In my last column I wrote about two trends: a growing reliance on science and technology in our everyday lives, coupled with a growing ignorance about science among the public. Where will these two trends take us?
Dependence on something not well understood is frustrating, because one’s actions are limited by an unknown and unrecognized authority. Thus the initial impacts of these two trends will be (and already are being seen) in the realm of public policy. Climate change is the obvious example, but there are other examples (the trend away from vaccination comes to mind). We are also seeing an increase in the number of disputes over the meaning and use of statistics, a denial of cause-and-effect relationships between development and endangerment of species, even a denial that smoking can increase one’s risk of lung cancer. The internet, a great source of information, is also a repository of myth and ignorance masquerading as fact.
Less apparent, but perhaps more frightening, is the growing inability of government to respond swiftly and successfully to disasters, natural or otherwise. The causes of this are complex, but are rooted in the inability of policymakers to take steps to avoid problems. Once something happens, whether the problem is Hurricane Sandy or an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it has been made much worse by neglect of the causes.
Unfortunately, this trend is not likely to be reversed any time soon. Look for the next set of problems to involve safe drinking water, as “fracking” and other practices – perfectly legal practices – contaminate aquifers, streams and groundwater. These practices are not limited to large corporations. Many of us dispose of unwanted medicines and toxic chemicals down the sink or storm drain.
As always, comments are welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org. The next column will be more positive – I promise.