A Tap on the The Shoulders of Giants…

The New York Times reports:
In an unusual foray into electoral politics, 75 science professors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have signed a letter endorsing a candidate for the Ohio Board of Education.

In my opinion, this should be the norm, not the exception. Be it an election for a school board, a provincial or state government, or a federal race, scientists need to stand up and speak loudly about the vital importance of science.

When polio attacked the younger population of North America in the early part of the last century, science provided the means to halt the spread and prevent further infections. I don’t recall whether Jonas Salk and his associates gave ‘props to God’ after their discovery of the polio vaccine, but I doubt it. Without science in this and many other cases, many more would have been killed or have suffered needlessly.

Scientists as a group have to make themselves known, and make themselves heard. The forces of irrationality are loud, but they are, I believe, a minority. There is an effort underway to create a moral panic – the labelling of a particular social group as deviant and dangerous – about science. There are those who declare science as the reason for the advent of communism, immorality and homosexuality, among other ludicrous claims.

I would see it differently – the advent of these movements, phenomena, whatever, are more indicative of a need for right-wing religious zealots to get their house in order, and start addressing some of the moral and emotional needs of those they purport to serve. Prior to the introduction and growth of the Positivist philosophy, that on which science is based, people were immoral. There were also those who were, perhaps more secretly, homosexual. The freedoms that gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, and/or two-spirited people have gained is a result of a moral shift and a growth of open-mindedness. Science has nothing to do with it, since morals are the playground of philosophers, not scientists.

The recent decision not to join the United Nations ban on bottom trawling is indicative of a reluctance to accept scientific findings on the part of our elected representatives and their advisors. What evidence exists that contradicts the findings that the practice is harmful? What will be needed to further convince elected officials that a burning bush is not necessary to decision-making? Even the U.S. near-theocracy has accepted the evidence. A small minority who obviously do not understand science and how it works should not be allowed to be the only ones providing advice.

One thing I would like to clarify: Science is not a belief system. A belief system is based on faith, and does not insist on confirmation. In fact, it is often damaged by any attempt at proof. Science is a method, distinguished by its systematic nature, and the ability to reliably predict natural events based on testing and re-testing of hypotheses. Science makes mistakes, and the history of science is replete with ideas that did not stand up to scientific scrutiny. That’s what makes it great, though – any theory is subject to examination and refutation. The cumulative nature of science and the way scientific knowledge accumulates means that the ideas that work are kept, and those that don’t get dumped. There is constant refinement – ideas build upon each other, and the acceptance of a newer theory does not mean that older theories are wrong. Einstein’s physics do not in any way invalidate Newton’s, they build on the ideas. The inability to either prove or disprove such ideas as creationism mean that they are faith, not science. And not particularly intelligent faith at that.

Debate is crucial to science’s success. Evolution is accepted as fact, due to the confirmation offered not only by paleontology, but by physics, chemistry, cosmology, biology and many others. The mechanisms may be discussed and debated, but the fact of evolution is irrefutable. This spirit of debate needs to extend to the public arena – we need to be clear, focused and disciplined, and not give in to the emotional arguments of the opponents of science.

My point is that the apparent silence that most of us as scientists have kept in relation to politics has to end – we need to ask the hard questions about support for science and engineering among our elected representatives. Scientists don’t study politics, but they are citizens, and as such, they have a responsibility to illuminate their areas of expertise so reason and rationality, rather than emotion, insults and fear, rule our governing institutions. If we don’t ensure the progress of our society toward rationality, who will?

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