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1. Meet Kelvin Doe
I hope that you’ll take 10 minutes — or 20 minutes if, like me, you watch it twice — to watch a video produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and released a few weeks ago about the 15-year-old boy shown just below — and amazing young man from Sierra Leone named Kelvin Doe. It’s a feel good story, taken from the San Francisco Globe, and I’ll let that aspect of it speak for itself. I’d love to just spend time talking about it — but I have something else on my mind today.
What it led me to think about — and look, this is a personal essay, so get used to the first-person narrative — is why I, having loved natural science from childhood, did not become a natural scientist or an engineer.
At one point, that’s where I had been headed. Instead, I became a social scientist and then a lawyer, always keeping active in politics. The reason is that, extraordinary as Kelvin Doe is, there is no real shortage of people, if only they can be found and nurtured, who can do the kinds of things that he does.
The questions that are less straightforward are the likes of these:
- Will they be given that education and those resources?
- Will they be protected from people — ethnic or political opponents, anti-science crusaders, or those who stand to lose profits from competing technologies that Kelvin Doe might develop — who may want to destroy them and their work?
- Will they be insulated from economic pressures and temptations — which become greater upon those with vulnerable friends and relatives — to go do one’s work for corporations or others whose interests are in private profit to the exclusion of the public good?
- Will we, in the medium and long term, even have a civilization on this planet left to protect?
If you love science and technology like I do — if you can bliss out reading Discover and Wired as well as the more rigorous scientific publications that feed them — then you don’t have to be a scientist or engineer yourself to foster such wonderful work. You just have to make the world safe for such people.
Unfortunately, that is in some ways the harder task.
2. Scientific problems
This video, like the one where scientists finally validated the inflation theory of the Big Bang (and in turn the prevailing scientific theory of the origin of the universe) or various ones detaling amazing recent discoveries and technological feats involving alternative energy, fills me with joy. But the thought of the hurdles he faces — not just the lack of resources, but the forces actively working to derail and co-opt or else destroy the bright young idealist you see here — fill me with dread. So many brilliant and good people fall prey to them.
You the Reader may personally have no mind for science — you may have hated your STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses in school — but you can still do a great deal to support them, because you surely know enough to play a role in moving society and culture to be protective of them.
This does not, despite what scientists and engineers may imagine I should say next, mean just giving scientists and engineers everything they want. They’re not immune to the sirens’ calls of our culture — drawing them to what may provide wealth, status, and enjoyment — and the scientific and technical culture is, like that of many professions (such as mine), tilted towards producing insular elites who look down on their “lessers.” Sometimes it means standing up to them, creating incentives for them to resist the pressure to subjugate the public good to their and their employers’ needs. Everyone needs to be kept honest — grown-up Kelvin Does included — because even the best among them won’t always be bright-eyed and 15.
But it’s the rare person who can’t understand — and stand against — the concentrations of great wealth and the transmission of such wealth into political power that threatens science in the public interest. It’s within the grasp of most of us — it’s having the skills and will to do something about it that’s the problem.
3. The Obstacles to Solutions
When I started graduate school in 1983, the threat of global nuclear war was significant and imminent. (Some people think otherwise, but as nothing short of a global nuclear war would have convinced them otherwise, I’m happy to have left them unconvinced.) As presented in a wonderful book from 30 years ago, Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, nuclear war posed (and still poses, though less direly) a threat not only to individuals in history, but to history itself. ”We” all individually die eventually; hopefully “we” as a culture do not.
So I went into social science — social psychology and then political science (and especially their intersection, political psychology) — to work on how to ward off such threats. I won’t bore you (for now) with those details.
Over the course of the time I spent in social science I realized that, while social scientists could present lost of useful information and potential solutions to social problems, lack of social scientific itself was not the main obstacle. The main problem was pure politics: the high costs of campaigning favor the sort of people who do people favors.
Beyond this, electoral systems tend to prevent third-party campaigns from affecting results in a positive way — meaning leading to better policies even if they don’t elect their preferred candidate — allowing the established parties to become sluggish and ineffective compared to powerful interest groups. Because party regulars mostly just have to impress other party regulars, rather than the public as a whole, to stay in power, parties tend to be insular and overcautious.
This system works very well for some people: particularly party officials, electeds, and the lobbyists who have an overwhelming influence upon both. Political structures giving a veto to minorities, and the fact that some sides (those tending to be laissez-faire — economically and otherwise) benefit from gridlock, make legislating about truly important issues difficult. Social scientists understand much of this dynamic — which is different from themselves being able to do much about it.
Doing something about it requires political expertise — which includes legal expertise, because when some useful initiative can’t be stopped through the legislature or the executive it still has a chance of being stopped through the courts. So if one wants to save the beauty and wonder of the world — and I include the work of Kelvin Doe and his mentor at MIT as both beautiful and wonderful — then it’s going to have to be through politics. Grimy, smelly, distasteful politics — armed by the aggressive use of law.
And so that’s where I ended up.
4. Emergencies vs. Real Emergencies
Now we are less worried about nuclear war than about climate change. (Ironically, both can be described with different senses of the term “global vaporization”: the vaporization of buildings and people is quicker, but a cycle in which heat puts more and more heat-storing water vapor into the air may be more pervasive.) I am thrilled when a story comes along trumpeting a new technology that, at some point, may be able to help reverse climate change. But I am dismayed when a story comes along about how — for reasons of ideology, religion, or personal profit — powerful political actors may want to stop it.
Consider this “crazy” proposal: using technology we already have, we as a nation could ramp up our own manufacturing (possibly structuring payments so as to avoid inflation and ensure more stable retirements), and use existing and emerging technology to just give Americans 100,000,000 new zero-emission vehicles — about 40% of our national fleet — for free, while investing in localized “solar farms” to charge their batteries.
That’s crazy talk, right? It’s socialism; it’s a deficit buster; it hurts (depending on how it is structured) those investing in auto manufacture; it hurts energy companies; and it really pisses off our totalitarian slavemaster allies in Saudi Arabia! But it’s the kind of thing that would be on the table if we — still by far the most powerful country and economy in the world — were truly serious about reversing climate change before it’s too late. That is, we’d think about it if we considered our situation a real emergency.
Just for fun, let’s tote up the bill — and let’s forget the enormous economic benefits that would derive from putting a lot more money into the hands of the sorts of working-class people who’d work in auto plants and processing the necessary electronic paperwork to make this all happen.
Let’s say that, as we move into mass manufacturing (and especially now that we have a sort of nationalized healthcare), we could reduce the unit price of such a car to $10,000. How much would this cost?
$10,000 × 100,000,000 = $1,000,000,000,000.
That’s right – it would cost us a trillion dollars! And a trillion dollars is a lot of money! We know that, because that’s about what we spent, give or take a factor of four or so, in our war with Iraq. (Of course, because that money was borrowed, and because the delayed health effects of the war continue to mount, we’re still spending on it today.) That war, you may recall, was not an emergency — but we literally loaded pallets of $100 bills onto places to help bribe people in Iraq to be on our side. (Sadly, some of that money got lost. No one could have foreseen this!) And now, more than a decade later, we have an Iraq that is neither that stable nor that friendly.
We did that because, in our political system, that was considered an emergency — while global warming is not. The difference between these two ways to spent a trillion dollars is not in their merit or their likelihood of success — it’s in the political system, in what could make it past (or around) Congressional gridlock, and in who stood to profit or lose from each.
Do you want to make science and technology work for us as a nation — and as a species? Welcome to politics. There’s plenty to do; grab a shovel and dig in.
5. Beauty and Struggle
I understand why science and technology, especially when well used, are considered beautiful — and I understand why law and politics are not. But if you want to protect science and technology — and other beautiful wonders of artistic expression, civil rights and liberties, education and recreation and civilization — politics (law included) is eventually the way you will have to do it.
In science and technology, no one aside from nature itself and a lack of resources, is generally working against you — unless you’re doing something good enough or bad enough to upset others. In law and politics, someone generally is working against you. That makes it a different sort of fight. If you’re up for it, you’re needed.
The scientist whose place I may have supplanted, had I taken that route, would not likely be that much worse than me (if at all); my effectiveness as a social scientist was often hindered by the fact that I wanted to take on these huge social policy questions, which make people nervous (and occasionally hostile.) As an attorney and a (semi-)politician, though, I find that the people I may edge out of a given position are often ones who deeply need it — and that the more effective I am, the more loudly I will be condemned by people who want to use their money to preserve the corrupted status quo.
That’s why I find that I, personally, better serve science from outside scientist. Science may be where much of the struggle is — but the battle is in politics. Those who can help to fight it, and win it, should consider making it their life’s work.