Drunk on Gadgets

Politicians don’t understand science and technology, so they expect it to do too much.

This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies and their implications for policy and society. On Tuesday, Oct. 9, Future Tense will host an event at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., on the role science and technology issues have played in the 2012 presidential campaign. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.

President Barack Obama looks through a microscope as he tours a biotech classroom

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” This was a soothing phrase to those who felt that his predecessor had ignored the scientific consensus on climate change and environmental issues, on stem cells, and on the teaching of evolution in schools, among other subjects. But it is the second, forgotten half of Obama’s sentence that best embodies a misapprehension of science shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. Obama promised to “wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs.”

In thinking of technology as capable of magic, Obama echoed Richard Nixon, who declared a “War on Cancer” in December 1971, saying “[T]his year of preparation for an all-out assault on cancer comes to a climax with the signing of the National Cancer Act. The new organizational structure which this legislation establishes will enable us to mobilize far more effectively both our human and our financial resources against this dread disease.” But more than 40 years later, cancer, of course, continues to kill many. The limiting factor in tackling cancer is not “organizational structure” but rather the fundamental difficulty in understanding how cells divide. Just as curing cancer couldn’t be achieved by changing bureaucratic structures, health care costs cannot be reined in through the wielding of technological wonders.

As C.P. Snow, a novelist who had a Ph.D. in physics, wrote in his essay Science and Government, “[A]nyone who is drunk with gadgets is a menace. Any choice he makes—particularly if it involves comparison with other countries—is much more likely to be wrong than right.” The mesmerizing power of gadgets is perhaps best illustrated by claptrap missile defense technologies, as Lawrence Krauss recently wrote in Slate.

But the reality of technology, and of science, is that though both have great capacity to be harnessed in the betterment of mankind, the yoke does not rest easy on them—they are fickle and plow in the direction that they, not politicians, choose. Nixon’s War on Cancer set in motion a dramatic rise in the budget of the National Institutes of Health, which climbed from $6.8 billion in 1971 to just over $30 billion in 2012 (in constant 2012 dollars). But cancer death rates hardly budged—except for lung cancer, which declined dramatically not because of any scientific breakthrough but because everyone quit smoking. The NIH budget went up by about $9.2 billion (again, in constant dollars) under Clinton and another $7.8 billion under George W. Bush. This was not because of any conspicuous success of the NIH in their stated mission—it was because the scientific classes came to a consensus that biology should have its moment, and because the NIH proved good at bureaucratic infighting, as Arizona State University President Michael Crow has described.

Politicians are not irrelevant. On rare occasions, they can dramatically alter the relationship between science and society—as when Franklin Roosevelt decided to develop the nuclear bomb. But these monumentally important decisions do not typically come as consequences of the democratic process: Roosevelt was the man in the room, and the electorate had no direct say in his decision, which was taken in secret, as many such decisions about the development and use of technology are. Politicians often look to Roosevelt as a model, calling for a “Manhattan Project” for this or that. But the failure of Nixon’s war on cancer is the apt parallel for the present, not the exceptional development of the atom bomb.

Part of the reason politicians promise so much on behalf of science is the same sort of grandstanding that they do more generally. But it also stems from a genuine misapprehension of how much science can do. Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer, is the only president trained as a scientist or engineer—though that didn’t make his presidency conspicuously successful. Better understanding of science is necessary, though not sufficient. There are 55 lawyers in the Senate, but just three M.D.s, one veterinarian, and one optometrist. The House has a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, six engineers, and 22 people with medical training among its 435 members. Scientific knowledge among legislators is very scarce, and they often condescend to scientists, even as they ask a lot of science.

The “rightful place of science,” to appropriate Obama’s phrase, is somewhere more humble than the pedestal on which politicians would place it. Technology is not a magic wand, even if presidents would like to wield it as if it were. But it takes serious engagement with science to understand its difficulties and limitations. Lowering the cost of health care cannot be done by gadget, nor can gadgets intercept putative missiles reliably, save the economy, or keep people from crossing the border. Gadgets can’t stop terrorism, and they can’t solve the climate crisis. Instead, politicians themselves must confront these dilemmas, the trade-offs and the tough choices. It’s what they are paid for.