KENNEDY: Sociological whiplash on maddening display

June 16, 2012

Sheila Suess KennedyA couple of weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to innovation.

There was a story about Craig Ventner, who sequenced the human genome and is working on producing artificial living organisms—including bacteria that will excrete a substitute for oil. Another article described inventions poised to come on the market—a fabric that can charge your cell phone, a car with cruise control that automatically maintains a set distance between you and the car in front of you, a bike with anti-theft handlebars, synthetic alcohol (shades of Star Trek and “synthahol!”), and much more.

My favorite was a breakthrough that would allow food manufacturers to substitute an edible “shell” for food packaging. For example, your yogurt might come in a shell of strawberry you could eat, rather than another carton to clutter our landfills. (And even if you didn’t like the shell, it would biodegrade.)

The whole issue was a tribute to human ingenuity and smarts—to our ability to understand our world and its building blocks and to confront challenges big and small.

And then there’s our politics.

If America is producing savvy scientists and remarkable technologies—and we are—we are also electing embarrassing buffoons who are doing their best to return us to that state of nature known as “ignorant.”

There are so many examples that choosing one was hard, but let me try. A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill that would require state agencies to base estimates of rising sea levels only on historical data—and to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence that the seas are rising much faster now due to climate change.

A bit of background: Scientists have estimated that the sea level along the coast of North Carolina will rise about a meter by the end of the century. That poses a problem for business and real estate interests in the state. But fear not! North Carolina legislators came to the rescue with a brilliant plan to deal with the situation—they’d just mandate inaccurate projections.

As a Scientific American employee who lives in North Carolina characterized this approach:

“Which is exactly like saying, do not predict tomorrow’s weather based on radar images of a hurricane swirling offshore, moving west towards us with 60 mph winds and 10 inches of rain. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east. Don’t use radar and barometers; use the Farmer’s Almanac and what Grandpa remembers.”

Indiana blogger Doug Masson compared the North Carolina legislative proposal to the old story of King Canute. Canute was a 10th century Danish ruler who—or so the legend goes—ordered the tides to retreat. He wasn’t successful, either.

It would be comforting to believe that those legislators are just an embarrassing aberration, but that would require that we ignore legislative shenanigans elsewhere: Kansas rejecting science in favor of creationism; the Texas Board of Education replacing Jefferson in American history texts with Thomas Aquinas; Oklahoma prohibiting its courts from employing Sharia law (because that was happening so often in Oklahoma!).

Shades of 1897, when Indiana lawmakers famously tried to change the value of pi!

In this corner, the brilliant minds that gave you your computer and iPhone. In that corner, the champions of denial and short-term gratification.

The existential questions: Can the smart guys save us from the idiots we elect? And figure out why we elect them?•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.



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