"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


I hope your new Science Advisor comes to the job armed with knowledge of the rich history of junk science and false predictions served up to government in the last forty years.

Denis Dutton

Dear Mr. President,

Many thanks for your invitation to apply for the position of Science Advisor to the President. Alas, there is some mistake, for I am a philosophy professor. At their best, scientists respond to problems with answers, and this can be useful to presidents. Philosophers have a cranky habit of responding to answers with more problems. You don't need that.

Taking into account all of the poor scientific policy advice that has been promulgated in Washington for the last forty years, you'll need luck in your search for the right person. The record shows that scientists are as much victims of fashion as other ordinary mortals. Recall a few examples of science in predictive mode:

• In the mid-1970, many climatologists warned of a coming Ice Age that would severely diminish agricultural productivity by year 2000.

• Frightened by dramatic allegations in the 1960s about the environmental effects of DDT, the U.S. banned the pesticide in 1972. In retrospect, the allegations of harm were so much hyperbole. In the meantime, millions of people, especially in Africa, have died of malaria, with Europe and the U.S. reluctant to support them in DDT mosquito eradication.

• Let's not forget the scientific predictions about oil and mineral resources. In the 1970s your predecessors in office were being told that there would be essentially no oil left by the 1990s. Gold would be $10,000 an ounce, of course.

• Overpopulation? When I was in the Peace Corps in India in the 1960s we all "knew," in line with expert scientific advice from the U.S. government, that the population explosion would cause massive, worldwide famine by the late 1980s.

This list could be expanded into periodic cancer scares, worries about the ozone hole, silicon breast implants, acid rain (another wildly exaggerated threat), air pollution, and so forth. It's odd when you think about it: though you and I might have enjoyed scary Frankenstein movies, when we were children, science and technology were seen as great forces for the benefit of mankind. Things shifted in the 1960s, and a spirit of pessimism began to invade science.

Today, it is much easier for scientists to receive grants if they indicate their research might uncover a serious threat or problem—economic, medical, ecological. Media fascination with bad news is partly to blame, along with the principled gloominess and nagging of organizations such as Greenpeace. But government itself has played its natural part. After all, as H.L. Mencken once remarked, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Since I'm sure you're keen to avoid such alarmism, you'll need an advisor who can see through the fashions of science, and understand something of their psychology. The epidemiologist who slightly overstates the conclusiveness of his study suggesting that french fries might cause cancer (in mice) or the young climatologist on the global-warming gravy train are not basically dishonest people. You too might more easily buy into some doomsday scenario, if it meant regular business-class flights to major resorts to compare computer climate models with other experts (models that you know in your heart could not possibly predict average atmospheric temperatures fifty years hence, but what hell, the food's great).

I hope your new Science Advisor comes to the job armed with knowledge of the rich history of junk science and false predictions served up to government in the last forty years. The point is not to be cynical about fads and careerism, but wisely to choose where best to support both pure science and science that can give us beneficial technologies.

Denis Dutton
Founder and Editor, Arts & Letters Daily
Department of Philosophy
University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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