The bulk of the problems we face are ultimately due to ignorance: lack of knowledge and understanding at one level or another. This has always been the case in the past, and will certainly continue to be so in the future.
Science is the nemesis of ignorance, and ignorance is our single biggest enemy. Ignorance has been attacking us for ages and it is so ever present that we often forget that it’s there. Broad-based support for science, and the public awareness and appreciation of it, are essential if we are to have a future. There is no single overwhelmingly pressing sub field or sub-issue. We need it all, we need it now, and we need everyone to understand it as deeply as possible.
We still die from diseases we don’t know how to cure, or even worse that we could easily prevent. We may even fail to follow up avenues of research that could show success due to ignorance of basic biology.
We pollute our planet or are dependent on other countries for energy because we don’t know how to do any better, or we fail to understand the consequences of our actions. Perhaps worse, we fail to appreciate techniques that we already have which can produce power cleanly and eliminate nuclear waste.
We treat each other with hatred or disrespect because we fail to understand different cultures and customs. We harm ourselves with dangerous chemicals because we don’t know enough to keep away from things that will ultimately hurt us.
With this in mind, and trying to capture some of the Zeitgeist, we propose that the US launch a vigorous “War on Ignorance”. Funding comparable to that of the Wars on Drugs and Terror should be funneled into an aggressive counterstrike against the things that wound us or hold us back most.
We need better schools and a uniform and high standard of education for everyone, better science in the media, better public education (including about diet, health, drugs, sex, and everything else we so often remain silent about, making safe harbors for the Axis of Ignorance), and more money for both basic and applied research.
So let us arm the people—all of them—as well as we can. Arm them with knowledge, so that they become productive, law-abiding, tax-paying members of society. Arm them so that they may live with hope and dignity, and contribute to the good of all.
Leave them without it, and we’ll have a society governed by irrationality and fear. It’s an old saying that knowledge is power, and this is truer now than it’s ever been. Ignorance, as always, remains our biggest foe. Focus on taking that one out, and the rest will follow.
Stephen Reucroft, Physicist, Matthews Distinguished University Professor Northeastern University, Coauthor (with John Swain) of syndicated column “Science Briefs”
John Swain, Physicist, Northeaster University, Coauthor (with Stephen Reucroft) of syndicated column “Science Briefs”, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology at New York University
Dear Mr. President,
With the threat of war in the Middle East, continuing concerns about terrorism, and a weak economy, science is probably not high on your agenda right now. But it should be.
Some the decisions you make now could dramatically affect the fate of our country, not just in the next decade, but in the next century. Perhaps most important among them will be the choices you make about stem cell research. If your administration continues to restrict stem cell research as it has, America will lose its place at the forefront of science and technology.
It will start slowly; few people will notice as some of our best scientists move elsewhere—to countries like Britain, Canada, Germany, and Japan. But within a decade or two, someone will notice that the most important patents and technology of the 21st century are all held elsewhere. In the 20th century, we led the way—our discovery of transistors led to everything from radios and televisions to cell phones and PocketPCs. But the leading technologies in the 21st century—cures for cancer, heart disease, and mental illness—will all be biological, and without research on stem cells, we will be left behind.
Stem cells are so important because they hold the key to life itself. Everything about the human condition—from the heartbeat or a smile of a newborn baby to the ability of our bodies to fight off disease—follows from the choices of individual cells in growing organisms. Embryonic stem cells burst with potential, therapeutically and scientifically; they truly can become anything. The researchers who master their secrets will be able to use them to repair damaged hearts, build vastly better drugs, and even regenerate damaged brain tissue and heal fractured minds. They will also be able to use those secrets to figure out what makes the human brain special, and in so doing open the door to new kinds of tools for education, probably not yet even dreamt of.
In the next century, the most educated, the most healthy, and the most wealthy citizens will be the ones living in the country that best understands the science of the human body. Let us not lose our place at the head of the class.
Gary F. Marcus, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology at New York University
Author of The Birth of the Mind: Creating the Complexity of the Human Brain (forthcoming).
Steven R. Quartz , Neuroscientist; Associate Professor of Philosophy, Caltech; Coauthor, Liars,……
Dear Mr. President:
First, I should start off by endorsing virtually all the recommendations you have received so far. I would add another recommendation, which I believe addresses a fundamental, but ironically largely ignored, problem facing us today. Let me put the problem this way: why is it that in an age of unprecedented material wealth, a billion dollar self-help industry, and an economy designed to feed not stomachs but lifestyles, more and more people are depressed and go through life listlessly, with little sense of purpose or meaning? Why in the absence of such meaning do some people turn to destructive ideologies, whose manifestations in terrorism are all to real (I think a cult model is the way you should be thinking about terrorist organizations, by the way)?
Studies of our biological constitution make it increasingly clear that we are social creatures of meaning, who crave a sense of coherence and purpose. Yet, our modern way of life seems to provide fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in the group life that satisfies these human needs—indeed, many of its structures and institutions stunts these very needs. In addition to these obstacles within the design of modern life, it’s my hunch that modernist culture is based on a profoundly mistaken view of human needs. The upshot is a deeply flawed view of human happiness as the private pursuit of self actualization. The implications are profound, and range from an enormous cost in public health terms to more and more social conflicts, terrorism being just one manifestation of these.
As science advisor, I would initiate a program at the intersection of science and culture to investigate what modern brain science reveals about human needs and how such an understanding can be applied to create both ways of living and a culture that better satisfies them—for lack of a better word, I’d call this “neurosociology.”
I think we will find that the staggering advances in brain science reveal human needs to be vastly different from the modern view—for example, that we aren’t the asocial, consumptive selves Freud thought we were, but instead are deeply social and need not only to belong but to identify with groups and purposes larger than ourselves.
This initiative would attempt to use this new knowledge to design ways of living that provide more opportunity for real meaning and social engagement that the human brain requires—from how we ought to think about the design of communities, the workplace, learning institutions, and entertainment and leisure. This initiative would also have to focus on a deeply troubling problem: although science is the engine of our society, its core values and insights have had only a weak influence on our culture. This is a troubling gap: for science, and therefore, our civilization, to sustain itself, we require a culture that is built on the core values and insights of science itself, one that endows human life with the meaning we all crave. Aligning the design of life and a sustaining culture with the human needs that brain science is beginning to reveal would, I think, have a profound impact on many of the most troubling social dilemmas we face.
To sum it up, I would recommend the creation of a new science of human flourishing and significance, a nascent neurosociology, whose goal would be a happiness worth having.
Steven Quartz, Neuroscientist, Division of Humanities & Social Sciences, and Computation and Neural Systems Program
California Institute of Technology
Coauthor (with Terrence Sejnowski) of Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are.