Friday, 20 December 2013

Auntie Science

Far away in the galaxy is an anti- planet, made of anti-matter, where a man walks into an anti-bar, sits down at the anti-counter, orders an anti-beer from an anti-barman, takes it to an anti-table, and then gets into a heated debate with an anti-scientist. 

Lately some people  have accused me of being anti-science which is far from true as I've made my living for many years doing science, teaching science, trying to awaken in students a love of science. However lately the label  anti-science has lately been thrown gratuitously at people who question a point thought to be proved. Those who espouse green politics, are anti-fracking, believe that ESP is an established fact, and who believe in God are often labelled as anti-science. The latter category is used with caution as it includes 90% of the Earth’s population.

True, many environmental activists mistrust scientific studies, at least those funded by tobacco companies, oil companies, Monsanto, and most that are quoted by politicians to bolster their policies. That includes many studies in the latest report on shale gas, asserting that fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes, pollute groundwater or result in extra methane leaking into the atmosphere. Seriously guys, what studies would you expect to find in that report?

The problem isn’t one of anti-science, but Auntie Science to whom we look for answers to guide our lives, inform us and form our opinions for us. She makes us feel safe at night knowing that a meteor is not going to fall on our heads; that voodoo is only a superstition. When you’re ill, you can rest easily knowing that someone far away isn’t sticking pins into a doll to make you ill. We expect auntie to answer some of our most perplexing questions. Is there a God? Do we survive death? What am I doing here anyway? We’re even more perplexed to find that not only our auntie cannot answer those questions --- at least convincingly, but that more basic questions such as the safety of fracking or GMO crops remain elusive.

Choose your scientific opinion. A hundred years ago science carried a mantle of authority, verging on infallibility. Auntie had supplanted the Bible, the Pope and other religious authorities. But these days, we discover that she is only human and that there’s much that she doesn’t know. Her authoritative mantle is by now a bit tattered.  When Pontius Pilate faced Jesus and asked, “What is truth?” he didn’t get much of an answer either.

She knows certain things for certain --- for example the geology of the planets, the size and age of the universe, that species evolve somehow or other from primitive to more complex forms. But the more she knows, the more she realizes that she doesn’t know. At least if she is honest with herself, and therein lies the problem. Science is done by scientists. Being human, they have their own desires, feelings, insecurities, questions they want answered, opinions that they want to bolster. They are often beholden to a funding agency, public or private, that wants them to come up with “the right answer”.  As well as representing “auntie” they look to auntie for her authority. It’s a schizophrenic set up likely to result in schizophrenic findings.

Can good science be done? Sure it can, but we have to also accept its limitations; that the scientist’s ego cannot be removed from it. The ego is there when the question is posed, in how that question is pursued and it will somewhat colour the results. In atomic physics it’s well known that the observer cannot be removed from the observed. The atom cannot be studied without reference to a point of view or an apparatus. The act of observation changes the observed data. Jacob Bronowski, in his series, The Ascent of Man said, “There is no 'God’s point of view' ”. Even in pure science the errors cannot be removed from an observation. What then of applied science, pursued with the aim of bolstering a certain belief or political agenda? No wonder that most people cast a skeptical eye on such studies. 

Environmental activists, users of homeopathy or alternative medicines are not fundamentally anti-science. They have very good reasons for their views, not necessarily irrational. A man who sees a ghost knows that spirits are real, and all the skeptics in the world will not convince him that they're only his imagination. The fact is that we've grown in consciousness over the past two hundred years; become more aware. Time was when we took auntie at her word, relied on her to give us a feeling of security about our place in the universe, about our own lives.  Now we realize that she may not know a whole lot more than we.    

Friday, 6 December 2013

Gone Wwoofing!

“Good morning, is this the Cottarton Cottage slave labour camp?” Amber asked, when I picked up the phone, implying that we actually have slave labour here doing our heavy lifting. I was working alongside my helper, and she was concerned that I was overworking him. 

Cottarton --- The summer view

We don’t have slave labour, but we do occasionally have Wwoofers --- not to be confused with an audio component. For our American friends, and other urban readers, WWOOF stands for WorldWide Opportunitieson an Organic Farm. You can look up their website. The spring and summer months see many restless souls wandering the world, wanting to discover it. Not content to be camera-toting tourists, they want to connect with ecologically minded people. Get to know the land from inside-out. Most are college age kids, but there are also occasionally the older types like ourselves. The WWOOF organization connects those people with homesteads or organic farms that could use an extra hand.

Having registered Cottarton on the website as a host (we are an organic homestead), I started to receive tons of email inquiries from prospective Wwoofers. Most were from France, Spain or Portugal. Often young couples, all trying to match up dates and our availability.  Sometimes I get requests from young single women, which is fine by me as long as Amber is here; otherwise it might be awkward.

Time for clearing beds and giving them their winter grass mulch

So far we’ve been very lucky with the young guys who each worked for a couple of weeks here. Perhaps it’s something in the Cottarton air, its magic perhaps, but so far we've had not only hard workers, really willing to help out, but really good company with broad interests, those with a somewhat mystical attachment to the Earth, able to talk about both ordinary and abstruse subjects. Often their English speaking skills are limited and we communicate in a mix of English and French. They’re trying to figure out what they want out of life and this is one of the ways they’re going about it..

And so I look at our land after our latest companion left and see that trees have been planted, the grass in the field cut, beds cleared and mulched, firewood chopped, fences mended, all sorts of tasks that would have taken me weeks to do on my own. Last year my companion built a flight of steps down to our creek. Our latest companion cleaned up the paint on our antique seed boxes. I suspect that as Amber and I advance into the age of creaking bones and thinning hair, I’ll be calling more for help from those kids who want to connect with the land and share our life here for a spell.

Seed boxes inherited from Dickson & Turnbull, the Perth seed company. On long winter nights our work companions helped us restore the old paint.

So far we haven’t maintained contact with our Wwoofers. Like  proverbial ships that pass in the night, they don’t meet up again. For two weeks we share stories, interests, inspire each other, and work side by side in the field. Sometimes we do some counseling; after all we're gray-heads who supposedly have figured out what life is about.

When we say "good-bye" at the train station or bus stop, there's a feeling on both sides that there's been an exchange of energies, that  both parties have benefited and that something good happened.