Doctors are some of the most trusted people in our society. In virtually every public survey, physicians rank towards the top in terms of our perceptions of their good judgment. Last year, a Gallup poll showed that 70 percent of Americans rated doctors as very high or high in their ethical standards and honesty. These results compared to only 52 percent saying the same for clergy and 19 percent for lawyers.
Much of this public regard stems from the fact that doctors must master the sciences and use data in their decisions, demonstrate compassion, and understand the complexities of health care. It seems that they would be ideal representatives to lead us in policy and thought.
However, the directions that physicians have taken in elective office diverge substantially from the popular perceptions of the profession. Our present Congress includes 20 members with a medical degree — three in the Senate and 17 in the House. Their positions have varied from simply strange to downright scary. When looking at the MDs that roam the halls of power, one simply has to ask: What’s with all the crazy doctors?
Start with Representative Paul Broun, a family doctor from Georgia. He has renounced his earlier education and referred to evolution and the theory of the big bang as “lies straight from the pit of hell.” While Representative Dan Benishek, a general surgeon from Michigan, has dismissed the scientific consensus on climate change as “baloney,” Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, an orthopedic surgeon, simply wants to ignore these kinds of issues, as he has repeatedly fought environmental protections and research. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, an ophthalmologist, proposed cutting the budget for the National Institutes of Health by 37 percent and the National Science Foundation by 62 percent.
And don’t get them started on abortion. Despite having admitted to performing these procedures in the past, Senator Tom Coburn, a family doctor from Oklahoma, favors “the death penalty for abortionists.” Representative Phil Gingrey, an ob-gyn from Georgia, defended the notion that some forms of rape are more “legitimate” than others. To top it all off, Representative Michael Burgess of Texas, another obstetrician, argued as evidence for the sanctity of life that male fetuses masturbate in the womb.
These examples are not to say that other political representatives are flawless. The public spotlight unmasks every imperfection and it’s easy to criticize the smallest of gaffes, the slightest slips of the tongue. But these physicians, who bring decades of study and dozens of degrees to Congress, raise serious questions. Primarily, how do such educated professionals come to espouse such uneducated views? How do society’s exemplars of science and reason become outspoken proponents for ignorance and hypocrisy?
In a recent television segment, comedian Bill Maher asserted that these physicians represent a new strand of Republicanism: the “smart stupid” person. Since 16 of the 20 doctors in Congress are Republicans, his argument is tempting. Yet Democratic physicians have also supported some pretty head-scratching positions. Representative Jim McDermott of Washington, a psychiatrist, alleged that the Bush administration staged the capture of Saddam Hussein for political purposes. Representative Steve Kagen, a Wisconsin internist who lost reelection in 2010, railed against medical marijuana on the apparent belief that smoking is the only way to use the drug and his concern that marijuana might have mold on it.
Doctor-writer Kent Sepkowitz finds a different meaning in the irrationalities of physician politicians. In a 2010 article, he concluded that medical doctors face overwhelming government regulation on a daily basis and, as a result, often take up extreme positions. But if this argument were true, why do these physicians’ wild views cover so many topics, ranging from evolution to rape, military procedures to climate change?
A better conclusion from this bipartisan dogmatism seems to be that even the most rigorous education and the most developed expertise cannot replace ideology as a political motivation. Medical school can teach the virtues of scientific inquiry and evidence-based decision-making, but it cannot guarantee that its graduates will pursue these ends in the public sphere, and, despite this imbalance, the considerable trust that we place in these professionals suggests that we may listen more intently or agree more readily when they speak.
We should remain skeptical. An MD is a noteworthy accomplishment, but a politician’s ideas are far more important than his or her degrees.
Nathaniel P. Morris is a Harvard medical student.