What kind of world would we live in if politics were largely guided by science rather than greed or special interests? Under new prime minister Justin Trudeau, Canada is revamping its environmental policy to “ensure that decisions on major projects are based on science, facts, and evidence.” Funny that this is, in the words of Science magazine, likely to fuel fierce debate: “What’s with all the facts and science when we’re trying to make policy decisions, eh?”
In the U.S., where money is far more entrenched in politics than it is for our friendly northern neighbors, facts often take a back seat to feelings. If you believe something enough, it must be true. John Oliver thought this was the main theme of the Republican Convention in July.
Facts, science, and knowledge are routinely ridiculed on the far right. Which isn’t to say that people on the left don’t fall victim to fantastic thinking as well. But in order to push a conservative agenda that is almost entirely beholden to big-money special interests and in no way helps the vast majority of those whose votes they need, the conservative demagogues must push an agenda that requires the suspension of disbelief.
It is one week from the U.S. presidential election, and Science magazine has compiled a list of six areas of science in which the new president will need to be well-versed in order to lead our country down the right path.
- Pathogens: In the U.S., 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. Globally, drug resistance is increasing for a number of deadly diseases. And new pathogens have the potential to reach epidemic or even pandemic proportions. Policy needs to fund tracking and safe research on these pathogens, fund new drugs and approaches to combat them (these drugs are not very lucrative, so free-market capitalism will not fill the void), and regulate the overuse of antibiotics that leads to resistance.
- Gene Editing: Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – that’s what it’s all about. CRISPR, as it’s called (because nobody can remember what it stands for (I will forget by the end of this paragraph)), is a new innovation for editing genes that has vast implications, from creating higher yielding crops to combating genetic diseases to resurrecting extinct animals to making super-human genetic freaks that can fly and breathe underwater. Regulations will be needed to harness what is allowed, both ethically and pragmatically (e.g., curtailing the production of flying humans). And funding will be needed to realize the enormous potential of this technology. Imagine a world without cystic fibrosis and other genetic diseases.
- Sea Level Rise: I know I’m not supposed to call climate change deniers idiots (because they will stop listening to me), but can I call them something more endearing, like nincompoops? Climate change isn’t theoretical; it’s here. Sea level has already risen a few inches in the last two decades, and if current emissions trends continue, it could rise another couple feet or more by century’s end. In the U.S., the rate of sea level rise on the East Coast is double the average. This is already threatening communities and ecosystems. Globally, displacement from sea level rise will lead to civil unrest and increased immigration (we will have a lot more wall-building to do to keep these tired, poor, huddled masses from breathing free on our shores*). If a president refuses to believe in climate change, will he also refuse to believe it when his people are being inundated by yet another flood? Policy-wise, we need a president who will act globally for prevention and locally for mitigation. The president will need to act to strengthen climate agreements like the Paris Agreement (not “cancel” it), while simultaneously coordinating and funding local and regional efforts to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels.
- Brain Health: Most of us use our brains a fair amount, so it’s a tragedy when they’re affected by things like autism, mental illness, and dementia. In 2016, treatment for people with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia cost $236 billion, two-thirds of which was paid for by government health programs. Mental illness is a major factor in homelessness, drug addiction, and crime. One in 68 kids has autism, which costs an average of $60,000 per family per year (which, if my math is correct, means families spend over $65 billion per year in the U.S. on autism). In short, hundreds of billions of dollars is spent on treatment, law enforcement, prison, and other programs each year because of problems with people’s brains. This doesn’t even take into account all the suffering and lost productivity because of these issues. So putting more funding into understanding the causes of brain maladies could ultimately lead to cures that enrich our whole society immensely (or should I say “bigly”?). Many brain diseases also have a genetic component, so, using CRISPR, we may one day stop them before they start.
- Artificial Intelligence: Advances in AI, and technology in general, are moving so fast these days that it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on. As someone who worked in the electric vehicle industry for a few years beginning in 2008, I witnessed firsthand the dizzying rise of battery technology. In addition to electric vehicles and lithium batteries, solar power has undergone amazing innovation and price drops, and LED lights have revolutionized that field. Self-driving cars and trucks are here now, and will soon be much more widespread. More automation in production has already led to increased productivity (far outpacing the rise in workers’ wages) and the loss of many jobs; as this automation increases, many workers will become more and more obsolete. And, if many of the smartest people in the world are to be believed, artificial intelligence will soon reach a point where computers are much much smarter than humans, which has the potential for unlimited unintended consequences (for a fun, and slightly terrifying, disquisition on this, see Wait But Why’s post “The AI Revolution”). So, the next president will have to be adaptable and willing to listen to a team of nerds that can keep her apprised of what’s going on in the tech world. As innovation effects rapid change, policy will have to keep up to avoid becoming outdated. What will we do when much of our workforce is replaced by machines? As production increases due to automation, most of the extra rewards flow to the owners of production, and this trickle up economy has already begun to increase inequality in the U.S. One way to stem this is to tax the beneficiaries of this automation so that we can spread the bounty among the general population; some have even proposed a universal basic income of, say, $1000 a month, which would allow people to pursue their interests rather than driving a Budweiser truck around the country (see self-driving truck above).**
- Gut Instinct: And this is kind of what this whole post is about. Our guts are often not the best place to do our thinking (even if they do have some neurons). We often miss when we shoot from the hip. Risk assessment isn’t about how you feel, it’s about what actually is. For example, immigrants pose very little, if any, risk to American jobs. Violent crime is down significantly over the past 20 years. Terrorism deaths are a tiny fraction of those due to heart disease. We may feel that immigrants and violent criminals and terrorists pose an increasing risk, but the fact is there are other concerns that are much more pressing; which isn’t to say that immigration and violent crime and terrorism shouldn’t be addressed at all, but we should address issues based on actual risks. If special interest groups and their puppet politicians do enough fear mongering about smaller issues (or non-issues), it’s easier to dupe people into ignoring the giant, flatulent elephants in the room: elephants with names like climate change and big money that have major negative impacts on public health, happiness, and the environment.
One picture that emerges here is that we need BIG government – we need big government because we need an institution that coordinates massive efforts. We need to pool our money to invest in things that don’t fit in to the supply-and-demand scheme of free-market capitalism (hey, maybe we could call this pooling of money “taxation”). We need smart regulation because, without it, laissez-faire might as well mean “let us be assholes.”
Looking at the list above, which of our presidential candidates is least likely to turn the Oval Office into an utter shit show***? Of course, science can’t answer all our ethical questions. But being armed with facts helps guide us as we make ethical decisions that lead to policy. If we know the direction we want to go (a cleaner environment, a healthier society, more freedom, more prosperity, fewer abortions, less violence, happier people, a Greater America), applying science and knowledge is the best way to help us get there.
*To continue the metaphor from The New Colossus sonnet that graces the Statue of Liberty, many of these people will be literally “tempest-tost” from their homes. Rather than raising a lamp to them, too many of us want to get out the torches and pitchforks.
**To many, this will sound far-fetched, but in a way it’s not unprecedented. If we think of technology as a resource that belongs to us all, it could be compared to a physical resource, like oil, that exists in the ground beneath our feet. When we tap it and sell it, the profits can be shared. This has been occurring for decades in Alaska, as Alaskans receive distributions each year for their shared oil riches. And this is why Alaskans are of course so sympathetic to socialist and left-wing politicians like Sarah Palin and Don Young (bunch o’ commies!).
***Many of you will be reading this after the election has taken place, so perhaps the shit show is already underway? [Update 11/10/16: The shit show is underway]