I just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, which is the first book in the Science in the Capitol series. It's really first rate science-fiction in the sense that I sometimes lament seems to be less popular, nowadays. The post-cyberpunk authors, and the new wave of space opera authors, don't seem to have a lot of interest in addressing problems in the world. Well, anyone who knows Robinson's work knows that he doesn't have that problem, but Forty Signs of Rain is about one of the most fascinating, and largely undocumented, parts of science - how political policy commands science.
The normal narrative of science is that scientists are largely free to follow their own interests. That's absolute nonsense. Science takes money to do, often huge amounts of it. Almost all of this money comes from the government - particularly the National Science Foundation and DARPA. (The distinction between the NSF and DARPA is wholly bookkeeping - they work together and for the same purposes, mostly.) The brute facts of it is that unless a scientist can convince a Washington bureaucrat to give them money, science doesn't get done. And another brute fact is that all government funding organizations have an agenda - both the NSF and DARPA were created to fund science that is useful in national defense. This is the reason why quantum physicists get billions to build particle accelerators while astrophysicists are often broke - the electronics and nuclear angles of quantum physics is seen as being better for national defense than relativity despite the theoretical strength of relativity (which largely exceeds quantum physics). As a result, government bureaucrats basically get to decide what the truth is - by funding some elements of science and neglecting others they're instrumental in creating scientific truth, in deciding what scientific truth is.
Robinson's book is the only sci-fi book I can think of that addresses the intersection between science and the government. Even tho' he doesn't really talk about DARPA and how the NSF and DARPA work together to fund projects - so far DARPA literally hasn't come up - the book talks about how science, well, gets screwed by the government that funds it. And how scientists are largely ignored by the government if the science flies in the face of government policy.
He also addresses how private science works and its effects on science, particularly in the form of biotechnology. He puts it out - that "private science" is basically anti-scientific. The ownership of scientific ideas is just bad for science, because for science to work there has to be huge amounts of openness.
He does this against the backdrop of global climate change (the most recurring theme in his work), which is where the science-fiction elements come in. He doesn't merely tell a story about the NSF and private science firms and their hijinx. He does what he does better than just about any other writer - he creates weather disasters that must be addressed. Forty Signs of Rain does not actually address them, that's for the later books in the series, obviously, so it's more accurate to say that Forty Signs of Rain is about how the government, despite overwhelming information and proof, is simply not moving to address climate change.
The book is inherently optimistic. One of the disasters that strikes is a flooded Washington, DC. Despite the book having been written in 2001, the scenes as described could be about New Orleans. As part of the science-fiction, however, he proposes that a disaster of such magnitude would actually motivate the government to do something about climate change. Well, maybe if it happened in Washington and not New Orleans it would have - but after having a largish American city all but wiped off the map the government was able to keep it's head in the sand about it.
Still, I find the book noteworthy because it attempts to address the intersection of science and government, and this intersection is absolutely vital to understand to understand how science gets used and misused in the United States. Almost all science is publicly funded, and the policymakers know next to nothing about science, and science operates on the command of people who are ignorant about science - indeed, usually science advisers are selected not for their knowledge of science but their adherence to existing policies about science. You know the sort, the Bush administration officials who have manipulated the science about evolution and the climate to push the conservative anti-science agenda, where any science that flies in the face of their religion or business model is torn down.
Beyond that, it really made me wonder why academics don't go into politics. Not just scientists, either, but also liberal arts professionals. You can be a lawyer, accountant or even an actor and be a big shot in politics - but no writers, no scientists, no philosophers go into politics. It makes me curious as to why. I know some of it is that it's considered gauche for academics to go into politics - it interferes with the purity of their research. But, with science, there's nearly no part of public policy that isn't effected by science. It seems to me that politicians with real knowledge about how science works, what science can do and can't do, who understand the process in which science gets done, well, we'd want, as a community, for such people to get involved in politics. The same is roughly true of any academian - intelligent, well-educated people with knowledge that directly intersects public policy in a number of crucial ways. Yet, none of them seem to be interested in political office. Even Noam Chomsky, amongst the most political of scientists living, has never sought public office.
Some people think that Americans won't vote for someone that educated, that an academic will make them feel stupid by comparison and they'll avoid that. Well, a lot of people also thought that Indiana wouldn't ever go for Barack Obama because he was black. I think it's an insult to the intelligence of American people to think that we, generally, fear clever people. No, I think that a great number of us would be reassured by someone who actually knew what the hell he or she was saying!
So, that said, I call on Neil DeGrasse Tyson to step forward and become a politician. He's a well spoken science educator and physicist who can speak directly to lay audiences about complex scientific issues in comprehensive and informative ways without appearing to talk down to anyone. C'mon, Neil, what do you say?
The Trickiness of a Three-Panel Structure
5 days ago