Imagine, if you will, that you and your friends are on a picnic, in the woods perhaps during some pleasant late spring weather. You’re happily munching away at sandwhiches and looking at scenery through binoculars, when a flock of velociraptors appears in the distance. Snarling and frothing with hunger, they descend while the group argues: Should you stand your ground and fight? Run? Hide? There may well be meaningful debate about such topics, but surely we can recognize that some topics – the existence of the charging velociraptors and their intent upon arrival – are indisputable. Debate on such topics serves no productive purpose, and delays useful action. The significance of approaching predators is a matter of common sense.
If everything about the world could be understood through common sense, there would be no need to systematically investigate nature in order to understand it. There would be no need for science to tell us about the things that are too small to see, or too fast, or too slow, because understanding of any such things that existed would be common. Science shows us the parts of the world that aren’t obvious, which is important, because sometimes things that aren’t obvious are still dangerous. It’s because of science that we can detect the odorless poison carbon monoxide, and it is with science that we can find cholera contaminated water pumps. When our scientific understanding of the world tells us that there may be a velociraptor hiding in the woods, we should pay attention.
The world has been fundamentally transformed by technology; making informed decisions about how to approach the 21st century necessarily requires undestanding the science behind this transformation. This is especially true of the legislators who will be shaping the years to come. How can we expect high quality bioethics or environmental policy to come from policy makers who are not informed about biology or environmental science? For this reason, it is imperative that the scientific advisors who help legislators provide only high quality advice.
Unfortunately, there are examples of poor scientific advice, particularly when the science in question is politicized. The routine inclusion of such misinformation appears to stem from a combination of ideological precommitment, industrial influence, genuine ignorance, and the pervasive notion that any and every issue hastwo ‘sides’ which can be meaningfully debated. The following report demonstrates the low quality of some congressional testimony regarding ocean acidification, which is an effect of carbon dioxide pollution. Although it is not common sense that our car exhaust could change the chemistry of the oceans, it is a prediction based upon scientific principles. And although its effects may be invisible to us, acting slowly and on scales beyond our senses, scientific methodology has shown it to be a reality.
You can’t see what’s rustling in the underbrush, but your IR camera can pick up something warm circling the group. Two somethings.
‘We should run!’
‘We should hide!’
‘We should get out an automatic shotgun!’
‘Maybe there really aren’t any velociraptors out there after all? The pack might have decided to go away. Dog sand pandas also are warm and rustle in the underbrush, so we can’t be sure that the noise is from a raptor. Besides, even if it is velociraptors, what if they’re coming to offer us cookies? Mmmm cookies.’
The rustling stops circling and begins to stalk towards the group. The warm things in the screen of the IR camera are approaching from opposite sides…
Charlie Soeder, CO2 Trouble, Ocean Acidification, Dr. Everett, and Congressional Science Standards, 15 September 2011. The report.