What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You
BRADFORD PARKINSON REMEMBERS HOW HARD IT WAS. He went to Capitol Hill again and again to ask members of Congress to support an ambitious science project proposed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The project is fairly well known today. It’s Gravity Probe B, launched last spring in an audacious attempt to get an exquisitely accurate measurement of the curvature of space-time predicted by Albert Einstein. Any deviation from Einstein’s theory may point toward unexplored areas of physics. Is that mind-blowing, or what?
Members of Congress were very slow to see what Parkinson was so excited about. “At first they just didn’t get it,” he says. He’s a project manager of Gravity Probe B and is probably best known for leading the effort to design and build the Global Positioning System, or GPS, which got him inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004. The science behind Gravity Probe B is extremely complex, and it’s not surprising that few members of Congress understood the details. “It was slow going,” he says. “But if you could spend enough time with them, they would buy into it. You have to have the persistence to go back as many times as it takes.” Thanks to the persistence of Parkinson and many others, Gravity Probe B is in orbit today. Stay tuned for potentially explosive results.
Now, nobody should expect Congress to understand relativistic physics. But shouldn’t they know a little bit about some of the findings produced by federally funded projects like the Hubble Space Telescope over the past two decades? Unfortunately, an ever-smaller proportion of American society has the means to understand why today is so full of potential, or what is at stake. Parkinson and other inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame have plenty of stories to tell about their firsthand experiences with scientific illiteracy and the toll it takes on every American’s future. Consider the experience of Marcian (“Ted”) Hoff, the leader of the trio that invented the first microprocessor at Intel in 1969. Hoff has a story about asbestos.
Asbestos, of course, is a remarkable material that is being methodically removed from use because of the damaging effects it has on the respiratory system. Hoff agrees that asbestos must be handled properly and that the public is right to be concerned about it. However, he claims that ignorance about it causes public officials to overreact to its potential for harm while ignoring much more serious risks.
Hoff’s father-in-law, the late Solomon Schless, was a glassblower who used asbestos daily. He would draw outlines of current projects on asbestos-based paper, use it during the progress of the work, and then crumple it up and throw it away after each job was completed. “Sol worked six days a week, worked very long hours, for more than 30 years,” Hoff says. Because the dangers of asbestos were unknown, Schless wore no protective gear. And all the while, he smoked cigarettes.
Lung cancer eventually claimed Schless’s life, and there’s every reason to believe that asbestos contributed. He died at 75, which is actually rather young when you consider that a brother lived to be 90. “It’s hard to say how much longer he might have lived if not for all his exposure to asbestos,” his son-in-law admits.
Still, Hoff points out, this man lived to a relatively old age despite working intimately with asbestos for decades. Hoff argues that many other things are statistically much more dangerous—bike riding, for example—yet are much less frightening to the public. Why? Everybody understands the concept of injury due to falls, whereas the risk posed by asbestos seems more frightening because it is shrouded in mystery. Hoff argues that it’s just plain irrational to spend billions to remove every last speck of asbestos. “Sometimes the public becomes so terrified of something that we overreact. Yes, asbestos is dangerous, but not so much more dangerous than other things that we don’t worry about as much,” he says.
Ray Dolby, another inductee, who invented the revolutionary noise-reduction technology that bears his name, wonders if there’s something in the makeup of technologists that is missing in everyone else. “I think you have to have a propensity for technology or you won’t understand it,” he says. He remembers being in the second grade when he asked his father to tell him how a phonograph worked. The senior Dolby explained the basics of mechanical recording, including the marvelous idea that the squiggly grooves on a record correspond to the stylus vibrating in response to sound. “That was very exciting,” Dolby remembers.
But few seem interested in such things, he says. “This has always been a problem, but it is worse today. Pan of the problem is that the world is so much more complicated now.” Dolby recently visited Monticello, the homestead of America’s polymath President Thomas Jefferson. “It’s amazing to think that 200 years ago someone like Jefferson could believe that an educated person needed to understand everything that was known.” There was so much less to know back then.
We often hear that the solution to our problems is a greater emphasis on math and science in America’s schools. Of course this notion is completely correct. But I’ve heard it so many times that I’m having trouble being satisfied with it anymore. Waiting for a new generation to do what needs to be done is just not sufficient. Besides, advance reports about the next generation are less than auspicious.
This spring William Broad of The New York Times reported in excruciating detail on how the United States is losing its traditional lead in areas from Nobel Prizes to dominating the pages of important scientific publications. At the same time, nations around the world are doing an ever-better job of attracting the first-rate scientific talent that America formerly monopolized.
James West, still another Hall of Fame inductee, has an interesting comment about this situation. West spent most of his career at Bell Laboratories and now continues his research at Johns Hopkins University. He notes that students from foreign countries win a disproportionate number of graduate student slots because American students are being attracted to other fields. “We are running an export business,” he says. We’re giving foreigners skills just to take back home. Are we as a nation slowing down at a precise moment in history when we should be speeding up? Are we approaching a tipping point?
One thing I’ve noticed about the technologists I encounter is how reluctant many of them are to get involved in public affairs. The scientists and engineers I call friends tend to roll their eyes when the subject of politics comes up. They’d rather deal with something simple like quantum mechanics. But we live in a time when it’s all too easy to hear the voices of irrationality. And nonsense that surfaces in the forum of public opinion often goes unanswered by those of us who are too disinclined to get into discussions with the uninformed.
It should go without saying that being sophisticated about technology does not imply any other kind of wisdom, but there is one thing that technologists do understand better than the rest of us: technology. Our system depends upon a broad range of citizens making themselves heard on the spectrum of issues that needs to be understood if we’re going to invent a future that everyone wants. For the fact is, there aren’t enough people like Bradford Parkinson making the effort to give our leaders the insight they need to make smart decisions.
There are countless examples. Here’s one. The most promising field of technology today may be genetic engineering. The advances being made by molecular biologists are spectacular. The medical breakthroughs alone are enough to renew one’s hope for the future. Yet the pioneers in this field are hectored from all sides, and few of us come to their defense. Their access to stem cells is severely restricted because of ethical concerns that lie far outside the mainstream of opinion. Promising agricultural products—crops that require smaller amounts of pesticides or chemical fertilizers, for instance—are abandoned because of unanswered fears of “Frankenfood.”
Like asbestos, genetic engineering is potentially dangerous. No one is more aware of the real dangers than the molecular biologists in the field today. When the Hall of Fame inductees Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer invented gene splicing in 1972, one of the first things they did was call for a moratorium on some types of research until the risks were understood. An inquiry quickly determined that the risks were relatively minor and easily addressed. Since then genetic engineering has done virtually no damage. The same can’t be said for the chemical pesticides and fertilizers that are dumped into the environment daily because of opposition to genetically modified crops.
Technologically literate citizens need to be more engaged in the democratic processes that shape public policy. We need more Brad Parkinsons, returning to the halls of power as often as it takes to help explain what we need to know to invent the best possible future.