Sociological Whiplash

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine was devoted to innovation. It had a story about Craig Ventner, who sequenced the human genome and is working on producing artificial life–including bacteria that will excrete a substitute for oil. It had a story about inventions poised to come on the market–a fabric that can charge your cellphone, a car with cruise control that automatically maintains a set distance between you and the car in front of you, a bike with anti-theft handlebars, synthetic alcohol (on Star Trek, that was called synthahol!), vastly improved resolution for movies,a blood test for depression… My favorite was a breakthrough that would substitute an edible “shell” for food packaging. For example, your yogurt might come in a shell of strawberry you could eat, rather than another carton to clutter our landfills.

The whole issue was a tribute to human ingenuity and smarts–to our ability to understand our world and its building blocks and to confront our challenges big and small.

And then there’s our politics. If America is producing savvy scientists and remarkable technologies–and we are–we are also electing embarrassing buffoons who are doing their best to return us to that state of nature known as “ignorant.”

There are so many examples, choosing one was hard, but let me try. This week, North Carolina lawmakers proposed a new law that would require estimates of sea level rise to be based only on historical data—not on all the evidence that demonstrates that the seas are rising much faster now thanks to global warming. The sea level along the coast of North Carolina is expected to rise about a meter by the end of the century. Business interests in the state are worried that the projected rise will make it harder for them to develop along the coast line. So legislators plan to deal with that issue by writing a law requiring inaccurate projections.

Scott Huler, who works for Scientific American and lives in North Carolina, summed up this brilliant approach thusly:

Which, yes, is exactly like saying, do not predict tomorrow’s weather based on radar images of a hurricane swirling offshore, moving west towards us with 60-mph winds and ten inches of rain. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east. Don’t use radar and barometers; use the Farmer’s Almanac and what grandpa remembers.

In this corner, the brilliant minds that gave you your computer and IPhone. In that corner, the champions of denial and short-term gratification. The existential questions: can the smart guys save us from the idiots we elect?  And figure out why we elect them?

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