Dear Mr. President,
I think there may have been a terrible mistake. I'm not a scientist.
Worse than that, I'm an actor. So, I don't know how I got recommended to you as a candidate for science advisor. Possibly, someone felt that if we could let an actor be president without major damage beyond a trillion or two, why not science advisor? But, I'm also a writer who has a lifelong interest in science, and I host the PBS program Scientific American Frontiers, and I have played Richard Feynman on the stage, so I can see where the confusion might have arisen.
If you choose to name me as your advisor on scientific matters, I would consider it my duty not to turn you down, but I think it only fair to let you know the kind of advice I'm liable to give you.
First, I really do value science. I get the impression from some previous appointments in your administration that the mission of the appointees is to dismantle the agencies they were put in charge of. I might do some damage through ignorance, which may be why I'm on your short list, but I could not bring myself to put an end to science in the United States; so if that's what you had in mind, please count me out.
As for my actual advice, it breaks down into two major categories: Deep and Deeper.
The world is going to come to an end in about 5 billion years no matter what we do. So, in the long run, you're off the hook. It's true that things like Global Warming, plus the increasing loss of clean water and bio diversity, can hasten The End Of Everything As We Know It, but even so, it will all end eventually. Nobody gets blamed for continuing a disastrous policy, so there will be no harm to your reputation if you do nothing. People simply do not say, "Caesar did nothing to halt the Roman practice of putting lead in the air and water, probably resulting in the eventual weakening and fall of the empire." But they're absolutely fascinated with the way he could divide Gaul into thirds.
Recognizing this, I will not advise you to do anything related to the environment. I will simply ask permission to put a glass of water on your desk every day with little things swimming in it. Sooner or later, you'll slip and drink from it, and while you're in the hospital, we can talk about the billion or so people who have nothing else to drink.
I will also arrange for the local gas station to charge your mom and dad what a gallon of gas costs after the actual costs of the gas have been added. This would include the cost of subsidies to oil producers, health care for skin cancers and lung conditions, and a couple of wars, but we'll skip the wars. I don't think this comes to more than a thousand dollars a gallon, but if your folks write you about the awful price of gas these days, then maybe we could have another talk.
And while we're on the subject of gas, I believe it is our duty as patriotic citizens to end our reliance on foreign oil. It is also our duty as rational people to end our reliance on any oil. Both of these duties are satisfied by pouring a huge amount of money into the development of hydrogen cells, as well as thermal, wind, solar and several other forms of energy. But it will take a huge amount of money—possibly what it will cost to pay for 3 or 4 days of the next war.
As you can see, the Deep stuff isn't all that deep, and it's pretty much what you would expect from your average limousine liberal. The Deeper stuff gets, as you might suspect, deeper. It will also, I'm afraid, get more earnest.
What your science advisor really needs to do is help you re-fashion the thinking of the country. Too many people think cloning cells for the fight against disease is the same thing as creating Frankenstein's monster. Too many people think evolution is the idea that people are descended from apes. And too many people think that genetic modification of plants is a dangerous new idea, instead of something that's been going on for ten thousand years.
If our people don't learn to make distinctions and challenge their own thinking, as well as that of others, then they will be at a disadvantage when facing the technologies, insights and strategies of those who do. Rationality has a special importance for us now.
The commencement speaker at Caltech this past year said,
"We live in a time when massive means of destruction are right here in our hands. We're probably the first species capable of doing this much damage to our planet. We can make the birds stop singing; we can still the fish and make the insects fall from the trees like black rain. And ironically we've been brought here by reason, by rationality. We cannot afford to live in a culture that doesn't use the power in its hands with the kind of rationality that produced it in the first place."
Actually, I was the commencement speaker who said that, but I thought you'd pay more attention if I put the Caltech part first.
The problem is that, although we're all entitled to our beliefs, our culture increasingly holds that science is just another belief. Maybe this is because it's easier to believe something—anything—than not to know.
We don't like uncertainty—so we gravitate back to the last comfortable solution we had, and in this way we elevate belief to the status of fact.
But scientists are comfortable with not knowing. They thrive on it. They don't assume that just because they had an idea it must be right. They attack it as vigorously as they can because they don't want to lie to themselves. As Richard Feynman said, "Not knowing is much more interesting than believing an answer which might be wrong."
Above, all, Mr. President, I think your science advisor needs to help you help our country learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, and—as hard as this might be to believe—to put reason ahead of belief.
Actor, Director, Writer
Host of PBS program "Scientific American Frontiers"