Sunday, April 23, 2017

Marching for Science

“What do we want?”  “Peace!”  “When do we want it?”  “Now!”

“What do we want?”  “Justice!”  “When do we want it?”   “Now!”

“What do we want?”  “Science!”  “When do we want it?”  “After peer review!”

That last chant was the only one of the three I heard yesterday at D.C.’s March for Science.  It has stuck in my mind because, perhaps more than anything else, it crystallizes the main lesson from the march.      

There were other themes, to be sure.   There was certainly the “Science is inherently good” theme.  I, however, think that’s bullshit.   Yes, science has cured polio and made syphilis more forgettable.    But it has also given us Zyklon B, Chernobyl, and Nagasaki.  Thanks to science, we get longer living through chemistry – but also quicker killing.  Whether science is good or not depends on the agenda of the scientist, and believe me, scientists have agendas like everyone else.  The idea that they don’t was another article of B.S. that was peddled during yesterday’s march.  The truth is that, as one speaker acknowledged, “science is political” – and anything that is political can be corrupted. 

But I’m at peace with the idea that science, for better and worse, is political.  I love it just the same.  Any important domain of knowledge can become both politically powerful and controversial, and be used both for good and for ill.  The prospect of controversy doesn’t take away from the fact that science provides the closest approximation of absolute, certain knowledge that human beings possess.   To some degree, we’re all scientists.  We all have familiarity with the scientific method, apply it in our day-to-day lives, and appreciate that some propositions are correct and others are false.  If we grab an apple from the fridge and let it go, we all know that it’s going to fall to the floor.  We know that to be true, absolutely, and we know it because we’ve done the science starting from a very early age.  Long before we study philosophy or history, we begin doing science.  It’s critical to creating a mental world full of order rather than chaos.

The existence of gravity isn’t controversial. But the idea that human industrial activity is destroying the environment is quite controversial.  So is the proposition that vaccinations do not cause autism.  The problem in these cases is that regular Joes (and here, most of us are included in that category) haven’t done the science to demonstrate to ourselves what the answer is.  We are forced to trust what we hear from professional scientists or from others who purport to summarize what the scientific community has found.   And when you’re a regular Joe, it’s difficult to trust anybody these days.

But that’s where the lessons from yesterday’s march come in.  At a time when trust is difficult, we still need working hypotheses.  We can doubt the truth of these hypotheses, for that’s what scientists do (begin every exercise with doubt), yet we need to believe something.  So why not put what little faith we have in the teachings of respected scientists who have submitted their work to peer review and arrived at theories that have been generally accepted by the scientific community as a whole?   In the case of climate change, I’ve heard the number 97% -- as in 97% of scientists agree that human activity is causing dangerous levels of climate change.  That’s 32 out of 33 scientists, which is one hell of a consensus.  To be sure, think tanks, cable news channels, politicians and industrialists can always find Mr. 1-out-of-33 and trot him out to explain why he is right and the other 32 scientists are wrong.  We regular Joes may not have the data or the training conclusively to refute Mr. 1-out-of-33, but we shouldn’t need that kind of certainty to make practical judgments.  As a matter of practical judgment, whenever we’re evaluating public policy issues involving matters of scientific controversy, it’s time to trust in the peer review process and side with the teachings of the vast majority of scientists.

You see, the paradox here is that most of us love science for its ability to demonstrate certain truth, yet when it comes to the great public policy controversies, certainty is bound to elude us laypeople.   Still, once the judgment of the scientific community has reached a near-unanimous status, it becomes the epitome of arrogance or stubbornness for a layperson to dispute that judgment – at least if we’re talking about an issue that is squarely within the domain of science.   

One of the things I love about science is that it is a skeptical field.  To think scientifically is to observe that academics and government workers can be as prejudiced as anyone else.  Just because their job responsibilities may involve “seeking the truth,” doesn’t mean they can’t be emotionally biased towards locating that truth on one side of a policy divide or another.  So let’s please not take too seriously some of the hyperbole from yesterday’s march, such as the suggestion that “science equals truth” or that it has the power to eliminate all forms of ignorance.  Science is limited, like all domains of knowledge.  Its practitioners need to be steeped in other fields and to think in an interdisciplinary fashion, lest they too fall into the trap of tunnel vision – a trap that frequently snares those who wield power on issues of public policy.  

Still, there are times when people – whether acting as workers, consumers or citizens -- simply have to take a stand.  It’s not enough to be skeptical or cynical.  We have to act.  We have to take positions on vaccines, or stem cell research, or carbon emissions.  And we have to take a position on how large a budget we think is appropriate for scientific research.  In these regards, I stand with the mainstream of the scientific community.  And I do it, not because I am scientistic (i.e., a believer in the scientific method as a cure-all for all forms of ignorance) but because I recognize that science deserves an honored place at the table of truth and beauty.

To quote Ken Wilber, I want to “give to Caesar what is Caesars, to Einstein what is Einstein’s, to Picasso what is Picasso’s, to Kant what is Kant’s, and to Christ what is Christ’s.”  That means that when it comes to matters within the domain of science, I’m going to listen to the folks like Einstein and the peers that might review his work, and not to an industrialist who stands to profit if the scientists are wrong.  The fact that the industrialist can find one scientist in 33 to agree with him is hardly going to shake my trust in the scientific mainstream.  After all, if you pay them enough, you can probably find one scientist in 33 these days who will argue that when you take an apple out of the fridge and let it go, it won’t hit the floor.  In fact, I could swear I’ve seen a few of those scientists interviewed on CNN.  

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