Saturday, May 09, 2009

Science, Culture, and Politics

I received the following email from Darlene the Science Cheerleader just before I was off to see Star Trek last night:

Tomorrow morning, I'll be part of a panel discussion (moderated by Chris Mooney at the NY Academy of Sciences) examining the merger between the two cultures of science and politics-what has happened thus far and what remains to be done. Obviously, I plan to talk a bit about the potential a renewed Office of Tech Assessment--one that includes mechanisms for public participation--holds in this realm. I'd like to hear from you. What efforts, in your opinion, have improved science/politics relations; which have hurt; and what innovative approaches should be considered? Thank you for your thoughts. I'll report back on developments.


My first response to Dar was more in line with the two cultures C. P. Snow actually wrote about: science and the humanities. It ran something like this.


I think the sciences and humanities have begun making better connections than before, and the feedback has gone both ways. Since the late 1800s, science fiction in its modern form has sought to address the moral and social implications of new technologies by simply telling stories about machines that hadn't been invented yet. Aside from some deep thinkers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, most SF writers--and writing--were kept on the back shelves, sometimes with good reason.

In the 50+ years since World War II, and the 40+ years since C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures was written, the humanities and the sciences have become better acquainted with each other because they had to. Our technologies have advanced at an increasingly rapid rate at all levels--computers, materials, genetic engineering, aerospace, etc.--and since especially the late 1960s, human beings have begun to wrestle with serious moral and ethical dilemmas related to these developments. This is the perfect stuff of storytelling. Of course in order to tell a story, you have to get smart about your subject, or you'll look like a fool when half the world's physicists call you out for an obvious factual error. Science fiction writers have had to follow these rules for decades, but it's only now, as SF has become part of the mainstream, that more and more writers have had to "get smart" about how the scientific and engineering world works.

At the same time that the humanities are "discovering" Heinlein, Vonnegut, Ellison, Herbert, Asimov, and Clarke, the science and engineering communities are faced with the sometimes-embarrassing fact that they are now celebrities or role models or voices of authority. However, since these are the folks who have their hands on the levers that move our society and very economy, they are now subject to much greater scrutiny. Fearless beliefs in automatic progress are beginning to become embedded in our culture (something that happened in Europe after World War I). Scientists and inventors (engineers) are no longer the amiable, but fundamentally good cranks tinkering in their garage; they are often now seen as the bad guys in movies. Or, if not the bad guys, sometimes naive fools who have let uncontrollable death upon the world. A currently popular sub-genre of SF is "alternate history," in which historical events take different turns (say, the Germans winning World War II, or the South winning the Civil War). This genre is more or less a reaction to the different ways history is now interpreted in schools through the filters of feminism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, etc.

For a good look at science fiction today, one can point to the late Michael Crichton, who doesn't even appear on the SF shelves anymore; or to Kim Stanley Robinson, who has written books about environmental collapse here on Earth or environmental development on Mars; or to Mary Doria Russell, who has written a couple of brilliant books about "first contact" with alien species and the terrible errors that can come about through misunderstandings. Or one can open up a simple romance like The Time Traveler's Wife. I believe even Danielle Steele has taken on technology-related themes on occasion.

So, to summarize, the relationship between science and the humanities has improved to the point where science fiction has become one of the bestselling literary and movie genres in the world. People are interested in the effects of advancing technology because they see it happening all around them, and SF has a long tradition of helping people anticipate the future. What remains to be seen is what sorts of stories will be told in the future as literature and the other arts hold the mirror up to ourselves and ask us what we want it to look like.


This morning I got my head clear and thought about Dar's specific question, which was about science and politics. I didn't come up with very many solutions, but hopefully they're discernable if one reads between the lines.


On the plus side of science, technology, and government: since World War II, governments have come to recognize the importance of investments in basic science and technology as fundamental parts of the national infrastructure. In a capitalist society, research and development that does NOT have any potential to show a profit rightly belongs to the public sector. The government can afford to spend the time and money on things that might or might not become useful in a practical sense. Once their findings are known, these findings should then be shared with the general public, because knowldege is something meant to be shared.

However, where government gets it wrong, and has continued to get it wrong, is by funding targeted, applied research. The Manhattan Project and Project Apollo are the pre-eminent triumphs of government R&D. Again, only governments can do things like this. If money is no object, but time is, government can command the resources and throw as much money as they want at a problem, and eventually it will be solved.

There are several negative side effects to government R&D:

  1. The Manhattan Project showed that any technical problem CAN be solved if you throw enough money, people, and resources at it. This is the model that eventually gave birth to America's landing on the Moon. All well and good--both projects were immensely successful, created new knowledge, and employed thousands of new people in technical disciplines. Unfortunately, every scientific and technology field since then has hoped for that type of funding from Uncle Sam instead of relying on private nonprofit organizations. Everyone comes to feed at the federal trough now.
  2. Some people--politicians and scientists/engineers--end up believing that ONLY massive federal efforts will produce great results. Some people believe that the Saturn V rocket was the only way human beings could get to the Moon. Untrue, as the differing designs from Russia, Europe, and China have proven. There is more than one solution to a problem. Saturn V was not a reusable vehicle. U.S. near-space R&D up until the late 1950s was trying to expand our capabilities by building on our knowledge of airplanes, which are meant to be reusable. Instead, our space vehicles are based on nuclear weapons, which are only meant to be flown once.
  3. Worse, politicians bought into the notion that "If we can put a man on the moon, we can do X," with "X" being to solve some social problem, like poverty or racism, which isn't as susceptible to Manhattan Project or Apollo-like engineering.
  4. It picks winners and losers. Government has a long history of investing in winners and losers, from canals to railroads to airlines. Again, the proper model is for government to serve as an incubator of fundamental, basic science and technologies, and then a distributor of information to the private sector so that individuals and businesses can profit from creative applications of new knowledge. The more government tries to pick winners and losers--the current example is by trying to force developments on "green" technology--the more intrusive it will continue to be in the efficient functioning of the free market.

Not sure how much of that, if anything, that Darlene will be able to use, but I thought I'd get the ideas out there one way or another. Comments welcome.

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