Sunday, April 23, 2017

Earth Day and the March for Science

We didn't participate in the OKC March for Science - mostly because we're still recovering from our recent respiratory problems.  I'm pleased to know it was reasonably well-attended and our absence only subtracted a negligible portion. 

The widespread disrespect for science within the Trump regime and inside the halls of Congress is a component of a national malaise that didn't begin with Trump.  This trend could bring our secular democracy down.  If we lose interest in the facts, preferring lies, myths, slogans, and propaganda to a fact-based, logical understanding of the world in which we live, then our destiny is to become a second-rate nation, perhaps sliding farther toward third-rate, or worse.  A societal ambience that devalues education, science, and civil discourse is likely to fall prey to authoritarianism.  Facts will be ignored or distorted, as myths and superstitions will hold sway.

Contrary to what many people say, science is not a belief system, in the sense that science does not depend on a particular set of beliefs that are untestable and beyond question.  Scientific facts don't depend on anyone's beliefs;  whether you "believe in them" or not doesn't change the truth of their being facts!  Science uses logic and evidence to propose explanations for why the natural world is observed to be the way it is.  Experience has demonstrated repeatedly that logic and evidence work to achieve increased understanding.  Scientific explanations are always provisional, never final or "settled" in some way.  You don't have to accept them as a belief system, because they work!

Explanations based on evidence always are subject to re-evaluation and possible revision in the face of new evidence or when another explanation is proposed that does an improved job of explaining the facts as we know them at any given moment.  You certainly can choose to believe or not believe the explanations that science offers, but you can't choose to believe or not believe in the facts that were used to support an explanation.  If you disbelieve in a scientific explanation, what's your alternative explanation?  The more rigorously an explanation has been tested (often by collecting new evidence), the more likely it is to be an acceptable hypothesis.  Some ideas have been tested so many times and so thoroughly, the consensus among subject matter experts is that they go beyond a mere hypothesis to the level of a scientific "law" or "theory".  Note that the use of the word "theory" is not like some barroom conversation where someone says "I've got a theory about that!"  A scientific theory (e.g., Einstein's Theory of General Relativity or Darwin's Theory of Evolution) is a thoroughly vetted explanation.

Given those explanations of how things work, science permits the exploration of further ideas based on those explanations; if we accept an explanation, what other things can be implied using that explanation?  Validated explanations are the foundation upon which technology is built.  The fact that our technology works the way we have come to expect it to work is mute testimony to the solidity of that scientific foundation.  Our society has come, for better or for worse, to be based heavily on technology.  Those who deny the validity of science are, at their core, either (a) uncaring about the negative impacts of undermining support for science and more concerned about power or profit, or (b) they're so profoundly ignorant, they fail to grasp the significant parts of what science has given to us.  Possibly both may apply.

The evidence has shown that investment in support of scientific research is repaid many times over by the value created as a result of that research.  Yes, there are some scientific projects that seem awfully far removed from any practical application.  And no, not all scientific projects are destined to become important.  But overall, our position as a prosperous world superpower has been made possible in part by the large investments we've made over time in support of science.  Skeptics should review the book "Science - the Endless Frontier" written by Vannevar Bush after the end of WWII.  Sometimes, the most seemingly useless and impractical hypotheses can turn out to have some purely unexpected value that no one anticipated when the original research was done.  In some cases, it might be many years before some piece of research comes to practical fruition.  To limit science only to those topics that can be of immediate value is to cripple the science in the long run.  We as a nation have become obsessed with the short-term "profit and loss" analysis, and many topics that might prove valuable in the future are not being pursued for lack of funding.

Unfortunately, science is becoming a casualty in the political wars being fought over whose ideology is going to run this nation.  Topics like global climate change have become tainted with the miasma of politics, to the point where scientific facts are being denied or grotesquely misused to serve this or that political view.  This has put our nation's leading position in science at great risk.  If we fall victim to that apparent tendency, then we're doomed to fall from our world leadership position and slide down the slope toward scientific mediocrity and dependence on others to do our science for us.

This year's Earth Day March on Science around the nation is a reflection of the concerns within the scientific community for what we see happening to devalue science in our society.  Sure, it has some roots in concern for our jobs.  But of all the careers someone might pursue, I know of no scientist who chose to become a scientist purely for the profit motive, and most of use are not counted among the rich.  What we possess in abundance is a concern for the importance of truth and evidence-based critical thinking in the USA.  That's worth marching for and not based solely on our self-interest!

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