Random Thoughts from the Chairman | Apr 29

Steve Gerritson, Vice President of the Economic Development Council of Seattle & King County, Chairman
Steve Gerritson, Vice President of the Economic Development Council of Seattle & King County, Chairman

By Steve Gerritson, WCTA Chair

In my last column I wrote about the apparent lack of understanding of science among the general public, a problem that seems to be getting worse. The irony of this is that society is becoming more and more dependent on “science” to function. Today I’d like to look more closely at these two trends, and speculate a bit about where we might end up.

First, the growth in dependence on science: How many of us could function if we suddenly lost the use of our cell phones and computers? The truth is that cell phones and computers are just the tip of the iceberg. Virtually everything we do on a daily basis involves a computer of some sort. From the programmable coffee maker that greets us in the morning to the remote control that turns off the TV at night, we rely on sophisticated gadgetry to make our lives easier. Some of these gadgets have had a profound impact on social organization, and have changed the way we interact (or don’t interact) with each other.

This trend will certainly continue. We are on the verge of self-driving cars, home energy systems that learn how to behave, appliances that respond to voice commands, and, if Amazon.com has its way, drones that deliver packages. The planet is surrounded by a network of satellites that can give you directions to anywhere from wherever you are, show you a picture of your home, or let you listen to your favorite songs by appointment. An optimist can look to a future in which all our needs are provided for; a pessimist fears a “brave new world.” Both would acknowledge that the basis of this future is applied science.

One can speculate about the lack of public understanding of the scientific principles that make life so much easier. On one level, there’s really no need to know how or why something works. Just push the button and every now and then change the battery. On a deeper level, a lack of knowledge about a complex topic can breed resentment of those who promote it (which explains the success of politicians like Michele Bachmann). The internet reinforces our own beliefs rather than challenging them, and the inability of what news media remain to deal with subjects more complex than a fire or a car accident rules them out as reliable sources of scientific information.

So where do these two trends take us? I’ll look at that in my next column, but meanwhile, I’d like to hear what you think. sgerritson@edc-seaking.org