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So James said something interesting yesterday

July 24, 2006

So James said something interesting yesterday. This is not a shock. James often says interesting things. But I wanted to comment on something in particular:

Scientific knowledge has become so intricate and specialized that it’s impossible to expect even policymakers, let alone voters, to be well-informed about issues that will have significant impact on our educational system, our consumer habits, our medical treatments, and our world.

I’m not sure that scientific knowledge hasn’t always been too complex for policymakers and voters to understand more than a bastardized version of it. Think of the late 19th century and Social Darwinism; a hugely simplistic version of Darwin’s theory for application to human society that was horribly inaccurate to both Darwin and how the world actually worked. But let’s add another layer into this. What about the scientific consensuses that are wrong?

There were any number of major scientific consensuses in the late 19th century that were wrong (though I’m struggling to come up with a good example at the moment) and upon which public policy was based. We look back now in wonder at that (Aha! Got one: the germ theory of disease was not accepted until the late 19th century; before that it was quite common for doctors to go from infected patients to uninfected ones without disinfecting themselves). But what are the wrong consensuses now? Until 20 years ago, doctors thought ulcers were caused only by stress; now they have realized that they are caused by bacteria. Until five years ago, scientists believed that “rogue waves” (higher than 50 feet tall) were incredibly rare; now they know that they’re actually fairly common.

So what accepted theories will turn out to be wrong a year, five years, a century from now that we are basing public policy on?

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