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Uninformed politicians are dangerous [Commentary]

Laws and LegislationEnvironmental PollutionMedicine

Former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens once famously stated that the Internet is a "series of tubes," an observation that would have been more comical if his committee hadn't been responsible for regulating the Internet. Rep. Michele Bachmann suggested that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation based on the unassailable evidence that a woman at a presidential debate told her so. And their legislative colleague Rep. Todd Akin — while serving on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee — defended a ban on abortion based partially on the belief that women who are raped can shut down their pregnancies.

Far from isolated incidents, these statements are indicative of the widening divide between peer-reviewed scientific consensus and what is accepted in popular and political circles. Almost all actively publishing climate scientists (97 percent) agree with the conclusion that Earth's climate is changing and human activity is primarily responsible. Yet denial of that conclusion is a virtual litmus test for admission into the Republican party.

It is understandable if members of the electorate are unaware or even skeptical of recent scientific conclusions, especially given an American media environment in which the number of weekly science sections in newspapers has dropped from 95 to 19 since 1989.

But the impacts of such ignorance could scarcely be greater. The amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere is higher now than in the last 3.2 to 5 million years, and rising. Scientists warn of rising sea levels and intensifying "Dust Bowl-like" droughts, both of which will require massive taxpayer outlays in the form of flood and crop insurance.

They also warn of more weather-related disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan, which claimed at least 4,000 lives, and Superstorm Sandy, which inflicted an estimated $65 billion in damage. Scientists predict more frequent and intense wildfires, like those in the Western United States, which have already caused federal firefighting spending to triple to over $3 billion per year since the 1990s.

And for those who might still dismiss such disasters as "not our problem," a Johns Hopkins University study found that similar wildfires 1,000 miles away in Quebec increased fine particulate air pollution in Baltimore 30-fold. In total, the average U.S. taxpayer is spending almost $400 per year in disaster relief, a number that is projected to increase.

Rather than take corrective action in light of overwhelming evidence, many members of Congress publicly argue that the science is inconclusive, or worse, a hoax. In North Carolina, legislators recklessly passed a law requiring state planners to assume 8 inches of sea level rise by 2100 even though international research groups project 39 inches.

It would be ideal if elected leaders without scientific experience routinely consulted with experts. In practice however, federal legislators can seldom afford to keep a scientist on staff. The problem is even worse on state and local levels where budgets are more restrictive.

Regardless of whether a lawmaker has access to scientific counsel, though, there is no substitute for scientists' physical presence when policy proposals are being negotiated. Consider our government surveillance program. Debating what data the U.S. should collect in the name of security depends partly on knowledge of "data mining," the process by which large amounts of information are analyzed for underlying patterns. Congressional oversight is clearly more effective when exercised by representatives with expertise in data processing as opposed to neophytes trying to learn on the fly.

Scientists are the second most trusted occupational group behind only the military, but most are reluctant to run for public office. Many worry that serving will jeopardize their objectivity or derail their research careers. Even here in Maryland, which has a part-time "citizen legislature" designed to encourage diverse representation, there is not a single Ph.D. scientist in our House of Delegates. And only one, Don Engel of Baltimore County, has announced his candidacy for 2014.

Simply put, our national challenges have become too numerous and complex to continue relying on the status quo. While restoring scientific literacy to government is no easy project, it is one we must undertake. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.

Mike Specian is a Ph.D. candidate in astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University and a former Mirzayan Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences. His email is mspecian@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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