The most powerful force shaping our lives is science, especially when it's applied by medicine, the military and corporations. All too often, new technologies become part of our lives without much forethought as to their full impacts on our society, let alone that of the non-human environment. Just think of nuclear power, genetic engineering, and the development of new toxic chemicals to keep our lawns greener or vegetables blemish-free, for example.
When I began my television career in 1962, I thought that all the public needed was more information about science and technology so it could make better decisions based on facts. Well, people are getting far more information today than they ever did 45 years ago. Although there are more facts, there are also more opinions. And we still make ill-informed decisions.
I now believe we are experiencing a major problem in the early-21st century: selective information overload. And by this I mean that we can sift through mountains of information to find anything to confirm whatever misconceptions, prejudices or superstitions we already believe. In other words, we don't have to change our minds. All we have to do is find something to confirm our opinions, no matter how misguided or wrong they may be.
Whenever I give a talk on global warming, someone in the audience often tells me that the Earth is going into a period of global cooling and should be burning more fossil fuels. When I ask for evidence, they typically answer, "a website". Well, yes, there are lots of websites saying that global warming is some kind of left-wing plot, junk science, baloney, etc.
There are also dozens of websites, books and videos about intelligent design or creationism, pyramid power, UFOs, the Bermuda triangle, crop circles, Atlantis, alien abductions, and so on. And this brings us back to our big challenge: sifting through information overload.
For people who do not want to believe the painstaking evidence accumulated over decades by thousands of climatologists that human-induced global warming is real and demands an urgent response, all they have to do is rely on selective media reporting.
Of course, if we are each going to have some say in where we are going, we need information. And we need to inform ourselves using real facts put forth by credible sources. But even this is in jeopardy.
President Bush has made things more difficult by imposing a heavy hand on scientific reporting, deliberately distorting reports and censoring information. Scientists, including a number of American Nobel prizewinners, have raised the alarm over this intrusion of politics into science.
Sadly, this practice is not confined to the U.S.
In fact, our own government's use of science to inform public policy decisions has not gone unnoticed.
Recently, the internationally respected British science journal, Nature, published a strongly worded editorial that listed the federal government's skepticism on the science of global warming and its retreat from Canada's Kyoto commitment.
Canada's current government has also phased out the role of the national science advisor, and refused to accept the recommendations of its own expert science panel on biodiversity (COSEWIC) to legally protect several endangered species, including beluga whales, the Porbeagle Shark, and two populations of White Sturgeon that live in British Columbia's Fraser River.
This is a big problem.
Science provides the best information about the world around us. Of course, it isn't a perfect system. Scientific conclusions are often tentative, and can only become more solid after more debate, more research, and more observation. The process can take years.
And scientists, being human, also have their own biases and points of view that can influence the way they ask questions and interpret data. But in the arena of open scientific debate, over time, consensus can generally be achieved regarding the best possible understanding of an issue.
Scientific consensus does not mean we will always get the right answer. But if I were to bet on an issue, I'd put my money on scientific consensus over an observer's hunch, a politician's opinion, or a business leader's tip.
If we don't have the best scientific minds and information to guide our policies, where do we turn? The Bible? The Koran? The Dow Jones average? This is something that we all need to think about, regardless of political stripe.