"Their own priorities, not ours"
On the need to match progress in social science with progress in the hard sciences
The pace of scientific and technological progress does a great deal to define every age, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution to the contemporary Internet. We even defined an entire block of centuries as the "Dark Ages" for their apparent lack of progress (even if that name is seen as insensitive today). No era of progress can compare with the accelerated pace of the one in which we live -- though it seems abundantly likely that future eras will be defined by even quicker acceleration. More people will have access to more tools, from a more advanced (and wealthier) base than any time before.
■ The dividends of this progress will often be unevenly distributed: Some people will have Teslas before others have reliable household electricity. But other forms of will affect almost everyone at once. The previously unimaginable speed with which mRNA vaccines were developed to combat the Covid-19 epidemic confers a not just on a few (even if they have been distributed first and most widely in the most fortunate countries). In terms of efficacy and speed to deployment, the mRNA vaccines applied against the Covid-19 pandemic are probably the vanguard not only of bringing this pandemic to a halt, but to slamming the brakes on the next viral calamity, whatever it might be.
■ The story of those vaccines also tells of the extraordinary importance of understanding human behavior, especially in relation to technological change. The spread of misinformation, disinformation, and malevolent propaganda regarding both the disease and its prevention have made what would objectively seem to be a battle of pure science into something vastly more social.
■ Meteorology deserves a lot of respect for diving head-first into an unapologetic integration of its "hard" science with social psychology. The National Weather Service, example, has aggressively revised its warning systems to shrink the frequency of warning the public against events that never occur. Not only have they improved own ability to forecast serious events, they have revised their warning system so that as few people can be alerted as possible. The more reliable and closely-targeted their warnings, the less the "boy who cried wolf" effect. Fewer false alarms result in higher confidence in future alarms as they are issued. Yet the job is far from finished.
■ The disastrous tornado outbreak that crossed multiple states and killed dozens of people is a reminder that even though the scientists see a disaster coming, what matters most is whether the people in its path knew what to do and when to take action. It is clear that the loss of life in Illinois and Kentucky brings many meteorologists to grief. As Ohio-based meteorologist Justin Gehrts noted, "When your vocation is weather, of course you know about everything way beforehand. When your vocation isn't weather, why *would* you know about everything beforehand? People aren't ignorant or stupid. They are living their own lives with their own priorities, not ours."
■ That sort of modesty about the limits of hard science ought to be taken to heart more broadly -- it's not just the field of meteorology that needs to meet the public wherever the public happens to be. So do public health and microbiology, climatology and astronomy, chemistry and cryptology. Scientific and technological progress are invariably human enterprises, and the science of helping humans to understand and relate to those changes both thoughtfully and proactively has never been more important.