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When Scientists Speak, Who Listens?

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Scientists get no respect these days. When they speak, no one listens. It doesn't matter how many scientists are speaking, what they are saying, or what their qualifications are, they get a fraction of the media attention lavished on a reality TV star or an American Idol contestant. Three thousand scientists and experts, including a number of Nobel Laureates, joined together and issued a warning several weeks ago about the planet and possible "catastrophic consequences" for global civilization, but Kim Kardashian and her alleged marriage woes stole the headlines. The Royal Society, the world's oldest and most distinguished academy of science, late last month issued a report on how increasing population and rising consumption are imperiling the planet. Sir John Sulston, the Nobel Prize Laureate who chaired the working group,cautioned about a possible "downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills," but his warning got less press attention in the U.S. than Mitt Romney's dog.

If scientists get any media attention it's only because the science-deniers are ridiculing them. When the Royal Society produced its "Population and the Planet," report, the ink was not even dry before the critics were slashing away at it. A writer for The Economist declared, "On the whole it stinks." A self-described "global expert on the metal scandium," asserts in Forbes and The Telegraph, that it is "an appallingly bad report" and "a dismal failure." Really? Did anyone actually read the report, or look at the credentials of those who wrote it? Doubtful.

We live in the Era of Willful Ignorance. It is not only acceptable; it is fashionable to throw scientific caution to the wind. The Euro has more 'currency' than scientific warnings about climate change, food security, the oceans, or biodiversity loss. Any scientist venturing into the public realm, no matter how respected by his or her peers, is treated like an intellectual varmint by politicians, special interests, and arm-chair critics, who immediately open up with a volley of prefabricated rebuttals and personal attacks.

Because these rhetorical assaults are so successful, political leaders shy away from embracing scientific conclusions for fear that they will alienate uninformed voters, who easily make up a majority of the electorate. You can count on one hand the number of politicians taking a leadership role on climate change or any of the other environmental challenges facing the world. And God forbid that any elected official should suggest that the planet is in peril or that the economic growth engine as we have known it over the past century is not sustainable. Issues like food security, loss of biodiversity, and resource scarcity are politically taboo. Do a search of the Congressional Record and you will find that these issues are rarely, if ever, discussed.

History will not be kind to today's leaders. Decades from now, posterity will look back at what passes today for political discourse in this country and they will ask, "What planet were they living on?" They will marvel at how politicians could be so heedless of science and so neglectful of posterity.

The fault, of course, is not with our leaders, but with us. In a representative democracy we get the government we deserve. If we are more concerned about Kim Kardashian's marriage or Mitt Romney's dog than we are about the future of humanity, we can hardly blame our elected representatives for their lack of courage and foresight. As England's Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said more than a century ago, "There go the people, and I must follow, for I am their leader."

I don't know how we translate scientific warnings into actionable awareness, but the key, I suspect, is making people understand that the future is now. A year ago, Jeremy Grantham, the co-founder of GMO, one of the largest investment management firms in the world, caused a stir in the financial community when he wrote a newsletter titled, "Time to wake up: Days of abundant resources and falling prices are over forever." Grantham's analysis suggests that the world is already experiencing the effects of resource scarcity, and that climate change and other factors could make life more difficult for current generations, not just posterity.

Grantham is highly respected in financial circles. If his analysis is correct, and there is every reason to believe it is, then people may begin to attach a higher degree of urgency to what scientists are telling us about the world. Let's hope so.

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