by Shane L. Larson
Science is a beautiful and inspiring endeavour that has many facets. It satiates a deep and abiding curiosity about the world around us. It expands the boundaries of knowledge. It resolves powerful mysteries about the machinery of the Cosmos. It provides solutions to daunting problems, both abstract and concrete. It teaches us about cause and effect, about predicting the future from the past and the now. It inspires us to think deeply about our place in the Cosmos, and our role in the future of our small planet.
All of these things that science can do are uplifting, and in the end serve to condition our brains to accept the most important feature of science: that science can help us improve the human condition. Medical imaging allows us to diagnose and prepare treatments for conditions that killed our ancestors. Modern vaccines have almost wiped out diseases like smallpox and polio. Clean drinking water is available to millions of people around the planet. Disaster relief supplies can be flown around the world in less than a day, to any locale on the planet. Massive dikes and levee systems can protect cities from seasonal flooding, and bank water for future agricultural use. There are millions of examples of how science touches our lives, every single day.
Perhaps one of the most recognized ways that science has improved our lives is through the connectivity of the modern world. We live in an age where the world is inter-connected in exquisite and instantaneous ways. Technology has democratized the collection and distribution of information. The internet, the great marvel of the modern age, changed information from a commodity into a pervasive entity that many of us take for granted, in the same way we take electricity and air for granted. Digital communications technology allows us to be instantly in contact with colleagues, family and friends on opposite ends of the planet, and it puts every bit of human knowledge instantly at the fingertips of everyone who has a link to the pulsing network of information exchange that now girdles the Earth.
But the global information network has an unappreciated shadowy side, namely that everyone can post/blog/tweet anytime they want, and can post/blog/tweet anything they want. Gone are the days when produced newspaper and television and radio were the only sources of information. Not everything you see now has been carefully thought out, researched, or vetted. Much of the information we receive today is spat out in the moment, as events are happening, and colored by whatever emotionally charged state we find ourselves in at the moment we post/blog/tweet. Additionally, information gets compressed into easily digestible soundbites (something that is not always easy to do with difficult concepts!).
The currency of the day is not expertise in a particular area of human knowledge. No, that idea would preclude the central tenet of the information age: the web is an egalitarian medium, where every voice has an equal chance to garner attention. The currency of the day is influence — the number of followers you have, who listen to what you have to say and repeat it to those who listen to them. And therein lies the hidden seed sown with the idea of equal access to information. In this web of the information age, any opinion is and can be expressed.
This simple fact has one enormous consequence on the world: ideas from the fringe (sometimes dangerous ideas, if dangerous ideas do exist) gain traction in our society.
If you have a lot of social influence in the electronic sphere of information that cradles our society, then it is easy for you to promote ideas that support your agendas and ideals. The global network allows you to connect with like-minded people in a way that was never possible before, and those connections will help amplify your agenda. Soon, your ideas have been repeated so often and seen by so many people, that it gains status as a “fact.”
There is no stronger lobby in this respect than the growing anti-science movement. Science created the web, and as it turns out, is falling victim to it as well. Every day, the long slow gains our species has made against the darkness, the triumphs that have been excruciatingly won from Nature, are roundly challenged in the wild frontiers of the information age. Climate change denialism; anti-vaccination propaganda; moon-landing hoaxers. It is at best, misunderstood ideological differences that could easily be resolved over beers and pizza. It is at worst, willful ignorance being promoted to prop up other ideological, economic, and social agendas. But it is enabled — powered — by the notion that every idea has equal validity and deserves equal voice in the electronic medium of our time.
This willful promotion of ignorance is nothing new. It has always been a weapon used by those with their own agendas to sow discord among the masses. Isaac Asimov famously noted this in a 1980 essay for Newsweek (21 Jan 1980), that is an almost eerily prescient assessment of the world today. He wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ”
At the heart of Asimov’s point is the meaning of the all important commodity of science: knowledge. As scientists, we must accept any ideas as valid points for consideration — science is founded on the equality of ideas. All points of view are deserving of investigation and consideration. However with that open and egalitarian philosophy about ideas comes the hammer of science: scrutiny. There are no aspects of an idea that are off-limits for investigation; no implications are left unconsidered, no question is left unasked, there are no weak spots in ideas that are left unpoked and unprodded. The analysis of all ideas in science is ruthless and unforgiving — as much as possible, it is dispassionate and detached. Sometimes the outcome of our investigations are uncomfortable, but as scientists we must accept that fact courageously and move forward, no matter what the implications might be. In this sense, not all ideas are created equal. Notions about the world that fail to explain or predict what we see going on around us must be abandoned and discarded.
Knowledge is nothing more than our current best understanding of the world, based on everything we see around us. Science is the tool we continually use to cast self-doubt on our knowledge, to ask “Is this right? Are we still sure it is right? Have I seen anything that convinces me this is wrong?” If we see something new, that conflicts with what we previously believed, then we update our beliefs — we update our knowledge. Science is not politics — flip-flopping is a required part of the game.
This idea makes people uncomfortable and nervous. If knowledge can evolve, how can we believe anything? The problem with this perception is that most of us have been raised to put knowledge on the highest pedestal of importance. In reality, however, there are two pillars in science: knowledge and data. And they are NOT on equal footing.
Data is what we see around us, observations of the world. Data is immutable; it can be added to, but never changed. By and large, there are not huge shifts in scientific thinking because for the most part we’ve been observing the world for 40,000 generations, and Nature seems pretty well behaved. Gravity on the Earth doesn’t suddenly start pulling upward instead of downward. Cups of coffee don’t sit on your kitchen counter and start spontaneously heating up. Squirrels don’t suddenly develop fangs capable of delivering venom more deadly than a cobra’s. The preponderance of millennia of observations assure us none of these crazy things will happen. But if they did, we would have to explain them!
Knowledge is how we explain the world. “Knowledge” is malleable, constantly evolving to reflect new data. It seldom changes dramatically, because of the preponderance of data that exists. Any knew observation of the world has little, if any chance, of invalidating the millions and millions of things we’ve seen before. If we see something new — a new particle in Nature, a new kind of cloud, or evidence of water on Mars — we update our knowledge in such a way as fully explain everything that we knew before, but explain the new data as well.
You and I do this every day. For instance, consider color. You think you know what you mean when you say “green” and when you say “yellow.” So what color is this sign? If you had never seen this sign before, you probably wouldn’t have a name for it. Now go show it to several of your friends, and ask them what color it is — you’ll probably get several different answers. In the end, you have to update your “knowledge” (your list of colors) to accommodate your observations of the world (whacky colored signs). The data (a new colored sign) was more important than your previous knowledge (a limited number of colors).
There are many examples of this kind of “updating” of knowledge that have occurred in the course of history. The transition from Newtonian gravity to general relativity, which is now used in every GPS device on Earth. The mathematical development of quantum mechanics and its subsequent experimental validation, ultimately leading to the development of diodes and transistors in the computer you are reading this blog post on. The discovery of Mendelian inheritance in genetics, and its use in the cross-breeding of agricultural crops to develop foodstocks that are high-yield and resistant to disease and drought. Knowledge evolves, and the consequence of that evolution is the improvement of the human condition.
In the end, the epic battle of our age is a struggle to explain and communicate ideas as subtle and conflated as “data” and “knowledge” because they are central to the scientific underpinning of our modern world. They are notions that every scientist has to be comfortable with. But in the parliament of the the global information network, not everyone has the same background and training and vocabulary as your garden variety scientist — it makes communication difficult at best, and it makes understanding even harder. But the effort must be made, lest we condemn our society and planet to an uncertain, if not bleak, future. The efforts must be ongoing, relentless, understanding, and compassionate. Beliefs about the world are dearly held, and difficult to let go of. It is easy to ignore or dismiss ideas that are difficult to understand. It is uncomfortable to feel confused, it is disconcerting to not know who to trust or what to believe.
Carl Sagan, ever a great humanist, commented on those arrayed against science in his 1995 book, The Demon Haunted World, writing, “In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”
None of us comes fully equipped.
This post was written as part of Blog Action Day 2014, whose theme this year was #inequality. #bad2014