You ask whether, given a choice, I would put more resources into space or AI. My answer is that either choice would be stupid. Politicians always want to make such choices too soon, because they imagine they can pick winners. Usually they pick losers. The only way to improve the chances for finding winners is to keep all the choices open and try them all. That is particularly true for space and AI, which are not really competing with each other. They are done by different kinds of people in different kinds of enterprise. Both can and should be supported. It would be totally stupid to starve one and over-feed the other.
In science, one rarely sees all the data point toward one precise conclusion. Real data is noisy—even if the theory is perfect, the strength of the signal will vary. And under Bayes’s theorem, no theory is perfect. Rather, it is a work in progress, always subject to further refinement and testing. This is what scientific skepticism is all about.
In politics, one is expected to give no quarter to his opponents. It is seen as a gaffe when one says something inconvenient—and true.113 Partisans are expected to show equal conviction about a set of beliefs on a range of economic, social, and foreign policy issues that have little intrinsic relation to one another. As far as approximations of the world go, the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties are about as crude as it gets.
It is precisely because the debate may continue for decades that climate scientists might do better to withdraw from the street fight and avoid crossing the Rubicon from science into politics. In science, dubious forecasts are more likely to be exposed—and the truth is more likely to prevail. In politics, a domain in which the truth enjoys no privileged status, it’s anybody’s guess.
The dysfunctional state of the American political system is the best reason to be pessimistic about our country’s future. Our scientific and technological prowess is the best reason to be optimistic. We are an inventive people. The United States produces ridiculous numbers of patents,114 has many of the world’s best universities and research institutions, and our companies lead the market in fields ranging from pharmaceuticals to information technology. If I had a choice between a tournament of ideas and a political cage match, I know which fight I’d rather be engaging in—especially if I thought I had the right forecast.
Suppression of knowledge weakened Russia in the Lysenko affair. which a political ideologue and former peasant named Trofim Lysenko ingratiated himself to communist leaders and was placed in charge of national agriculture because of his ideological conformity. He denounced and suppressed scientists who questioned his odd schemes as "fly lovers and people haters"^^ (because geneticists were doing fruit fly research-h—I kid you not!) and his uneducated methods decimated Soviet agriculture. Soviet scientists who opposed him were persecuted, jailed, and shot. Similar to modern Republican characterizations of climate science as 'junk science" by an "environmental priesthood," Soviet geneticists physicists, and chemists were characterized as "caste priests of ivory-tower bourgeois pseudoscience."^* Soviet agriculture, biology, and genetics were held back for forty years, weakening the Soviet Union and helping lead to its eventual downfall.
Suppression of knowledge similarly weakened China during Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward. Mao prided himself on his peasant roots and considered intellectuals arrogant, dangerous antirevolutionaries. similar to the modern characterization of them by Rush Limbaugh. h. Similar to Eisenhower, Mao was concerned that scientists could take o over as a "technical elite," so he demanded that ideology take precedence o over science, effectively silencing scientists. In 1957 he set forth a plan to transform China into a modern industrialized society. It would overtake Britain in fifteen years while simultaneously feeding its own people and exporting grain to other nations. Mao had no knowledge of metallurgy. but based on a single demonstration he mobilized millions of peasants to smelt steel in "backyard furnaces." They burned trees, doors, and furniture as fuel and melted scrap metal like their pots and pans. At the same time, peasants were given outrageously optimistic grain production quotas based on Lysenko's assumptions. Because ideology and appearance of success mattered more than the facts of their meager harvest, the peasants gave more grain to the state than they could spare. Meanwhile, millions of other peasants were diverted off the farms into large-scale public works projects needed to industrialize the country, and grain crops were left to rot in the fields. Scientists and others who suggested that Mao's plans were unrealistic were "struggled against," sentenced to hard labor, and often executed.^"^ The furnaces failed, the steel was unusable, and forty million Chinese people died in the greatest famine in human history.
. Historically, the brightest minds have migrated to open societies. and once there have made discoveries and created works that enriched and advanced those societies. A classic example is the intellectual flight from fascist Europe in the years leading up to World War 11. Persecution, particularly of Jews and homosexuals, spurred emigration that turned America into an intellectual mecca. America offered scientists and artists freedom, tolerance, egalitarianism, opportunity, and support for their work, and it had the military strength to protect those ideals. In return, the new immigrants gave America breakthroughs in chemistry, iology, and physics and an expanded Hollywood liberal narrative culture, America's chief cultural export.
But scientific leadership proceeds from not only openness but also the degree of opportunity available to citizens. By making education free and accessible to all, by stimulating cross-pollination and creativity with diversity of views and support for research and the arts, and by leveling the economic playing field to provide equal opportunity and freedom of inquiry, democratic societies have broadcast the intellectual fertilizer that helps talent develop wherever it may be.
Combined, these two factors have had a powerful effect: Even more than empowering individuals, they empower ideas. It is this mix of freedom, tolerance, creativity, talent, and diversity in science, in art, and in the social and intellectual interplay between art and science that has historically spawned the great breakthrough cultures that produce bumper crops of new ideas and fresh insights.
In the wake of the Bush presidency, the already-clear rift between the two dominant perspectives on the right—the small-government libertarians/anarchists and the theocratic fundamentalists—began to grow even wider. Far more than the conservative or liberal philosophy, it is who wins the argument between authoritarians, who value top-down control and conformity, and antiauthoritarians, who value bottom-up freedom and tolerance, that will drive the success or failure of the United States on the major issues of the twenty-first century. This argument has little to do with current party politics, and everything to do with science.
Like it or not, the world is now fully dependent on science. Without it, we could not sustain our population or our environment. Science is driving the entire conversation, and the country needs a political framework that will allow it to adapt to these challenges successfully. This requires making some adjustments in our understanding of the role and purpose of nations and legal and regulatory systems. Thus, the independent lover of science and the future will tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal, seeking a live-and-let-live ethos in the name of freedom and natural law using government regulation to optimize freedom and level playing fields; the neoconservative fundamentalist will tend to be fiscally liberal and socially conservative, seeking big-government control of personal behavior in the name of morality and security while opposing regulation that increases freedom or levels playing fields.
When speaking about science to scientists, there is one thing that can be said that will almost always raise their indignation, and that is that science is inherently political and that the practice of science is a political act. Science, they will respond, has nothing to do with politics. But is that true?
Let's consider the relationship between knowledge and power. "Knowledge and power go hand in hand," said Francis Bacon, "so that the way to increase in power is to increase in knowledge."'
At its core, science is a reliable method for creating knowledge, and thus power. Because science pushes the boundaries of knowledge, it pushes us to constantly refine our ethics and morality, and that is always political. But beyond that, science constantly disrupts hierarchical power structures and vested interests in a long drive to give knowledge, and thus power, to the individual, and that process is also political.
The politics of science is nothing new. Galileo, for example, commit¬ ted a political act in 1610 when he simply wrote about his observations through a telescope. Jupiter had moons and Venus had phases, he wrote. which proved that Copernicus had been right in 1543: Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around, as contemporary opinion— and the Roman Catholic Church—held. These were simple observations, there for anyone who wanted to look through Galileo's telescope to see.
But the simple statement of an observable fact is a political act that either supports or challenges the current power structure. Every time a scientist makes a factual assertion—Earth goes around the sun, there is such a thing as evolution, humans are causing climate change—it either supports or challenges somebody's vested interests.
In such remnants of thinking from the Middle Ages, economics was a zero-sum game: "Without a common power to keep them all in awe," men in Hobbes's time fell into war. There was finite wealth and opportunity, and to get ahead one had to take some away from another. In its capacity to create knowledge, science had the tools to break that zerosum economic model and generate wealth, health, freedom, nobility, and power beyond Hobbes's wildest dreams. It has given us tremendous insights into our place in the cosmos, into the inner workings of our own bodies, and into our capacity as human beings to exercise our highest aspirations of love, hope, creativity, discovery, compassion, courage, wonder, and charity.
Each step forward has come at the price of a political battle. As we continue to refine our knowledge of the way nature really is, indepen¬ dent of our beliefs, perceptions, and wishes for it, we must also refine our ethics and morality and assume more responsibility as humans. Inevitably this is uncomfortable, because the process compels us to give up, alter, or somehow intellectually sequester many comforting notions, notions that are often profoundly powerful because they are our most deeply rooted and awestruck explanations about the wonders of creation, the specialness of our identities, our history, and the possibility that our spirits may somehow live on after death.
After President Bush's 2004 reelection, scientists noticed that the problem was becoming even worse. One example was Bush's appointment of George Deutsch, a twenty-four-year-old Texas A&M University dropout and Bush campaign intern, to a key position in NASA's public relations department. Deutsch set to work muzzling NASA's top climate scientist. James Hansen, once refusing to allow Hansen to interview with National Public Radio because it was "the most liberal" media outlet in the country^^ and telling a Web site contractor that the word "theory" had to be inserted after every mention of the Big Bang on NASA Web site presentations being prepared for middle school students. The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Deutsch told the contractor. "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator. This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA." Deutsch later resigned after it was revealed that he had fabricated his own academic credentials.
Other Bush public relations appointees were muzzling scientists at other agencies, or altering scientific information in official agency reports to fit a preconceived ideological agenda,^* angering and dismaying many in the American science enterprise who saw these tactics as antithetical to what America stands for.
The problem became so widespread and so broadly reported that in early 2007, the House Oversight committee held hearings investigating the alleged distortions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to discontinue a project called Programs That Work, which identified sex education programs found to be effective in scientific studies, none of which were abstinence-based. On the National Cancer Institute's Web site, breast cancer was falsely linked to abortion. The so-called morning-after pill (Plan B), an emergency contraceptive that prevents ovulation after unprotected sex and may in rare circumstances prevent an already-fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus, was held back from FDA approval for over-the-counter sale even though scientists and physicians had judged it to be safe and determined that it was actually likely to reduce the number of abortions. "Faith based" initiatives like abstinence-only sex education were federally funded, even when they were contradicted or shown ineffective by science. And business-cozy FDA administrators failed to remove the arthritis drug rofecoxib (Vioxx) from the market even after it became apparent that it was causing heart attacks, resulting in more than fifty thousand American deaths—nearly as many as the number of American soldiers who died in Vietnam—and made calls to a government whistle-blower-protection attorney and a leading medical journal in an attempt to discredit the scientist who brought the problem to light.
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. "Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.
We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded. Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion.
But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.
Recently, President Bush declared the vast ocean and archipelago known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a national monument. At 1,400 miles long and 100 miles wide, the site is loo times larger than Yosemite National Park, larger than forty-six of the fifty states, and home to more than 7,000 marine species. American presidents have the authority to make far-reaching environmental commitments. President Richard M. Nixon's environmental legacy was the Endangered Species Act. It appears ±at the Hawaiian Island Monument may be the environmental high point of the Bush administration, but we should expect better and much more from our leaders.
Action regarding the environment requires objectivity, precision, accuracy, validity, replication, constructive criticism, and consensus. Scientists, engineers, and economists have to stay focused on putting accurate data into the hands of decision makers, while they explain their findings to the public, which, in the end, wields decisive power in a free society. Mechanisms must be developed to transform highly technical findings into governmental and economic policies.
If we can reach a point where two (or more) political parties are sincerely committed to peremptory environmental action and differ only in the details and designs, we have arrived at the brink of consensus. Currently, liberal politicians operate as if they own the issue; in their reaction, conservatives appear to disdain it. As the media overreacts to information and generates sensational headlines, mainstream America tunes out. This is the worst kind of outcome. In such a situation, if action is needed, we would be driven from action instead. Given such uncertainty, we are prone to a malady psychologists have labeled learned helplessness. We cope by doing nothing to change the situation. As we cope, we momentarily escape stress and anxiety, but all the while, the problem only deepens.