The Sublimity of Science
The pursuit of natural truth has allowed humanity to manipulate and utilize our surrounding universe to levels unfathomable to even our recent ancestors. By carefully observing natural phenomena, we are able to abstract the theoretical principles and model what we suppose to be the underlying laws that govern these phenomena. We can be confident in these models and theories insofar as they predict future observations. This predictive power is mostly easily demonstrated by the technology we ultimately produce with our greater understanding of the natural phenomena. It is not by sheer chance that when I power on my laptop the physical mechanics all interact so that it functions as expected. And while we may marvel at the utter complexity of cutting edge technology, it is only possible because of our strong understanding of the underlying properties.
Yet, this understanding would not be possible but for the rigorous scientific method, which allows us to be increasingly certain of what is true and what is false. And though science may be at best an asymptotic approach of omniscience, it is the closest humanity may come with our fundamentally limited physical senses and mental comprehension. Science will always be at some level an approximation of truth, but it is a constantly refined approximation, and certainly the best one we can hope to have.
The reason for this verbose introduction is to express my frustration with so much of society’s lack of understanding of science and the process by which sciences comes to be understood. I certainly do not purport to be any sort of scientific expert; I am not a theoretical physicist, geneticist, or climatologist, but I ultimately defer to the experts in each discipline because I understand that the scientific process itself ensures that every claim of settled science has undergone immeasurable scrutiny and verification. Does this mean that every single claim, even those in the realm of active research is absolutely correct? Of course not, and the idea that this undermines the credibility of science would be laughable if it were not so prevalent. As I said, science is the pursuit of identifying the underlying laws that govern our universe, and they will always be our best approximation of any sort of absolute truth.
The Myth of Balanced Reporting
Yet every day media conflates fringe beliefs with legitimate skepticism in an appearance to give “both sides of the story,” even when one side is settled science and the other side utter nonsense. This manifests itself clearly on the right wing of the American political spectrum. Despite an overwhelming body of corroborating evidence in diverse fields ranging from genetics to archaeology, many prominent figureheads insist on presenting evolution science on the same footing as young-earth creationism. What’s wrong with ‘teaching the controversy,’ some insist? I think that the problem stems from the epistemological question of whether truth is knowable. Despite the incredible technology that could not have possibly arisen if not for the “knowabality” of truth, many have difficulty accepting that the human race, for one reason or another, has stumbled upon some true knowledge. This is especially so when this knowledge challenges some other political, social, economic, or especially, religious belief of the individual. Similarly, legitimate skepticism about anthropogenic climate change is blown out of proportion, in the interest of “fairness,” due to its challenging implications. Again, while many people gladly accept and rely upon vast amounts of settled science when it serves to convenience them, they are suddenly overly-skeptical when it confronts their interests. Not all science is as easily demonstrable to laymen as Newtonian kinematics, or even GPS, both of which have accuracies which may be easily verified. Yet just because something takes a bit more expertise to fully understand, does not mean it is somehow less verifiable, or that the process by which it was obtained was any less rigorous.
And while the right surely has more than its fair share of anti-scientific beliefs, the left should certainly not be too smug, for the same irrational mentality permeates their ranks as well. Belief in conspiracy theories, homeopathy, anti-vaccination campaigns, and psychic abilities are all symptoms of the gullible liberal. The left is certainly guilty of the “truth is unknowable” mindset, or that truth is relative, so that your truth may be different than my truth. And though this may be true if we consider the watered down subjective ‘truths’ of experience and perception, physical entities are far more definite than that. Distrust of science, especially scary-sounding chemicals (think DHMO, i.e. dihydrogen monoxide) is rampant throughout the left. In fact, the Green Party of Canada was recently called out for endorsing that homeopathic ‘medicine’ be covered by social insurance in its official campaign platform. To be clear, homeopathy is the practice of ‘like curing like’ with its potency inversely proportional to the substance’s concentration. This entails a series of dilutions, shaken at each step, to a concentration so small that statistically there is little chance that a single atom of the original substance remains in the water, which is then ingested as a pill. Though no doubt an excellent candidate for the highly interesting research area of the ‘placebo effect,’ proponents insist that the pill itself has active medicinal properties, despite being chemically indistinguishable from water.
The Double Standard of Paranoia
One hallmark of the paranoid skeptic is his inability to cast that same skepticism on his own beliefs. Contrary to the scientific method, the paranoid skeptic has reached his conclusion completely unbothered by the facts of the matter. Healthy skepticism on the other hand is the very driving force behind scientific progress. Dissatisfaction with the current, incomplete explanations that science offers drive scientists to explore new observations, to make ever broader, more explanatory theories. Furthermore, healthy skepticism is done in the spirit of legitimate scientific inquiry while paranoid skepticism always seems to align with the individual’s own personal interests. How coincidental. For better or for worse, objective truth is under no obligation to conform to anyone’s values or intuition. Even a genius as prolific as Einstein was troubled by this fact, as he sought to explain what was later proven to be the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics with deterministic ‘hidden variables.’ Scientific truth may be as troubling as it is counter-intuitive, yet the beauty is that what eventually enters the canons of settled science is proved well beyond a reasonable doubt.
The same can not be said unscientific rubbish. Most claims remain unfalsifiable, or even when they are proved wrong, continue to be believed anyway. To pick on homeopathy again for a moment, the original inventor and advocate of it, Samuel Hahnemann, developed the method towards the end of the 18th century. To his credit, the field of medicine was still very poorly understood and his methods may have even been less harmful than those of his contemporaries. However the test of time has shown that hypothesis was patently false. In that time, medicine has advanced dramatically, yet somehow no serious practitioner believes in the efficacy of homeopathy. It’s not just that its old, for we still use Newton’s 17th century laws to describe macroscopic motion, it’s that it’s simply false. Worse are the claims that linger due to the fact that they are intrinsically worded such that they cannot be proved false. For example, a conspiracy theorist may contend that any scientific argument against his pet conspiracy is simply acting as part of the conspiracy (or his deception is part of that same conspiracy), or a religious person may claim that “God’s plan is unknowable”, and that artifacts of evolution were all placed by the Devil to deceive us.
The Chutzpah of Knowledge
It is essential that we as society have the audacity to discern healthy skepticism from paranoid skepticism and true science from pseudoscience. Some may claim that to accept science requires just as much faith as any religion, yet I would hardly call faith standing atop a mountain of observable evidence the same as faith that flies in the face of that same evidence. It may seem audacious, or even mean-spirited to claim to know anything with certainty, yet we accept this pretense every day when we turn on the light switch or do not attempt to fly by leaping off a building. It is essential that we as society understand science, how it works, and what its limitations are. We must know that its limitations are not a sign of its weakness but of its humility. It does not purport to know what can not be demonstrated or proved, it simply leaves these areas for future scientists to stand on the shoulders of today’s giants.
We must understand that the scientific method does not always provide the correct or complete answer, but it always becomes more correct and more complete in the long run. A false belief in science does not have a very long shelf life. Like evolution, or even Wikipdedia, the current iteration remains exceptionally adept because poor genes or inaccuracies do not stand the test of time. It is the reason why Newton’s laws of motion are still taught today in every elementary physics classroom while Hahnemann’s practice of homeopathy has fallen by the wayside, but for a fringe following.
It is important to examine science critically, but we must also be aware of our own limitations and lack of expertise in a given field. We should be highly skeptical of claims that wildly contradict an overwhelming majority of experts, not because truth is determined by democratic consensus, but because in order to convince such a majority of some of the most skeptical and intelligent people on the planet requires an enormous burden of proof. And while the scientific community may come to universally accept ideas later shown to be false or incomplete, they are almost always the most correct beliefs of the period.
So though the intention of this post was not to explicitly disprove each and every piece of nonsense within society, I do hope that people of all socio-political camps accept superficially controversial settled science as readily as you accept more intuitive settled science. Understand that the media feeds off of contrived controversies and utterly fails at their responsibility of due diligence in scientific reporting. Most importantly, confront those within your own ranks spouting pseudo-scientific garbage. Even if you yourself are a logical, rational person, I am certain that you will not have to look too far to find an ally who believes in nonsense. And finally, if you remain unconvinced about any single issue mentioned, or the countless others I have neglected, please educate yourself on these topics with an open mind and some internal reflection on what evidence you have or if your beliefs are endorsed by more than a mere fringe element of the scientific community. Remember that a more correct interpretation of the truth may begin as a fringe idea, but it rarely stays there very long if it supported by evidence.
Alas, I will leave you with what may be my favorite video on the internet, the animation to Tim Minchin’s beat poem “Storm.” It beautifully and succinctly captures, and on some level even inspired, the essence of this article.