The Book Club

We Need Scientists To Step Up

Dear Michael,

Let me start with your last question. I felt that your closing chapter of Denialism, concerning synthetic biology, was your most powerful, opening a vista onto the bizarre new world into which science is bringing us. Sure, I’d read before about “synbio” and what the Craig Venters of the world are contemplating—the creation of life, designed for specific and (we hope) beneficent purposes—but nobody had fully brought the promise and the risks into perspective as you did.

This science is utterly revolutionary, and everybody in America should know it is coming. We should positively have a national dialogue about synthetic biology, one that goes far beyond the inevitable opponents shouting “Frankenstein”—but that’s precisely the problem. We are nowhere near such a dialogue occurring.

The vast majority of Americans have never even heard of synthetic biology. And though I don’t have comparable data handy, I bet they also haven’t heard of another potentially revolutionary technological intervention that scientists are contemplating—geoengineering, or remaking the planetary atmosphere to reflect more sunlight away from the Earth (since it seems increasingly unlikely that we will fully solve global warming by cutting emissions). There was a big conference about geoengineering here at MIT a week ago, but just because the scientists have this on the radar and are weighing risks and benefits  doesn’t mean the public gets clued in.

How do you change that? In today’s media world, you really need a national leader to broach such a conversation—e.g., President Obama, as you suggest in your book. While I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though, I doubt he has the time to bring up such a dark-horse topic, especially in light of all the other policy fires that must be put out. Without a presidential initiative, we lack an adequate national forum for discussing the complex and crucial problems that science lays before us. (Don’t expect synthetic biology to come up on Oprah; as you point out, she is too busy providing a platform for vaccine skeptics like Jenny McCarthy.)

As a result, synthetic biology may be fully upon us before people start thinking about it. And it will likely come to broader attention only as a result of some kind of political controversy—just as occurred with embryonic stem cell research or genetically modified foods. At that point, I fear, we’ll simply become polarized over the issue.

Let me address a few other matters from your last post. I certainly didn’t mean to downplay the costs of denialism. Not every form is literally deadly, but when it comes to issues like HIV/AIDS, the risks of smoking, and, yes, vaccination, it is clear that rejecting science really is that serious—lives are on the line. We should be outraged by such flights from reality and by denialist attacks on serious scientists who are just trying to help us find our way through these complicated problems.

I wouldn’t, however, go so far as you in slamming the NIH for studying alternative medical remedies, especially herbal ones. If people out there are using these substances, testing whether they’re safe and effective seems to me a reasonable expenditure of public funds. (Homeopathy is different: It literally can’t do anything to you other than trigger a placebo effect, so what’s to study?)

Alas, I think your hopes for better media, once we get through this transitional phase and tame the Wild West of the Internet, are overly optimistic. Today, we have many people getting their climate science from Watt’s Up With That and their vaccine science from Age of Autism. I just don’t see how you move back from that. Even in the old-fashioned media, only a small and relatively elite group of journalists knew how to handle science issues well. The “on the one hand, on the other hand” coverage of global warming (PDF) during the 1990s encouraged the idea that there was a serious scientific controversy and contributed to a decade of gridlock on the issue.

Given this new economy of information and expertise, I think we may need something more than better media. Frankly, I’d like to see Americans develop more respect for real knowledge, period. We have a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country, one that has been much debated and discussed; it is this tradition, in combination with the radical proliferation of pseudo-“expertise” and “Daily Me” media, that creates a fertile environment for denialism.

But there is another aspect of the problem here that I’d like to end with. Yes, we’re anti-intellectual; yes, we have denialists among us; and yes, our media generally fail to set the record straight or elevate the discussion. But in this context, don’t we have another clutch asset to call upon—namely, the scientists themselves? You hint in your book that they aren’t always the best of communicators. In truth, some are excellent, but in general, communicating well isn’t a skill that wins somebody academic tenure. Nevertheless, the scientists have a unique advantage: On matters like geoengineering or synthetic biology, they can seewhat nearly everybody else in the society is missing. It is in the very nature of scientists to be looking out toward the frontier and into the future, to be on the cutting edge. In this context, don’t we need them, too, to step up and fill the gap that is being left by the crash of the old media and the rise of the new?