Obama and science – Essential bed-time reading for the next Administration

Finally, the campaigning is over, everyone knows more about fruit flies than they ever wanted to (thank you Sarah Palin), and on an historic day America has “voted for change.”  As the country looks forward to a radical change in leadership, the coming weeks are going to be wall-to-wall analysis of what an Obama administration will mean for everything from the economy to energy.  And 2020science.org will be there in the thick of things.  But after a heavy night of vote-watching, I thought something a little lighter was in order.

So here as an antidote to election fatigue are five good books every “convalescing campaigner” should have by their bedside as they work on regaining their strength.  And as you might expect, I’ve thrown in a subtle but nevertheless significant emphasis on good science policy.

But first some explaining is in order, because I suspect that the list below will raise more than a few eyebrows.

Much as I love science and technology, I’m savvy enough I hope to realize that not everyone has my passion for the subject.  In fact, when it comes to making big decisions that affect millions of people, I’m not sure that an obsession with scientific minutiae is necessary or even helpful—too many distractions to obscure the big picture.  (And there are always plenty of experts that can be tapped into when necessary with the right networks in place).

But I do think that an understanding of what science is, how it works, and how it can be used, is essential to good policy making.

Bottom line: It probably isn’t a good idea to try and turn the President of the United States into a scientist.  But it does make sense to ensure he has a good feel for how science (and technology) can be used to strengthen the country and change people’s lives.

And so my bed-time book list aims to enlighten the reader on how to use science wisely in a complex society, rather than educate them on the nuts and bolts of scientific knowledge.

Without further ado therefore, and in reverse order of preference, we have:

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. OK, so Bryson goes into the minutiae occasionally, but this is a book that succeeds where many fail in communicating what science is and why it is important—probably because it was written by someone who isn’t actually a scientist!  A close contender for this spot was Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.  Another great book, but while Bryson provides a rather homely thanksgiving dinner of a book, Angier’s Canon is more like the after-dinner truffles—exceedingly good, but best in small amounts!

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis Collins.  Wherever you are on the God-scale, this book has one overarching message—scientific evidence is not a matter of belief.  An important message for anyone making big decisions who doesn’t want to really mess-up.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Because all work and no play makes anyone rather dull—no science here, but a reminder that there’s more to a functional social life than being a geek!  And if Jane Austen’s original is too much to stomach, there is always Helen Fielding’s re-write in the form of Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre. A searing exposé of the dangers of misrepresenting and misusing science, written by a physician and columnist for The Guardian newspaper.  A highly accessible, entertaining and essential read for anyone using scientific knowledge to make informed decisions.  Unfortunately the book is not available directly in the States, but beg, borrow or steal a copy—or order it directly from Amazon.co.uk.  Or failing that, check out Ben’s blog at www.badscience.net.  (look out for more on this book in later blogs).

The Bromeliad Trilogy, by Terry Pratchett. Ignore for a moment the fact that this is a fantasy tale, was written for children, and is in fact three books and not one.  Because this rather subtle and deceptively deep fable speaks volumes about the interplay between belief, technology and awkward citizens when tough decisions are needed under changing circumstances.  But more than anything else, it eloquently explores the importance of humility and conviction in leadership.  Read it, and you will be reminded that understanding the implications of science and technology is just the beginning of good decision-making.  And as a bonus, you will have a great set of books to share with the family.

So now I batten down the hatches and wait for the abuse to flow (“wot, no Einstein for Dummies?” I hear you say).

But before you post a suitably acerbic comment on the inanity of my choices, consider this:  What does it take to use science (and technology) most effectively in the service of society?  I would put high on my list three things: Humility, an open mind, and a willingness to change course in the light of new information—three things that all five books here tackle head-on.

Enjoy ☺

(Note: this entry was originally posted with the title “Five good books (Bed time reading for convalescing campaigners)

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Andrew Maynard