Science is a wonderful pursuit, or so it would seem. In theory, science is the discipline of observation and measurement, of inquiry and hypothesis, of experimentation and interpretation. It is the vehicle that propels human understanding and awareness beyond the confines of everyday experience. Our eyes let us see things as they appear. We gain an exoteric knowledge of the things of the world. For instance, we all know that birds fly. We did not need to be told that they fly. We observed it from a very early age. As children we would pretend that we were birds and that we could escape the backyard with outstretched arms that flapped wildly as we ran. We also saw and understood that the sun goes round and around the earth each day. We saw the phases of the moon every 28 days and we know that if we miss seeing a full moon this month there will be another next month, and the month after that, and so on and so on. Our brains are filled with all sorts of exoteric knowledge – that is, knowledge that defines the ‘what’ of the world. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ are different matters altogether. To learn how a bird flies or why the moon has phases requires inquiry and study. We are tasked with seeking understanding of the things we see. We see a rainbow. We must study light and refraction and geometry to understand how the rainbow appears so effortlessly after a rain storm. Luckily, we have people who do the inquiring for us. They are called scientists. They study such things most diligently and write books about the things they study. Our only task is to pick up the books and read what they have written and then we are as smart as they.
How nice of scientists to do this for us. As long as scientists keep being curious about things we are interested in, or as long as scientists can interest us in the things they are interested in we will get smarter and smarter until we all know everything there is to know about the world we live in and the universe that it floats in.
We put a lot of faith in scientists. We trust their instinct and their pronouncements as fact primarily because we, ourselves, were never motivated enough in school to study what they had to study to become scientists. We did not do the work, learn the math, or memorize the laws and theorems that they did. We played basketball and football instead. So, in the end we put ourselves in the only slightly uncomfortable position of having to trust the scientific community to tell us the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of the ‘whats’ we already knew. This is OK as long as the scientists are right and smart enough to have figured it all out correctly. But, what’s to worry? Right? I mean, after all, they’re scientists, and science is a pure art; not like philosophy or any other social science where anyone with an opinion and a loud enough voice can make himself or herself heard. No, science is pure – see it, weigh it, measure it, explain it. What could go wrong?
Well, the answer is plenty. The history of science is full of missteps and erroneous assumptions. Take the Flu for instance; the word flu comes from the Italian word ‘influenza’. In the 15th and 16th centuries scientists were certain that the pandemics caused by the flu were really caused by the particular alignment of the stars. Stars and their alignment were blamed or credited with controlling almost everything in those days and expressions of that idea still linger with us today in the form of expressions like “you can’t change your stars’ or ‘it is written in the stars’. We commonly use the word ‘lunacy to describe the crazy behavior of certain individuals. The word ’lunacy comes from ‘luna’ or ‘the moon’. It was believed for many many years that a full moon caused aberrant behavior in certain people. Back to the flu – the word ‘influenza’ is Italian and means ‘influence’ and refers to being under the ‘influence of the stars.
When a young and very timid Isaac Newton went before the Royal Academy in London with his theories on motion and gravity – theories which were correct, mind you, – his was run off and threatened with severe personal and professional harm for daring to take on the venerated and revered Aristotelian Physics that had prevailed for over 2,000 years. Robert Hook, a respected and accomplished scientist in his own right swore that he would destroy Newton for daring to be so bold. But Hook was wrong. So were all of his colleagues. Newton was right. His mistake was in not recognizing the entrenchment of any established concept, idea or cabal of ideas upon which other men and women base their own credibility. His clear and lucid exposition of the basic laws of physics, right though they were, were viewed as threats and destabilizing forces against the accepted and well acclimated rule of the day. In other words, he was upsetting the apple cart.
Newton was not the only one to be so bold. In fact, almost every ground breaking scientist had to refute the existing theory to gain exposure for his own. Einstein had to modify Newton, although he did it most gently. Neils Bohr had to take on Einstein, much to Einstein’s chagrin, to put forth Quantum Mechanics, a theory just as provable and verifiable as Relativity but completely at odds with it. Irony let us observe that although Einstein had significant issues with many of the provisions of Quantum theory, it was his own work that helped prove its validity.
And so it goes that almost all progress has to first tear down the walls of convention and accepted theory to gain its own foothold in the public mind. You see, science isn’t so pure after all. It is as much a political animal as is almost any other philosophy. Oh, at the root of it is the sincere desire to find the truth, but the acceptance of that truth comes at the expense of reputations and positions of prestige and esteem. Almost invariably, each time a career is made, another is diminished. Egos are hurt and livelihoods are damaged.
Science has another strange quirk to it. It needs to be funded. You and I aren’t usually willing to go to the store and pay for science. Oh, we love the inventions and devices that come from great science. We all have computers and IPods and Xboxes and such. Many of us use GPS technology to help us find uncle Bill’s new house or the nearest Wendy’s, but to go out and buy the latest research into Quantum Transfer or spin preservation, we’re just not interested. So, how do scientists make money? Well, in the old days they received patronage from wealthy families like the Medici’s of Florence, or they were members of aristocracy in their own right. De Broglie was a French prince (sadly he lost his head in the French Revolution). Many of the great English scientists were lords of titled peerage. Today however, there aren’t so many Lords or patronized researchers as in days past so a new structure had to be created. Enter the National Science Foundation or NSF and its equivalent in other parts of the world. Private institutions like the National Geographic Society or the Royal Geographic Society in London also fund major research projects.
So now days the major task of a scientist is to first get funding. This is no easy task but it is doable. It requires getting noticed and that requires getting published. Today, the mantra is “Publish or Perish”. It’s just that simple! Scientists look for issues of general or public interest and they write papers on them. If a scientists can raise a question or propose a path of research that might answer that question he has a chance at getting funding to study it. If they are creative enough or good enough writers, they get published and the issues get noticed. Notice also means funding and publishing is the fastest path to public funding. It is no wonder then that very public awareness of scientific arguments means great amounts of funding for research. One very good example of this is the hole in the Ozone Layer.
The Ozone Layer is vitally crucial to our very survival. It is also remarkably self-preserving and self-regulating. One of the unique characteristics of the Ozone Layer is that, for a variety of factors, a hole forms over the South Pole (not the North Pole) each Antarctic winter. The existence of this hole was known for over a hundred years before it became an issue of serious scientific concern. But, it wasn’t until we developed the ability to accurately and precisely measure its characteristics each year that alarmists were able to raise public fears over its eminent demise. Yearly fluctuations in its size were seen as trends and portended eventual disappearance.We were told and convinced that man induced excesses of chlorine gas in the upper atmosphere were the cause of the hole and , if left unchecked, would lead inexorably to the total destruction of the Ozone Layer and our death by terminal sunburn. Such foolishness and bad scientific reasoning found purchase in the public mind because reporters and opinion makers smelled a good story. Anything to scare the public was good for ratings and what better scary threat than death by sunburn. Never mind that the physics of the argument didn’t hold up or that knowledgeable scientists in that field already knew the truth, the fact was that if the public wanted research into this matter the scientific community was all too happy to provide that research. After all, it would certainly be good for 5 – 10 years of funding. In fact, the funding machine was able to run a little bit longer and many scientists found good steady work for a good number of years studying something that secretly they already knew wasn’t an issue.
Today, in 2009, we seldom hear anything about the Ozone layer except for the well meaning but radical activists who need a good cause more than they need the truth. The Ozone layer is still here and it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. (if you strongly disagree with my position please comment and I will be happy to provide a more technical exposition of the facts –for now though, I’m just trying to make the bigger point). None of this is as cynical or conspiratorial as it may sound. We are a people who expect due diligence and if enough people express a concern about any subject then due diligence requires that the matter be looked into. The people wanted answers so the scientific community gave them answers.
Today, the new religion is “Global Warming”. We know it is a serious matter because Al Gore, an ex-Vice President for heaven’s sake, scared us all with his silly and inaccurate “An Inconvenient Truth”. We know his warning is real because movie stars said it was important and he won an Academy award for the movie. He even won a Nobel Prize for his work (not a physics prize or any other scientifically rooted Nobel Prize – no he won a Peace Prize). There were many inconvenient truths associated with the whole global warming alarm but the media and the movie stars didn’t want to address them so they got little airtime – truths about the increased solar flux and the fact that the Martian ice caps were also melting. No, we needed to know that once again evil human beings were destroying the earth by driving cars and flying jets – of course if you buy carbon credits like Al Gore you can fly around in a private Boeing 757 to talk about the deleterious effects of our carbon footprint on the earth’s atmosphere. It’s OK. You have carbon credits – no hypocracy there!
Well, things are already settling down atmospherically so now the proper term is ‘climate change’ rather than the less supportable ‘global warming’. But it is still a funding machine and millions and millions of dollars are still being doled out to scientists to show us the error of our ways. We even have a new president who is going to make us all buy hybrid cars and impose other environmental restraints in order to save the earth for future generations. And we’re buying it! Serious discussion is even being given to the idea of covering glaciers with aluminum blankets to slow their melting. And why are we doing this? Because there is lots and lots of money out there for doing it! And, it’s politically expedient. We as a people love causes. We all need to feel like we belong to something larger than ourselves and what better endeavor than to save the world? And the scientific community? Well, many of them will gladly continue to accept our research dollars as long as they can milk this non issue. More and more scientists, however, just cannot keep up the ruse. In droves they are leaving the global warming religion behind, including 11 of the 13 scientists featured in “An Inconvenient Truth”. This year’s U.N convention of global warming was met with much louder dissent from an ever growing number of scientists. The tide is turning and like the Ozone Layer, this too will pass as we finally admit that the earth will be just fine.
Too bad we don’t have time to discuss the regrowth of new rain forests that is far outpacing the cutting down of older rain forest. That would be a fun discussion. Maybe next week. In the mean time please consider for a moment that science is just as vulnerable to politics and opinion as is any other religion or philosophy.