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Editor's Note

Would you opt to see the future or decipher the past?

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3:45pm, November 29, 2017
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Wouldn’t it be brilliant if every scientist had a crystal ball? It’s a question that came to me while reading Alexandra Witze’s story “What the Pliocene epoch can teach us about future warming on Earth.” Witze discusses how scientists are studying a warming period some 3 million years ago to try to understand how Earth will handle rising temperatures. The geologic epoch, known as the Pliocene, isn’t a perfect crystal ball, she notes. But paleoceanographer Heather Ford says, “It’s our closest analog for future climate change.”

A true crystal ball could answer many climate change questions: Which cities might be underwater in the future? Which regions will be suitable for farming, and which will become desert? Which diseases should we watch for? More generally, we could all find out just how bad extreme heat and weather might be. Perhaps such insights would give us the kick we need to change our current behavior and appropriately plan for a dramatically different world.

With such science-focused clairvoyance, we could also improve our lives in other ways: Those treatments we hope to find for multiple sclerosis, we could find them today instead. We could predict problems with infrastructure, including the potential for swaying bridges or worse, bridge collapse. And we could explore when it would be smart to use gene drives, if ever, and when they’d be a colossal mistake.

It would be enticing to peek into the future, but much of the past is also obscured. Wouldn’t it be neat to know when human ancestors first started making stone tools or to study past pandemics and their sources with crystal-clear clarity? I’d be fascinated to watch how water striders or leafhoppers evolved.

In an informal poll, I asked Science News staffers if they’d prefer to see into the past or the future. Life sciences writer Susan Milius, among the first to reply, said exquisite vision that worked only backward would drive her crazy. “Plain old 20/20 hindsight is annoying enough,” she said. A couple of other writers voted for the future too, so they could scoop competitors on stories. And assistant art director Chang Won Chang wanted to know how technology will change how humans live.

But most people would choose to look back instead of forward. “The origins of life and the origins of the universe are more intriguing questions to me than their respective ends,” said audience engagement editor Mike Denison. Associate editor Emily DeMarco thought that knowing the future could hinder creativity, and design director Erin Otwell said thinking about the future comes with too much worry. Added astronomy writer Lisa Grossman, “I don’t think I would trust anything I saw in the future.” Then she circled back to a sentiment similar to that expressed by the scientists studying the Pliocene. “Seeing the past might help me understand the present,” Grossman said, “which would help me prepare for the future.”

And what about our readers? What scientific answers would you seek if you had a crystal ball? Let us know via e-mail at editors@sciencenews.org.

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