Scientific and technological innovation is the fuel in the engine of our economy. Everyone knows it, everyone says it, and still it gets taken for granted in Congress. The problem is that politicians (particularly on the right) like to pick on specific research projects as examples of “waste”. I always think of Sarah Palin’s comment about fruit fly research:
If you don’t know how ridiculous this particular comment is, please read the wikipedia page on fruit flies. I understand this political trick, because spending millions of dollars on research involving fruit flies can seem absurd to a lot of people. There are a lot of projects of this kind in science, and unfortunately, in the United States, just like in middle school and high school, the nerds are the easiest to pick on.
Research is much more complex than some process where you pay one guy for one thing that you need and you get that thing a year later. Research is the process of generating ideas, building on ideas, exchanging ideas, proving and disproving ideas, etc. For that you need A LOT of different talented and passionate minds working on a huge variety of projects. It’s a crazy mix of collaboration and competition. Out of this soup of ideas emerge technologies that immeasurably improve our lives from the iPhone to to the treatment of heart disease. Guess what that soup needs… lots and lots and lots of scientists with crazy ideas and the singular obsession to bring their ideas to life. Both the scientist and the ideas need financial support from companies, from government, from the people.
Take away fruit fly research, and we’ll all have to go back to using rotary phones. It’s all connected. You can’t cut little pieces of research here and there. Pay the nerds, and leave them alone. They will come back in a year with a time travel machine and a robot that can bring you a cold beer from the fridge whenever you like.
Lance Armstrong was under severe fire from accusers for years. This week he came out and admitted to regularly using performance enhancing drugs. While a lot of people yell their silly-ass hearts out about “cheating”, I have to remind them of the $500 million Lance’s foundation raised for cancer research, and more importantly, of the millions of cancer patients to whom he had given hope (and continues to give hope).
Of course, witch hunts are nothing new, and will always be part of a population that does not frequently suffer from bouts of empathy and rationality.
Moreover, the fact that doping was part of the cycling culture makes me wonder about the future of performance enhancing drugs in 10 years, 50 years, and 100 years. The line between what is and isn’t seen as “cheating” by the public has evolved over the years. It’s a line of the “I know it when I see it” variety. Most certainly there will be technological innovation in the fields of genetics, biochemistry, nanorobotics, prosthetics, etc, that will drastically expand the realm of what the human body is capable of doing with a little (or a lot of) help from science.
Will these be seen as cheating? There are no easy answers, especially in modern-day sports were both PED use and evidence-free accusations are rampant.
I personally think that the theory of evolution is one of the most beautiful and world-changing ideas ever discovered and formulated by man. But I don’t agree with a commonly stated claim that it is an “obvious fact”. It’s beautiful, powerful, exceptionally well-supported by evidence, but it is not obvious. We do not observe evolution in every day life, because evolution operates on a time scale that is orders of magnitude larger than the time scale of our day-to-day existence.
If you don’t understand the basic mechanisms of evolutionary biology that make it all possible, then frankly, it’s much more natural to think of it as some mysterious miracle of the universe or orchestrated by some intelligent designer (e.g. God).
It’s sad that “science” is viewed with suspicion by many people in the United States. Too often, ignorance and poor education is not viewed as something to be ashamed of, but a kind of staple of the cowboy character… “I like beer, and I don’t like math”. That’s truly unfortunate. Put evolution, global warming, and whatever other politicized field of science aside. If you are bad at math… if you don’t know the basics of the scientific method… pick up a book, let yourself be amazed by the world out there.
Science isn’t something for “elitist” professors at “liberal” universities. It’s simply a method of answering the universal question of “how the heck does this work?” and “why the heck does this happen?” If you allow yourself that little bit of curiosity, and follow it up with some reading, I think the beauty of the universe will open up to you, with or without God.
Back to the main point… evolution is only beautiful if you learn a little bit about it. It is not obvious. It requires study. I find that most people that deny the theory of evolution, don’t know much at all about it. Wikipedia, my friends, is a good place to start.
I wrote the State of the Union Speech that the President delivered yesterday. I know this because he said everything that I wanted him to say:
“We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”
Too often, major political speeches focus on the issue of the day that captures the short attention span of the public due to overwhelming media coverage. Katrina, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, healthcare reform, the economic recession are all examples. The economy seems to always be a major topic, with proposals all sounding the same from year to year: cut wasteful spending, cut taxes for people making less than X.
This year’s State of the Union speech, however, spent a good 20 minutes on the importance of innovation and education. This, in my opinion, is the foundation of major economic growth. Aggressively funding and prioritizing research and education is the silent engine that has made America the leader of the free world with the airplane, the computer, the first step on the moon, the internet, etc. It’s not as exciting to talk about perhaps as the justification of war in the Middle East or the intricacies of tax policy for the very rich, but it’s the key catalyst of our incredible growth in the 20th century.
We need to nourish the inventor ideal. And I’m glad that Obama recognizes the essential value of that.
The United States is one of only 3 countries that has not adopted a metric system of measurement. The SI (international system of units) is the most popular standard: Meter, Kilogram, Second, Ampere, Kelvin, Candela, Mole.
Given that SI is a standard system of measurement in science, and that U.S. is one of the leading nations in scientific and technological innovation, it’s a constant source of confusion for me why U.S. has not yet adopted the metric system.
There have been many attempts by the federal government to encourage the use of the metric system, such as the 1975 Metric Conversion Act. However, the private sector has simply refused to change, and so progress has been slow.
One are where the metric system has successful “infiltrated” in America is the Nutrition Facts label on most products. Though my libertarian friends may collapse in horror, I think these are the types of government-enforced overhauls that are required for complete adoption of the metric system. For example, we could replace all speed limit and road signs to include both miles and kilometers and then declare that in 2020 we will switch completely to kilometers.
Then again, few politicians could effectively argue that the enormous cost of such a program justifies the long-term benefits. It’s a tough sell to average Joe who takes a chug of his 22 ounce beer bottle every time his favorite running back runs for a gain of a couple yards.
A gallop poll released on December 17 confirms my long held belief that the fundamentalist religious groups are still going strong in the United States. Here is a key statistics:
40% of American don’t believe in evolution. Meaning, they believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”.
As you would expect, there is a correlation between your level of education and whether you “believe” in evolution. However, what’s remarkable to me is that 37% of people that graduate college don’t believe in evolution and 22% of postgraduates don’t believe in it. Is it fair to assume that those are not scientists and engineers, but are students of humanities or subjects less related to evolution and the thinking process characteristic of the scientific method?
When asked why he was doing away with free college in California, Reagan said that the role of state “should not be to subsidize intellectual curiosity”. The source for this comment is Thom Hartmann’s “Rebooting the American Dream”.
Here, like for decades after, the ideal of “intellectual curiosity” is talked about as if its an immoral sexual act that the kids are doing these days and it must be stopped. You can disagree with whether college education should be free or even if public universities should exist. I think you’re wrong, but it’s a legitimate dependable point of view. What is not legitimate is an assault against intellectual curiosity. Such curiosity is what gives birth to great ideas. It allows a political leader to integrate the lessons of history with the new challenges of today. I would even argue that the patience required for learning is the kind of patience that leads to genuine compassion.
Perhaps the reason a president can say something as absurd as the above quote is that most of the people in public life are not scientists. They are lawyers, businessmen, doctors, etc. And while members of all of those professions are certainly intelligent and curious about the way the world works, “intellectual curiosity” is not quite the staple for them that it is for scientists. Science progresses through a mechanism of rigorous skepticism, which requires one to constantly ask “Why?” and seek proof in whatever form possible. So, I think the fact that scientists are for the most part absent from public life in the United States contributes to the simplification of political discourse, and Reagan’s statement is just one of many examples of it.