Sciense and nonsense
Following my theme from last week, thinking about my dad and his influence on my life, I was intrigued by an ad I saw recently from Bayer. My dad worked for Sterling Drug, which owned Bayer, early in his career as a bench chemist. Sceptical as I am about a chinese wall being erected between profit making organizations and ivory tower scientists, Bayer is a good company and its intentions with this program are positive. Children are natural truth-seeking scientists and should be encouraged as early as possible to develop their skills in this area.
I have been increasingly struck by the growing divide amongst a certain segment of our population regarding the validity of scientific evidence and its being equated, erroneously, with speculation, ideology, belief, economics, politics, and frankly nonsense.
It bothers me from the standpoint that, if we cannot even agree about the established and indisputable facts produced by the most accurate and systematic method of knowing devised by humankind to date, we have little hope of solving any of our global or domestic problems.
Increasingly, our media are merely entertainment arms of large corporate interests. The latest scandal involving Brian Williams should disturb us in that it points to utter desperation and a gross perversion of the fourth branch of government. It is one thing to simply get the facts wrong. Most credible people will willingly admit failures or weaknesses in this regard. It is quite another to deliberately twist or shade reality to attract attention, boost ratings and earn sponsors revenue. If Brian Williams could be pressured into doing this, imagine what is going on with other so-called newsmen on other stations (including a plethora of ersatz news sites on the internet and radio) with far less integrity.
Is it any wonder that some of us believe the silly ideas that we do? What if you don’t have time or interest in vetting your sources and still believe that what is published, especially via high-profile outlets, is the truth? We can’t expect everyone to know and be able to take the time to chase down every fact. We have to have some leaders to whom we turn with faith that they are doing this for us.
Let me say, in case anyone reading this takes this personally, what prompted this post was my hearing a candidate for leader of the Western world say in London yesterday that he could not confirm or deny evolution. If you have a conviction one way or the other, don’t punt, admit it. Let us kick the tires and see who we are hiring for the most important job on earth.
Personally, there are few popular reporters I trust to do this. One is Wolf Blitzer, another is Andrea Mitchell. I still respect Ted Koppel. Maybe Steve Kornacki, Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow. All of these people are highly intelligent. In the case of the first two, they have had long, distinguished careers without even a hint of impropriety. In the case of the latter three, albeit progressive, with an overt personal philosophy, they are scholars as well as broadcasters and I respect them even if I don’t agree with everything they represent or their sometimes theatrical manner of delivery. Two other people I occasionally listen to, while not agreeing with everything they stand for and their manner of expressing it, are Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann (both alums of my undergrad school). In the former case, Maher and I are both on the same wavelength when it comes to humane treatment of animals.
I like Olbermann because of his courage to speak out eloquently against wrongdoing, even if it means he suffers financially or professionally by doing so. I like courageous people and am sick of passivity. But that is another topic.
What science simply does is give us a systematic method of knowing, i.e., of finding the facts available to us through the physical senses. It will not help us with anything else. And belief systems and philosophy will not help us establish facts, other than providing in some cases a potential jumping off point for disproving theories about phenomena. Science is deductive in that it begins from a foundation of previously established fact (through sound research, as established in the scientific discipline in question) and then testing a logical deduction stemming from that solid basis. Induction is a faulty way of dabbling in any field. It means that you start from things you see, string them together, come up with a theory that you believe explains their connection and then set out to find more discreet occurrences that fit your theory. I know of no scientific discipline that uses this method (journalists do all the time and that is what makes what they write journalism, not science), not the social, behavioral and life sciences, and certainly not the physical/chemical ones. You can have lots of fun with mathematics (which is akin to logic, not science) and game theory. You can elaborate a complex philosophy and make it an ideology, but you can’t fake science. When you do, those in the field who have established their bona fides will negate your conclusions and you are done, for all intents and purposes. Where do we find these experts? At the top research universities, as listed here or here, for example.
Are scientists amenable to debate? Of course, among themselves, including students at credible institutions, they are continually reviewing theories and refining, and updating them — on many, in fact most topics. However, there are those axioms that short of a Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton stepping forward and negating them, are considered to be absolute and foundational. Like what? Gravity, tectonic plates, spherical heavenly bodies including this planet (hence the ridicule of flat-earthers), the age of the universe and its bodies, including our solar system (no, not 6,000 years), evolution, earth and agricultural sciences, genetics, aeronautics, and its underlying physics, pharmaceutical action and their basic chemistry, etc.
This is not restricted to the physical sciences either. There are solid principles in the behavioral sciences as well and every good psychology, sociology, and anthropology student is trained in them before going on to prepare their own research or clinical practice. You don’t get a marketable PhD in this country by going to the wrong sources, building upon a house of cards, and inserting your own ideation — that would be academic suicide. The broad, established scientific community has to have confidence that it can replicate and therefore verify your results or you and your work are rejected, ipso facto.
If you enjoy debunking theory, study the scientific debates on string theory, dark matter, efficacy of allopathic medications, human vs animal intelligence, etc. There are thousands of exciting (I am sure you can find them) topics on which the jury is still out among the world’s leading researchers. But, there are others where there is no significant daylight left with which to view competing points of view. They are elementary.
There is simply no credible debate among the scientific community on certain topics. I know for some people this is a bitter bolus to swallow, but it is so, nonetheless. I prefer to get my science facts from scientists, not philosophers, politicians, businessmen, carnival barkers and shaman. And one reason I respect scientists is their having no dog in this fight apart from finding out what is, not what they would like it to be. That is the value of the unfettered puttering in the Ivory Tower and it was the first principle they taught us in our PhD program at Columbia.
By the way, speaking of Columbia, read this. One thing to take away is, do we want to change our current living patterns drastically? Are all of you ready to do without the bread basket? To crowd 7.5 billion (and growing) people into Antartica and the North Pole and try to subsist without fish and most mammals, eating farmed plankton and hydroponic fungi? You cannot compare pre-Ice Age conditions with the needs and practices of the human-heavy 21st century.
If you want to live in a fantasy world, you have that right. I hope you don’t raise your children in it, but many people do and get away with it. A tragedy for society, because only by bravely and objectively facing “what is”, based on established truth, can we solve our problems and work together for once in our history, and have a functioning, harmonious and joyous existence at last. I will throw my lot in with rigorously trained, scrupulous Ivory Tower figures over the handful of billionaires who seek to manipulate the truth for personal financial gain.
This is not a small problem. It is one that afflicts almost 25% of Americans, an unacceptably high number. While I do want everyone to feel their points of view are welcomed here, to a point, there are boundaries. If you come here advocating abuse, championing tobacco use, or if you bring discredited positions on established and settled science, I will not engage in any discussion of them here, whether it is to deny something as fundamental as gravity or the less palatable concept, apparently (for some inexplicable reason), as climate change.
There are certain givens upon which our modern lives are built and now depend. Wasting time debating those takes valuable resources away from solving real problems, such as, what to do about adverse phenomena.That is where our best mental capital should be spent as a society and here on this blog. That is what I intend for the serious topics covered here. So let’s not invest in circling a black hole of opinion on such matters. And, as I promised at the end of 2014, I will include plenty of unfreighted topics to lighten the burden we face each day as we interact virtually and actually.
It was in fact that very Respected Scientist, who first said, “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Coincidentally, that is Caltech’s motto. It’s mine as well.
Images: Beth Byrnes archives: California Institute of Technology