There is reason to hope that Dr. Ben Carson's meteoric rise to front-runner in the Republican field augurs greater diversity among American politicians. In the 114th Congress, 80 percent of all members are men, and 82 percent are white. African-Americans have one-third fewer members than would be demographically proportionate, and Hispanics well below half. But Dr. Carson also represents another form of diversity that profoundly impacts the way people think — professional background. The success of Dr. Carson, a retired world-class neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, should encourage others from scientific disciplines to go to Washington.
While there are 60 percent more men in Congress than in the general population — to the outrage of many — trained lawyers are overrepresented by about 6,021 percent: 213 members hold law degrees. About another 130 spent most of their careers in business or finance. By contrast, there are just eight engineers, two scientists, one economist and less than a dozen career military officers. The result is a massive skew toward the ways of thinking and problem solving taught in law and business schools.
Fixing this would not be a magic bullet for our dysfunction. Countries like Brazil, India and South Korea, with much greater professional diversity among politicians, still struggle with inaccessible legalese and partisan rancor. Yet their legislatures are not riven into two near-homogenous ideological poles, as ours is. They consider a wider range of perspectives than are acceptable in America. They rarely reduce science to a political football.
Of course, overrepresented professions still have much to offer. Law schools teach precise thinking and analytical reasoning — and careers in business can instill negotiating skill and judgment of risk. Yet the fundamental dynamic of the legal profession is adversarial, and attorneys are rewarded for using language for obfuscation rather than communication. Business leaders are accustomed to the dog-eat-dog dynamics of the private sector, but they face a political system that requires collaboration and compromise. This becomes a problem when Washington has too few elected officials with occupational backgrounds that can counterbalance those tendencies.
Scientists are trained in evidence-based reasoning and in thinking rigorously about uncertainty. Engineers must be able to see problems realistically, and focus on outcomes instead of procedure. Economists understand that political sloganeering must often bow to the laws of the market. Military officers gain a pragmatic sense of the costs and responsibilities of America's foreign policy. In the House of Representatives, in the Senate, and among those who seek the White House, we need more of those perspectives.
The private sector already appreciates the advantages of disciplinary diversity, with consulting firms and tech giants seeking out liberal arts majors, whose comfort with big-picture thinking helps clients find novel solutions in the face of ambiguity. A growing body of studies supports this approach, finding that multidisciplinary groups often learn and solve problems better than more homogenous ones. In Dr. Carson's field of medicine, for example, ensuring a mix of working styles and problem-solving philosophies helps bring all options onto the table and enables solutions that physicians alone would not be able to achieve.
Whether in legislatures or executive government, the core of policymaking is setting agendas and collaboratively making informed decisions. The legal profession instills reliance on adversarial process — wherein two sides present arguments to an impartial arbiter. On the other hand, scientists are taught to prioritize quantitative evidence, economists to study incentives and journalists to suppress personal bias. In government, these approaches can shape how politicians gather information, which experts they trust, and what solutions they favor. Diversity helps ensure that policies are based on the strongest evidence possible.
Unfortunately, the problem won't correct itself. Candidates from law and business have natural advantages in American politics — communication skills, wide social networks and familiarity with public life. By contrast, scientists and academics often lack the career flexibility to run for elected office and don't have the right professional contacts to get elected. Bringing a wider range of backgrounds to Washington will require voters to pressure both parties to draft them aggressively.
If employers like Harvard and Tesla routinely offered leaves of absence to employees pursuing elected office, science-minded innovators could spend time in government with less risk to their careers. Likewise, professional societies for underrepresented fields could make mitigate members' political disadvantages by providing nonpartisan training in public policy, communication, and campaigning.
At a time of unprecedented attention to racial, ethnic and gender diversity, we ought to give more attention to diversity of what's in people's brains — which, as Dr. Carson reminds us, are "the thing that makes them who they are."
John-Clark Levin, a recent graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is writing a book on technology and politics; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.