j_doyne_farmer's picture
Professor of Mathematics, Oxford University; Director, Complexity Economics, Institute for New Economic Thinking, Oxford Martin School; Co-founder, Prediction Company
Pioneer of Chaos Theory

Dear Mr. President,

The most pressing issue facing the United States today is not doing better science, but rather using the science that we already have to make better public policy. Science, which originally came from the Latin word for "knowledge", is not just something that weird guys in lab coats do - it is a practical mode of thought, a nuts and bolts approach, a way of telling fact from fiction. According to my dictionary, "scientific" means "having an exact, objective, factual, systematic, or methodological basis". It means that when you don't understand something, you make careful observations or experiments, understand what works and what doesn't work, and choose the things that work. Unfortunately, all too often we are now making public policy based on belief and uninformed public opinion rather than science, even when science gives clear answers that directly contradict belief. This approach may make you popular in the short run, but in the long run it is doomed to failure.

I would also like to point out that science is patriotic. Good old American know-how is the foundation that has made this a great country. It is no coincidence that so many of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, had a lifelong passion for science. Science is the engine that has fueled our prosperity. The United States has by far the greatest scientific establishment in the world, the best that has ever existed. So why, at the peak of our scientific power, are we completely ignoring science when it comes to formulating public policy?

I began my career as a scientist studying what has now come to be called "chaos". What this means is that lots of things, like the weather, are inherently unpredictable. This has come up recently for global warming, which I'm sure you've heard a lot about. It's true that at this point we can't predict exactly what global warming is going to do to the earth. But there is something we can predict with complete certainty: Global warming is going to make some big changes, and those changes are highly unpredictable. The unpredictability of global warming is precisely why we need to do something to stop it now. One definition of conservative is "preferring gradual development to abrupt change". Conservatives feel particularly strongly about this when we don't have any idea what that abrupt change is going to be. Global warming is a situation where anyone who is paying any attention to what science is telling us ought to be a conservative.

Science isn't just about things, its also about people. During the last fifty years we've learned a lot about people and what makes them happy and productive. For example, we know that once they have their basic needs taken care of, making more money is not a big factor that contributes to making people happy. Scientists have measured that, and understand it a lot better than global warming. Dollar for dollar, investing money in nice parks, safe neighborhoods, getting rid of pollution, and instituting good social services has a much bigger effect on people's happiness than lowering their taxes.

There are many other areas where science tells us things about the world and we aren't paying attention. These include building an effective national defense, preventing huge forest fires, managing water in the west, education, prison reform, drug policy, or social security. In all these areas science tells us a lot about how to make things work better, but we just aren't making good use of what it's telling us.


Doyne Farmer
Pioneer of Chaos Theory
McKinsey Professor
Santa Fe Institute