Presidents, experts, and asteroids

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Date: June 5, 1998
From: Science(Vol. 280, Issue 5369)
Publisher: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Document Type: Column
Length: 1,321 words

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For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.

(Late 20th-century folklore)

For more than a century science and its occasionally ugly sister technology have been the chief driving forces shaping our world. They decide the kinds of future that are possible. Human wisdom must decide which are desirable.

It is truly appalling, therefore, that so few of our politicians have any scientific or engineering background. Yet while some scientific training should be a requisite for anyone making policy decisions, it is clearly not sufficient. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, two U.S. presidents with engineering backgrounds, were probably as perplexed as anyone when faced with making policy decisions involving science or technology.

Even the wisest and best science-educated of politicians may have difficulty making good decisions when, as is often the case, "experts" disagree. There are some hilarious examples of this in the history of science--for example, Lord Kelvin's declaration that x-rays must be a hoax, and Ernest Rutherford's even more famous dismissal of atomic energy as "moonshine."

Politicians now are wrestling with the matter of human cloning, perhaps the most notable controversy now facing science and society. Any developments that concern biology--especially human biology--are liable to arouse passions, as witnessed in the debates over abortion, euthanasia, And evolution. I have encountered a few "creationists" and because they were usually nice, intelligent people, I have been unable to decide whether they were really mad, or only pretending to be mad. If I was a religious person, I would consider creationism nothing less than blasphemy. Do its adherents imagine that God is a cosmic hoaxer who has created the whole vast fossil record for the sole purpose of misleading humankind? And, although I do not necessarily agree with the paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin's advocacy of evolution as a major proof of the glory of God, de Chardin's attitude is both logical and inspiring. A creator who laid the foundations for the entire future at the beginning of time is far...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A20852150