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The 'Ugly Stew' of Science and Politics

Over the past couple of centuries science has fueled revolutions in industry, transportation, communications, and medicine, and changed human culture so dramatically that people today would seem to have "godlike powers" to most all of the humans that came before us, Adam Frank writes for NPR.

And yet, he says, we have a big problem. Along with the jet air travel, instantaneous global communications, medicines, microwaves, and all the other techno-goodies that ingenious folks have cobbled together over the past few generations, the power of these tools also presents us with new choices and responsibilities. Some of these choices will require collection decision-making and collective action. Another phrase for collective decision-making is polities, and our politics is our problem, Frank says.

We have some nuanced and serious ethical questions confronting us, concerning technologies such as genetically modified foods and humans, cloning, electronic surveillance, and how we can ethically use robots, among others.

But politics threatens to keep us from addressing these and other issues reasonably, he says. Climate change, for example, is "endlessly exasperating" because the political fight about whether or not it is even happening is so far removed from the science.

"The political battle over the science of climate change makes it clear how vast the chasm is separating how science understands the world from how politics acts in the world," Frank says.

The blame for this "ugly stew" of science and politics does not entirely belong to politicians. Part of the problem is that such a small number of people are scientists that most people are so far removed from how science works that they find it difficult to tell "the difference between firmly established laws of nature and the back and forth of unsettled questions."

"Between the public's understandable lack of understanding and the ever-growing pervasiveness of science in our lives lies a fault line that can be exploited for all the wrong reasons," Frank writes. "When it comes to big data or genetics or energy, there will be many interests pushing to spin the relevant science. But how can we, as members of a democratic society, respond as informed citizens?"