A Requiem for Technocracy

STONY BROOK – In 2010, when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal unveiled a $220 million scheme to use sand berms to block the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from a British Petroleum oilrig, scientists opposed the plan, stating that it would do little more than harm local ecosystems. Even after the national commission investigating the spill declared the initiative a failure for having captured only 1,000 of the nearly five million barrels of oil believed to have gushed into the Gulf, Jindal did not relent, calling the statements “partisan revisionist history at taxpayer expense.”

Jindal’s response reflects an ongoing – and potentially catastrophic – shift away from science-based policymaking. This is not how I imagined twenty-first-century politics would be. When I was a graduate student in the humanities in the 1970s, my mentors thundered against the coming technocratic state. Politicians, I was told, would soon listen only to experts who would sacrifice human values for the sake of efficiency, while ordinary citizens’ voices would be drowned out.

If only more of that scenario were true. Today, issues about which facts really matter – for example, the safety of genetically modified foods, the hazards of extracting shale oil and gas, and the impact of global warming – are debated without regard for scientific evidence or in ways that use distorted and cherry-picked information to promote a chosen position. Politicians and activists portray these issues as social struggles or morality plays: big businesses against small farmers, oppressors versus liberators, or conspirators seeking to deceive innocent citizens.

For example, after a recent World Health Organization report warned that the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan had only slightly increased local residents’ risk of developing certain kinds of cancers, the environmental organization Greenpeace, deeming the figures too low, denounced the report as “a political statement to protect the nuclear industry.” Similarly, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an American environmental activist, has accused the United States government and the drug industry of conspiring to obscure the link between childhood vaccines and autism – a link for which there is no scientific evidence.