Last month, I attended the 50th anniversary of my college graduation. A week later, I celebrated my grandson’s graduation from high school. I don’t think I was much different from the kids in my grandson’s class when I went away to college in 1954 (give or take a few rings and tattoos). Like them, I was filled with trepidation but also excitement about testing my physical and intellectual abilities beyond high school. But my how the world has changed in 50 years!
I began my last year of college in 1957. On October 4 that year, the Soviet Union electrified the world by successfully launching a satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. Little did we dream that out of the ensuing space race between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. would come 24-hour television news channels, cellphones, and GPS navigation.
In 1958, the only trans-Atlantic phone lines were cables laid on the ocean floor, so phone calls to England had to be booked hours or sometimes days in advance. I flew from Toronto to a roommate’s wedding in San Francisco on a propeller plane that made several stops during the 22-hour trip.
In 1958, scientists were still debating about whether genetic material was DNA or protein, we didn’t know how many chromosomes humans have or that the Y chromosome determines sex, and the Green Revolution was yet to come. Polio was still a problem in North America, smallpox killed hundreds of thousands annually, and oral contraceptives, photocopiers, personal computers, colour TV, and DVDs didn’t exist.
In 1958, parts of the Amazon, Congo, and New Guinea had not been explored. We were yet to learn of species extinction, depletion of fish in the oceans, the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer, acid rain, global warming, PCBs, and dioxins.
In half a century our lives have been transformed by scientific, medical, and technological advances, as well as a host of environmental problems. No one deliberately set out to undermine the planet’s life-support systems or tear communities apart, but those have been the consequences of our enormous economic and technological “success” over the past five decades. Beset by vast problems of wealth discrepancy, environmental issues, poverty, terror, genocide, and prejudice, we are trying to weave our way into an uncertain future.
I began speaking out on television in 1962 because I was shocked by the lack of understanding of science at a time when science as applied by industry, medicine, and the military was having such a profound impact on our lives. I felt we needed more scientific understanding if we were to make informed decisions about the forces shaping our lives.
Today, thanks to computers and the Internet, and television, radio, and print media, we have access to more information than humanity has ever had. To my surprise, this access has not equipped us to make better decisions about such matters as climate change, peak oil, marine depletion, species extinction, and global pollution. That’s largely because we now have access to so much information that we can find support for any prejudice or opinion.
Don’t want to believe in evolution? No problem – you can find support for intelligent design and creationism in magazines, on websites, and in all kinds of books written by people with PhDs.
Want to believe aliens came to Earth and abducted people? It’s easy to find theories about how governments have covered up information on extraterrestrial aliens. Think human-induced climate change is junk science? Well, if you choose to read only certain national newspapers and magazines and listen only to certain popular commentators on television or radio, you’ll never have to change your mind.
And so it goes. The challenge today is that there is a huge volume of information out there, much of it biased or deliberately distorted. As I think about my grandson, his hopes and dreams and the immense issues my generation has bequeathed him, I realize what he and all young people need most are the tools of skepticism, critical thinking, the ability to assess the credibility of sources, and the humility to realize we all possess beliefs and values that must constantly be reexamined.
With those tools, his generation will certainly leave a better world to its children and grandchildren 50 years from now.