The Sustainability of an Unscientific Society

by Shane L. Larson

Some days, when I’ve been reading too much Edward Gorey and listening to The Cure at the same time, I imagine what it would be like to get a heart transplant.  “If I have to get a heart transplant,” I think to myself, “then the person I definitely want doing it is Fred Hansen, the proprietor and master cabineter of Intermountain Custom Cabinets.  Fred is a master artisan, well schooled in cutting things up and a master of joinery.  If he can put two pieces of oak together so I can’t even tell they are two different pieces, then surely he can do something as simple as stitching my aorta onto a new heart.”

On the surface, this idle daydream seems completely crazy, and it should.  Fred is not qualified to conduct heart transplants, though he knows about hearts and aortas, and has watched many documentaries on heart transplants on the Discovery Channel and seen a variety of Time magazine articles and news clips on CNN about heart transplants.  Fred knows enough to “talk some talk.”  And he knows how to cut and join things.  But in all likelihood, I should probably not put my life in his hands.

The first human to human heart transplant was conducted by Dr. Christiaan Barnard on 3 December 1967 in Cape Town, South Africa.  Barnard was a trained cardiac surgeon, with a deep experience in heart transplants based on a series of 50 previous transplants conducted on animal subjects leading up to the first human trial.  Despite early disillusionment on the part of cardiac surgeons after the invention of the procedure, technology and medicine have improved over the years, and cardiac transplants are now an accepted life-extending practice with some 3500 heart transplants conducted worldwide every year.  The population of cardiac doctors on the planet are a vital resource to the millions of people living their lives under the shadow of heart disease and heart defects.  If the cardiologists all vanished tomorrow, life would be much worse and in all likelihood shorter for millions of people, some of whom each of us know.

Cardiologists are one piece of the great puzzle of endeavours that makes modern society go, and play a role that they are uniquely qualified to hold.  Life on modern Earth churns forward under the auspices of a myriad of roles that single professions are uniquely qualified to hold: lawyers, diesel mechanics, longshoremen, electricians, dentists and cabinet makers.  Just as Fred knows a bit about heart surgery, all of us know some basics about the way our law system works and know not to stick forks in electrical outlets.  Our surface level knowledge of the world does not make us qualified to overhaul the engine in a 3500 HD Chevy Silverado or to install the electrical feeds in a new cell phone tower, though with enough training and study we could.

Where do scientists fit into the vast machine of society?  What unique role do they play, and in what way does science affect the inexorable churning of our civilization from today to tomorrow?  The root of the word “science” in Latin means “knowledge” and the practitioners of science are engaged in the systematic exploration of the natural world, expanding our knowledge and understanding of how Nature works and how all the parts of Nature are interconnected.  Like Fred and his penchant for surgical documentaries, some non-scientists know a lot about science.  Some take notice when the Large Hadron Collider is turned on underneath Switzerland and know that the generation of a quark-gluon plasma on the microscopic scales of the great particle smasher will reveal secrets about the origin of the Cosmos.  Some participate in the scientific enterprise by observing variable stars from their backyard or by letting their computer execute protein folding calculations while they are downstairs watching football.  There are awesome things that scientists do and discover every day, some of which ordinary citizens are very aware of.

But scientists, like cardiologists and teachers and auto-mechanics and insurance adjusters, are professionals who are uniquely qualified to address and solve particular problems by virtue of their training and expertise.  They are serious people who take their profession seriously.  The world collective of scientists has well defined rules by which problems are explored, debated and understood: experiments are conducted and the results reported, in the scientific literature.  The results are interpreted and debated, in the scientific literature.  New predictions are made and experiments built with the results reported, in the scientific literature.  Overwhelming statistical evidence is accumulated, in the scientific literature.  The collective scientific knowledge of humanity is reported and debated by scientists, in the scientific literature.  Results, theories and opinions which do not appear in the scientific literature have not survived the intense scrutiny and validation afforded by the collective mind and expertise of the scientific community.

The blogosphere, primetime television newscasts and Google are not the medium by which science is debated and communicated.  But here at the start of the Twenty-first Century, where science and technology are all around us and penetrate deeply into the fabric of our everyday lives, a large fraction of our society gleans their understanding and opinions about science through the filters of the blogosphere, primetime television newscasts and Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” button.  As a consequence, scientists and their profession are increasingly colliding with sectors of our society that find the process and conclusions of science to be disturbing, distressing and at odds with ideological beliefs.  Increasingly, science finds itself at odds with sociological forces which act out of enlightened self-interest and, increasingly, out of ignorance of the scientific process.  This filtering of scientific knowledge through ideological lenses, and the conflicting information that then propagates through common media channels, is a confusing muddle from which it is impossible to extract any truths.  For a huge segment of our society, this filtered muddle is their only exposure to science.  An entire generation of American children, who are already falling behind their peers around the world in math and science ability, spend their lives plugged in and glean enormous amounts of information from the multimedia circus.  The majority of society today is getting their scientific information from non-scientific sources, at a time when our lives increasingly depend on science.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the societal debate surrounding the Earth’s climate.  There are many questions about the Earth’s climate that have yet to be fully understood and answered.  If everything about the climate were completely understood, it would be a subject of record, not a subject of intense research.  But on the question of whether the climate is changing, the scientific literature outlines 28,000 independent lines of observational evidence that point toward the fact that the Earth is warming. Even if one line of evidence is uncertain, there are thousands of other indicators that point toward a warming planet.  This simple fact has brought the scientific community to a consensus — an understanding that the overwhelming evidence, presented and debated in the scientific literature, points toward a warming planet.  The idea of “consensus” has been twisted in the public eye to imply that there is uncertainty and wiggle room in the scientific data, an idea which lends itself well to the ideological polarization of our current culture. It has become fashionable to speculate on the veracity of climatological data when that data has been reviewed, vetted and debated in the scientific literature by the world community of professionals who are trained experts in the interpretation and analysis of such data.  Informing yourself on the nature of climatic data from people other than those qualified in the collection, analysis and interpretation of such data is tantamount to getting advice on heart transplants from someone who is not a cardiac surgeon.

Are there scientists who disagree and don’t believe in the consensus of the community?  Absolutely, and they should, because science does not move forward without the debate.  There are many famous examples of dissenting voices throughout the history of science.  Ernst Mach, one of the most renowned scientific minds of the early Twentieth Century, never believed in the existence of atoms, but the field of materials science grew and exists none-the-less, giving us teflon and polymer paints and carbon graphite tennis racquets.  Harold Jeffreys, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Plumian Professor at Cambridge University in the 1950s, was one of the most distinguished geoscientists of the Twentieth Century.  He never believed in platetechtonics, but today high precision satellite monitoring and laser metrology incontrovertibly prove that the crust of the Earth is made up of plates shifting and sliding against one another, giving rise to earthquakes and volcanoes at the boundaries.  Albert Einstein was never comfortable with the idea of quantum mechanics, but we still have a semiconductor industry that uses quantum mechanics to make computer chips and feed our appetite for smartphones and Playstations and supermarket checkout scanners.  Being a brilliant mind does not mean a scientist is infallible; we are after all, still human.  Sometimes, unpopular views change the course of science and become accepted by virtue of experimental evidence.  But in the face of overwhelming experimental evidence and data, dissenters cannot argue the entire scientific community away from what Nature has revealed to us.  Science relies on the collective mind to insure that every nuance Nature has to offer is explored, investigated and understood.

Which brings us back to the way modern society approaches science.  In the United States in particular, our current culture of polarization has turned scientific data into an issue, something to be debated and argued about rather than something to be acted upon.  This is not a sustainable policy for our society to hold.   A society that does not embrace and encourage science cannot long endure.  If you take away plastics and electricity and modern medicine, life in the world begins to look a lot like the Middle Ages.  If you take away everything we know about the Earth’s climate and ignore the people who know something about the climate, the world begins to look a lot more like a nightmarish vision of Dante Alighieri.  It is a fallacy to believe that science is a matter of policy that can be debated and accepted based on what makes our leaders, almost all of them non-scientists, comfortable.  It is tantamount to asking Fred about doing a heart transplant.  But then again, I’m sure Fred has something to say about what’s happening to the Earth’s climate too.


One response to “The Sustainability of an Unscientific Society

  1. Shane L. Larson

    This was helped along by some well placed tidbits in my mind (which made it into the writing) from my colleague, Rob Davies, at the Utah Climate Center.

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