Economy, prosperity, security, productivity. Adaptability, flexibility. Integrity, credibility. Sensibility, rationality. Longevity, as a culture and as a species.
In order to secure these goals for posterity, the next president will have to employ science in almost every field of endeavor. Our leaders must understand how science works in order to make science work. Science is by far our most reliable method for understanding the world and enhancing our lives.
Our society was founded by innovative thinkers and philosophers, but it wouldn’t have survived this long were it not for science. Sanitation, medicine, architecture, engineering, transportation and agriculture would not exist in their present form, if at all, sans science. Many of us would already be dead without the fruits of science to keep us alive and functioning.
Scientific principles were applied to invent the plow, breed the plowhorses, construct their tack and harness, harvest the crop and get it to market. Your house, your clean water, your car, your health — all reflect the dominant influence of science. Science built the grand cathedrals, albeit funded by expensive indulgences and poor peasants.
Scientists were once widely admired. Today, science rarely enjoys the spotlight. To the contrary, it is often ridiculed by people who lack even a basic comprehension of the subject — many of them in Congress. A snowball on the Senate floor proves climate change is a vast, complex hoax. Bush II became notorious for his overtly anti-science stances, such as demanding the selective redaction of climate science data in government reports when the data contradicted the administration’s position on climate change.
Traditional media increasingly ignore science, as papers and newsmagazines phase out science sections. If newscasts mention science at all, it is commonly sensationalized, brief enough to engage people with the attention span of a kindergartener, and simplistic enough to accommodate the same level of educational achievement.
Debate moderators rarely mention science; when they do, questions tend to be overly broad, focusing on opinion rather than a command of real data: “Who here believes in climate change?” Though an appropriate follow-up query is never presented to global warming denialists, they shouldn’t be let off the hook: “Could you summarize your reasons for dismissing the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists that the climate is changing, and that humans are largely responsible?”
That’s not a “gotcha question;” any candidate who publicly derides climate change would long since have been obliged, at the very least, to investigate the topic thoroughly enough to offer specific reasons for his or her position.
Those denialists who can’t even do that much to justify their views might be compared to someone who aspires to guide national foreign policy, but who has to ask “what’s a ‘leppo’ ”?
The next U.S. president should recognize the critical role science plays in our society, profoundly influencing public and private life. The government must ensure policymakers have access to substantive advice on scientific issues if they’re to construct sound, forward-looking policy. Agency leaders, selected by the president and confirmed by the Senate, must be scientifically literate and well-informed on the combined necessity of both basic and applied sciences.
The president must advance policies that emphasize the role of science in sustaining American life and prosperity.
We can’t afford to take pride in ignorance, as though it were a badge of honor to dismiss science as the domain of eggheads and self-serving grant-seekers who don’t go to church as often as they should. Ignorance isn’t bliss.
There aren’t many scientists in Congress, and our president isn’t one. Is it unfair to ask them to comment on science issues, then? Well, they pontificate on economics though they aren’t economists. They address military policy and foreign affairs without being generals or career diplomats.
In 2017, cultivating an understanding of science issues is indispensible during the intensive preparation a newly elected president must seek or demand, among all those preliminary briefings and updates, before going anywhere near the nuclear button.
Shawn Otto has characterized our schizoid treatment of science topics, based on a few of our job descriptions.
Journalist: There are always two sides to every story. Bob says 2 + 2 = 4. “Not so fast,” says Mary, “2 + 2 is really 6!” The controversy rages!
Politicians: Let’s compromise. The new law states that 2 + 2 = 5.
Scientists: When two assertions are mutually exclusive, one is usually just wrong. Here are two apples, and over here are two more. Gather them together, and then count them. See? 2 + 2 = 4. Try it again? Same thing. Mary is wrong. Mary will have to get over it.
America is becoming scientifically illiterate; pseudoscience and anti-science promotions, especially on the internet, are becoming indistinguishable from reality in the American mind.
Some fear the power of science. Science gave us jet planes, but few would blame science for 9-11.
Once humans mastered fire, it was just a matter of time before some hapless heretic would be burned at the stake. That doesn’t mean we should all shiver in the dark.
Science is power. We can’t avoid it, or forego its use. Our challenge is to use it responsibly.
In future columns, we’ll explore critical science issues which the American government can’t sidestep. Failing to understand the nature and role of modern science, we’ll blunder from one preventable calamity to the next, clueless about what’s going on.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton
and lives outside Hays.