We Need To Hear the Voice of Science

As we study the predicament we humans find ourselves facing these days, it is becoming clearer each year that one of the principal reasons we keep making mistakes in our handling of energy, shelter, and food and water is that we pay too much attention to economists and politicians and too little attention to scientists. It doesn’t make it any easier that there is always a scientist or two willing to sacrifice his or her objectivity to the siren song of grant funding and basically say whatever the politicians and economists want to hear, but by and large, scientists reached the following conclusions long before the culture did:

  • That we were allowing money to distort our judgment about the benefits of the industrial age, that we were in fact making ourselves less happy and less healthy even as we surrounded ourselves with more and more of the accoutrements of wealth.
  • That the use of pesticides was causing long-term damage to the ecosystem by killing animals and plants that were critical to human survival.
  • Ditto the use of herbicides.
  • Ditto the use of hydroflourocarbons.
  • That we were approaching the point at which our oil extraction rate would peak even as demand continued to increase, pushing prices higher and leaving us dangerously vulnerable by disrupting supplies.
  • That our burgeoning use of fossil fuels was flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, causing the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere to increase and triggering catastrophic climate change.
  • That the empty calories and fat that flow from the commodity crops like corn and soybeans that we subsidize are endangering our health, when the foods we need to be eating, like fresh fruits and vegetables, receive no funding support and sometimes meet with outright hostility by our government.
  • That our planet is dangerously overpopulated and getting more so each year.

scienc1We could go on, and so could you. On one issue after another, science has made it clear that our policy needs to change, and in fact the scientific community reached consensus. And the scientists were right. But the culture has not heard that consensus or heard it only when it was too late to address it in a meaningful way. Instead, the culture has heard the voices of politicians, economists, and others with financial interests in maintaining the doomed policy. Why has this happened? We think there are several reasons. First, economists, politicians and business executives are trained communicators. They understand the media, they learn to speak in punchy sentences that work well on television, they avoid big words, and they speak with conviction. They are professionals at the whole game of persuading people. With rare exception, scientists not only aren’t good communicators; they tend to be subtly hostile to those within their ranks who are.

Scientists (other than a few opportunistic individuals who sell out to the politicians, economists, and business executives) don’t make a lot of money. Like most academics, they tend to walk around with a chip on their shoulder about how poorly they are treated, and their resentment comes through in what seems to be arrogance. We have dear friends who are scientists. We know they’re not arrogant, but we understand why the culture sometimes perceives them to be.

It is the nature of the scientific method that research always leads to new uncertainties and implications for further research. This is good, because it makes us steadily smarter about the world around us. In the ungraceful boundary between science and politics, however, it makes scientific truth difficult to convey clearly. Ignorant or unscrupulous reporters and commentators, faced with scientific findings they resist, tend to focus on the uncertainties and ignore or downplay the findings. These same reporters and commentators, faced with findings they welcome or support, tend to focus on the findings and ignore the uncertainties. The net effect is that the voice of science gets filtered through a sieve of ignorance and malice and too often reaches the public only in a form that seems weak, disjointed, and confused.

Because scientists don’t make much money, they don’t have important friends who make sure they get well treated by politicians, business leaders, and the media. Even when they speak the truth clearly and articulately, we ignore them.

Again, because scientists don’t make much money, too many of them adapt their research to the areas where politicians, economists, and business leaders want them to focus, because that’s how they can get the grants that are the lifeblood of research. A scientist may want to research better ways to grow broccoli organically, but if the only grant money available is for studying the genetic modification of corn to survive Roundup, that’s a tough call to make: follow your heart and starve, or thrive and succeed by enabling more planetary destruction.

There is an expediency in the media that allows two differing opinions to substitute for the hard work of journalism. Consequently, too many reporters who are covering, say, peak oil, think they’re acting as journalists when they find a person on each side of the issue. Because there are always a few scientific sophists available who will say anything if the price is right, they can systematically quote each other and use the media to create the impression that scientists are divided on an issue when they really aren’t. Because it’s so rare for journalists actually to check what they say with the broader scientific community, the culture gets the impression that the issue is unclear, when it’s actually quite clear.

The scientific ignorance endemic to our culture allows flaky science to survive much longer than it should. A nation that understands science would have giggled and brushed aside President Bush’s and California Governor Schwarzenegger’s blathering on about thehydrogen economy, because it would have known enough physics to understand that it would never make sense to use the energy necessary to isolate hydrogen and then use that hydrogen to produce electricity. A nation controlled by politicians, economists, and business executives, however, embraces it with ignorant hopefulness. A nation that understands science wouldn’t waste one more dollar on corn-based ethanol. It would know that the ridiculously low rates of EROEI produced by corn-based ethanol would never solve our energy problem and would simply cause the premature exhaustion of precious topsoil. A nation controlled by politicians, economists, and business executives, however, sees the money and jumps at it. A nation that understands science would listen to the geologists who have been telling us for decades that the world’s supply of cheap oil was waning and that our lives were about to change, and that nation would have acted to reduce energy consumption dramatically. But a nation run by politicians, economists, and business executives focuses on the short term and keeps telling its citizens that the most patriotic thing they can do is to go shopping.

What Can We Do?

  • We can start by teaching our children in school to think critically, to understand how to read a table or graph, and to look behind the punchy sentence of a politician or business leader to listen for what he or she is not saying.
  • We can pay higher salaries to our scientists and other professors to free them up to do the research that is most scientifically compelling, not just the work that Exxon Mobil or Cargill wants done.
  • We can insist that our journalists do their job, judging them not on whether they have the right hairstyle or the just the right tilt of their eyebrow to infer concern but on whether they are willing to do the hard work of looking behind what they hear and telling us something that is true. And we can teach them to do it in school.
  • We can insist that scientists not be exempted from classes in college on how to communicate effectively. We need our biologists to know how to persuade, sometimes even more than we need politicians to.
  • We can elect more scientists and engineers to positions of political power. Consider this: as of 2005, the U.S. Congress contained 5 engineers, 218 lawyers and 12 physicians. Contrast that with China, where all nine members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee at the time were engineers. Yes, we’ve chosen the most dramatic statistic, and the actual dichotomy isn’t quite this stark. But it’s not out of line to say that, by and large, governments in India and China think like scientists and engineers, and the government in the U.S. thinks like a lawyer.
  • We can restrict the control that grant providers have over the research that gets done with the money they pay. If you want to grant money for research, good for you; thank you for your generosity. Now the college, or the community, or the scientists themselves will decide the research that most needs to be done with the money you provided. And we’ll give you a nice pretty plaque to hang in your office.