a joke that whenever an editorial claimed that “Evolution is a hoax…and I know, because I’m a scientist,” it was inevitably written by an engineer or physician or a veterinarian (e.g. the head of the school board). The big difference to my mind is that engineers and practitioners such as surgeons deal with black-and-white results: a bridge stands up or it collapses; the patient survives or dies. Many scientists, especially those dealing with evolution or quantum mechanics, are specifically trained to be a lot more comfortable with grey areas and uncertainty in their experimental results. Both engineering and scientific careers are valuable. I’m not sure which would be better in Congress…engineers who are comfortable with scientific uncertainty, accept the provisional findings that the climate is in a boatload of trouble, and who want to make certain that humanity will unequivocally fix it might be the most effective politically.

  41. chrislawson says

    “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”
    — Edsger Dijkstra

    Please let’s not keep insisting that people in fields we don’t follow are not really scientists. Including engineering and computer science. Just take a look at the most downloaded papers from the International Journal of Engineering Science or Computer Science Review and tell me they doesn’t stack up as worthy scientific investigations.

    The problem is, as PZ says, that just having a degree in medicine, engineering, nursing, or psychology does not make someone a scientist. On the other hand, it doesn’t exclude a person from being a scientist either.

  42. archangelospumoni says

    Because of the House’s flip: House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

    Out: Lamar Shithead Smith, R-Shitheadistan, aka Tejas
    In: Doesn’t Matter, D-Human Race

    A massive bonus. Besides being a shithead and a denialist, Smith abused his chair position with respect to climate scientists.

  43. bryanfeir says

    That’s the famous Salem Hypothesis:

    In any Evolution vs. Creation debate, A person who claims scientific credentials and sides with Creation will most likely have an Engineering degree.

    It’s been around for many years, and has been discussed here previously. (And it seems to no longer have a page on Wikipedia. Hmm.)

    (Also, love the name. I grew up in an area which was an agricultural quarantine zone because of nematodes. And has been a quarantine zone for over fifty years because we couldn’t get rid of the things.)

  44. methuseus says

    I know this is old, but Ted Lieu has a double-bachelor’s from Stanford, with a BS in CS and BA in Political Science. He has never held any position actually using his CS degree, so I would say his “scientist” affiliation is unwarranted.