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.    

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