At the WCTA’s quarterly Board meeting on April 16, we were joined by Congressman Adam Smith, who came not to speak to us but to hear from us. Everyone appreciated his presence and his willingness to listen, but some of what he said in response to comments gave us pause. For example, he observed that most people, even those who support efforts to reduce global warming and CO2 emissions, have no clear idea what “global warming” really means. Further, most will respond by asking what the short-term costs are, and because there are short-term costs that are not offset by short-term gains, they will oppose taking action. Finally (and this is no surprise to anyone), the issue is overwhelmingly political. While his observations are no doubt accurate, they are nonetheless disturbing. He seemed to imply, in effect, that the more complex and long-term an issue, the less likely it is that a democracy is able to deal with it.
Leaving the politics aside, I think this poses two conflicting views of science in society. On the one hand, the public seems to have little regard for scientists who bring up problems that might occur, even questioning the efficacy of vaccinating children or the need for air quality standards, for example. Yet at the same time, there is almost an absolute faith in science’s ability to fix a problem once it occurs. Admittedly these beliefs are not held by everyone, and in fact there is a lot of competition among groups and ideas, but the outcome seems to be “let’s wait till something happens, and fix it.” Couple that with a general belief that government can’t deal with major problems, and you have a pretty accurate picture of the state of public opinion.
Much has been written about the increasing ignorance of the American public. For example, in a recent poll, one out of four Americans did not know that the earth revolves around the sun. A democracy requires an informed public. Congressman Smith may be correct – we may be losing our ability as a society to cope with complex problems.