Subtexts in Discussions about Science and Scientists

I characterized the best understanding of scientists on the environment for a small group of people recently. We are changing the climate in places where people live and grow food. This may be beneficial in a few locations if the temperature increase is small enough, but if we do not limit greenhouse gas emissions, the changes are likely to cause problems most everywhere. The beginning of the sixth mass extinction of complex life is credited to the 1950s. While no scientific consensus exists on the threats to biodiversity, those in the field talk about a quarter or more species extinct or committed to extinction by 2050, and perhaps 40- 80% extinct or committed to extinction by 2100. Even as the population of the Earth increases, its ability to supply food and clean water is being degraded.

Their instinct was to discount what I said. Was I citing the most extreme predictions? Was I citing people who put forth their ideas because of ideology?

There was an undercurrent left unmentioned: scientists cannot be trusted. Scientists said DDT is safe and it isn’t.

This argument about DDT has validity. Industrial scientists have a vested interest in playing up advantages and playing down disadvantages. Scientists trying to understand the world and how it works would like to see their explanation be successful. But explanations are more likely to hold up if they survive challenges, and if they successfully predict the outcome of future experiments. This encourages intellectual challenge to a degree I have not observed outside of science. For example, one of the first acts after the creation of the standard model of elementary particles and interactions was to devise experiments to find flaws in it. When there was a disagreement about whether a meteorite could best explain the extinction of dinosaurs, proponents and opponents discussed together what could help them distinguish among competing ideas.

This does not mean that scientists are never wrong, nor does it mean that scientific consensus is never wrong. But wishful thinking is not a good method of catching these errors.

However, misunderstandings about science and scientists are a small part of the reason both the left and right are so eager to disbelieve ideas that have reached the level of scientific consensus.

The slew of death penalty laws that swept the nation a while back were put in place by people who felt crime made us unsafe. The laws did not make us safer, rather, they addressed the death penalty, and so people suffered also from having done something worthless. The death penalty laws, like much of the discussion about science and scientists, were a proxy for the real concern.

Opponents of nuclear power and transgenic (genetically modified) crops may be able to point out rational reasons, but more often what I hear is the refrain of the anti-fluoridation movement: scientists and the government are out to poison us.

I will talk about the factual issues on these topics more in later posts. Here it is enough to mention subtexts. Opponents of transgenic crops, for example, describe a slew of problems that are pretty nigh impossible or are minor. Even more frequently, I hear complaints about big business, or an uncaring society, or violations of “natural”. But if big business is the problem, focus on it, or on the video games industries, which has little redeeming social value. If our harsh society is the problem, tackle the lack of health coverage you just mentioned. It is easy and glib to project ones concerns onto a popular scapegoat, but it doesn’t solve our problems.

Many disbelieve evolution because, they say, they want the world to be more moral. (Recently numerous articles have discussed Christian attempts to prohibit or discourage science teachers from teaching science.) There are two steps in their reasoning: a lack of a belief in evolution will enhance the belief in God, and this will lead directly to a more moral, caring behavior/world. It is much easier to attack evolution (if no one I know studies it) than it is to address our personal behavior, and the complexities of the policies we support. A healthy desire to follow God’s will has gotten mixed up with a requirement that the Bible be literally true. But the Bible cannot appear to be literally true unless we ignore huge portions. It is likely not God’s will that we avoid reading material that will give us a richer and more textured understanding. If we want to focus on what takes us away from God, perhaps we would do better to start with the love of money and the love of consumption. It is easy to make evolution a scapegoat, but a belief in evolution is not the problem, and denying evolution doesn’t solve any problems.

McCarthyism, the movement more concerned about communists in the state department than those in the Soviet Union, was a tool used by members of a less successful immigrant group to attack the patriotism of others, particularly members of more successful immigrant group and those whose families had been in the US for centuries. Similarly, attacking scientists is a means to establish one’s self as more moral, more intellectually rigorous, more open-minded. Instead, it reveals a dark side of our nature, an attempt to build ourselves up by diminishing those who are more successful.

The attacks on patriotism, McCarthyism, had influence long after McCarthy himself lost power. Not only did individual China experts see their reputations shredded for having predicted the rise of communism, new China experts understood that they were not to share their understanding with the government. The people who conceived of and led our war in Vietnam did so with little understanding of Asia. The attacks on patriotism led to a decidedly unpatriotic result. But the goal was not to improve patriotism or the fruits of patriotism; the goal was to scapegoat others in order to avoid dealing with that which is really important.

Similarly, attacks on science and scientists may have dire consequences if we avoid dealing with environmental degradation. More than our individual integrity is as stake.

3 Responses to “Subtexts in Discussions about Science and Scientists”

  1. michael says:

    Indeed, we ignore scientific understandings at our peril. The origins of modern science were in “The Little Ice Age”, a period of environmental stress from 1300 through 1850. Scientific agriculture had its rise in the early 1600s. And it was accompanied with the moral commitment to feed every human being. King Louis XVI lost his head in January of 1891 because France, for nearly 2 centuries, had spurned both.

    In addition, many people in the world live lives of relative luxury because of technology arising from scientific understandings. In that sense, their lives have become more fragile. The fragility arises from a dependency on new worldwide scientific understandings. To be sure, scientific consensus is imperfect. But the consensus is far more accurate than revelation to a few human beings which can no longer be altered nor updated.

    I think Jesus was a scientist. “Observe the lilies of the field”, he said. In many ways, he saw how people were hurt be the harshness of religious conservatives. Ironically, in previous centuries, they were the liberals. Sitting in exile in Babylon, they came to experience G-D in that far off land. G-D dwelt in many places in addition to the temple in Jerusalem, which no longer existed.

    Yes, the two fold commitment is critical: the integrity of independent scientific inquiry and the caring for the whole of life: human beings as well as the rest of life.

  2. michael says:

    When I was a boy I thought my parents had always been adults. As I got older I heard a few stories of their childhood. As I became an adult and had kids of my own, I heard even more stories about the childhood of my parents. So I easily embraced the idea of evolution. As I, and my parents, and their parents in sequence had developed, so I understood that human beings had developed out of a long sequence that began with a single replicator cell which developed. I am indebted to Richard Dawkins for his description of this process in “The Selfish Gene”. Also, throughout my life, I have worked on many projects which began with a single idea which developed with many other ideas, practicalities and testing. But the final product was rarely final as it often spawned many other ideas. After several pages of pain, I put down Richard Dawkin’s book, “The Blind Watchmaker”. I trembled at the narrowness of his definition of God. Every point he made for the atheist cause, was for me an argument for the theist cause. What is absolute in this universe is the physics: anything which doesn’t fit the rules, doesn’t exist; anything which does fit the rules, can exist. G-D wrote the rules, does not change them, and enforces them. In our time, science provides a critical process to understand many of these rules in a very precise way. It is to the credit of the Roman Catholic Church that many of its priests are excellent scientists. The Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, was one of the first persons to identify to me the interrelation of science and spirituality.

  3. michael says:

    I appreciated Richard Dawkins’ idea of “meme”. Like a “gene” applies the idea of Natural Selection to biology, a “meme” applies the idea of Natural Selection to sociology of human beings. I’ve often been puzzled that the various species of human beings have co-existed for only fairly short times. I’ve traveled some distance around this vast world and am awed that the specie has stayed intact when other species of life undergo speciation in relatively tiny areas. However, examples of Natural Selection and speciation in the sociological world is bountiful. Even those groups which protest the idea of Natural Selection with vigor, practice it with rigor. For an obvious example, consider Christianity and its thousands of meme species and subspecies. How ironic for the followers of Jesus who was a pure altruist: he gave up his life for the benefit of the whole world.