"For GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, solving the nation’s biggest challenges is pretty simple — “it’s not rocket science,” as she likes to say."
I watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon in an elementary school classroom in Thailand. It's one of the moments that moved me to the field of public administration. I thought to myself, having lived in Thailand for two years by then and with the Vietnam war close enough that I could get the Armed Forces Network out of Saigon on my radio at night, "If humans can land on the moon, why can't we find ways to feed, house, and school all the people in the world, and provide them basic health care?"
As I pondered what I would do after Peace Corps, I came across public administration. It seemed to be a field of study that might address that question - it was a generalist field that borrowed knowledge from other disciplines and applied that knowledge to real human situations.
Public administration seemed broad enough to let me pursue answers to other questions that Thailand raised. Things like: is there a way to combine the best of the communal aspects of Thai society with the best of the individualistic parts of the US society?
And I was also curious about why the US free press that I grew up believing in was NOT reporting about the US planes that were flying over my house on their way to bomb Laos and North Vietnam. If I knew it was happening, then the many journalists in Thailand and Vietnam surely knew. The Laotians knew, the North Vietnamese knew, and no doubt the Chinese and Russians knew. But officially it wasn't happening and the American public was not reading about the bombing in their newspapers or seeing it on the nightly news. Why not?
I began to realize that getting people to the moon was relatively easy. The rocket science part - doing the calculations and building the machines - was basically modeling and crunching numbers. The hard part was getting people to do things, getting Congress to agree on funding and then coordinating folks scattered across the nation.
Getting people to agree on systems that equitably distribute resources among the peoples of the world is far more difficult. The political, social, economic, and cultural webs of humans are hard to weave but easy to rip apart.
So, from my perspective, if Fiorina thinks handling government problems isn't rocket science, she's right. But if she thinks, as this quote suggests, that it is easier than rocket science, she's dead wrong. It's way harder.
In physics, the laws of nature are stable. What happened ten years ago will happen again tomorrow. You can calculate the speed and direction of a rocket and of the moon so that you can land the one on the other.
In the social sciences, there are some observable principles, but the people we study in social science don't obey those laws as scrupulously as the moon obeys Newton's laws.
It's often difficult to test theories because you can't find two comparable cities (or states or nations) to use in experiments. But if we could, another problem arises. People are sentient and willful. When they know what scientists think they will do, they can change their behavior - for their own good, like cutting down smoking, or to prove their independence, like not cutting down smoking.
If government were as easy as Fiorina seems to think, millions of people wouldn't be in prison, wouldn't be homeless, wouldn't be addicted to drugs and alcohol, wouldn't be killing each other in our cities and in war zones. We would have adjusted our carbon use years ago and avoided the impacts of climate change we are experiencing already. Members of Congress (and leaders in other nations) would be heroes because they would have supported projects that resulted in prosperity, equity, and the successful pursuit of happiness for all people.
Note: I'd like to say I went into public administration because getting to the moon was the easy task and because figuring out how to get human beings to collectively solve collective problems was the much harder challenge. While that is partially true, it's also true that I don't really have much of an aptitude for physics (though both my kids have physics degrees) and I have much more of an aptitude for public administration.