Monday, May 1, 2017

Science is not a Liberal Conspiracy

The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Scientific endeavor can be boiled down to this: It is the process of using observation and experiment to come up with explanations about how nature works. These explanations are always subject to revision as new data comes along.

A really good explanation supported by a lot of facts which makes consistent verifiable predictions becomes a scientific theory. Scientific theories do not become facts, they explain them.

Newton’s explanations for why apples always fall from trees or why planets orbit the sun worked well for centuries. In fact, they still work and we still use Newton’s laws to chart the course of NASA probes to the outer planets. But when scientists started to measure the speed of light and perform detailed measurements of the movement of stars, they found that Newton’s laws broke down.

Enter Einstein and his theories of general and special relativity which can be used to derive Newton’s laws (just don’t ask me to do it) and explain the motions galaxies or how time appears to slow the faster one goes. But even relativity has its limits at the subatomic level. We just haven’t come up with a better model . . . yet.

Scientists get things wrong a great deal of the time – that’s another definition of research, but it is through the process of finding which explanations consistently make good predictions and which ones fail, that science advances and builds a consensus about how nature works.

Do scientists screw up or become wedded to ideas that in retrospect, look silly, or even commit fraud? They sure do, because they are human. What happens though is that new information comes along or another scientist will eventually try to replicate what an earlier scientist published. Screw ups and fraud are exposed and outmoded ideas get derailed.

Case in point - geologists ridiculed Alfred Wegner back in 1912 when he proposed the idea of continental drift. Wegner had all sorts of data which showed that continents had once been joined together, but his explanation for how they moved was wrong. Not until the 1950s did geologists and oceanographers gather the data which formed the basis of plate tectonic theory, which explained how continents move and mountain ranges arose. In retrospect, previous geological explanations for how mountains and ocean basins formed now look ridiculous.

I used to be a practicing scientist. More than once I got things egregiously wrong and fell victim to my own preconceived notions, which were subsequently not born out by the facts. In all cases, either I corrected my own errors or other people did. These were learning experiences.

Critics of scientific work will point to mistakes that scientists have made as if to say “See, they messed up here so why should we trust them on anything?” Critics will cite questions or uncertainties scientists have not yet addressed.

It’s a specious argument to say that because scientists do not know everything, they therefore know nothing or that because some aspect of science turns out to be wrong means that an entire branch of science should be ignored. Still, those arguments get made.

There will always be uncertainty. There will always be questions to answer. If that weren’t the case, there would be no reason for scientific endeavor.

Science is important. It always has been. Science has gotten this country to where it is today.

Abraham Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences because he realized how important science would be to the future of this country. Government support for scientific research has paved the way for many of the technological and medical advances that now sustain us.

As a whole, researchers and academic scientists have tried to stay out of the hurly burly of politics or become activists for fear that their field will become a target of partisan politics.

Scientists and science have become targets anyway. A century ago, and sadly to this day, the targets were biologists who either taught or researched evolution. Today, climatology is in crosshairs in the form climate change denial, which is now present at the very highest levels of our federal government.

But it is science which shows that pollution poses real risks for people or life in general. It is science which shows that our planet is billions of years old, that life has been on it for almost that long, and that life changed via the process of evolution. It is science that shows that our climate has always changed and that humans are the ones changing it now, to our detriment. It is science that shows that vaccines save lives and do not cause autism.

These scientific findings are inconvenient for certain businesses, politicians or religious groups, most of which are on one side of the political spectrum.

Still, we ignore these inconvenient findings at our peril.

I have a T-shirt that reads, “Science is not a liberal conspiracy.” It’s really sad that such a slogan is even necessary, but I really like wearing the shirt, because it’s true.

Published in the Westborough News April 28th, 2017