Tag Archives: science

Bones of Contention

27 Mar

So as I’m standing in line at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, in that grand marble entryway decorated with an impossibly tall dinosaur skeleton (the one with the tiny head and super long neck, I forget the name), I overheard a lady in line behind me say “it’s only a theory, it’s never been proved. It’s just a theory.” From that snippet, and context, I’m guessing the theory was evolution, although global warming would be my second guess.

Frankly, people who really think like that, I just don’t know what to do with them. My first thought was to tell her, ma’am, this is a hall of science, I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave. I mean if that’s your attitude, if you really are a creationist, then what are you here for? Is this just another art museum for you?

Of course barring the ignorant from a place of learning is entirely backwards, the very reason these places exist is to provide access to knowledge, for the common good. So really, the problem is just me, and my reaction to the Face of Ignorance.

Because this is bedrock stuff to me, the foundations upon which long ago people built various thought constructs, which as now as tall and and detailed and thoroughly used and inhabited as any Manhattan skyscraper. To have to go back down to the basement and re-explain what this is built on…

Not that dinosaur bones or global temperatures have anything to do with what I used to do as a chemist directly. It’s more the challenging of the scientific method. Creationists and anti-climate-changers are arguing backwards from a premise, and they assume this is a valid technique that everybody is using (if they think at all about their process, which I suspect they don’t). It’s not, and their approach is the root of what’s wrong.

Science builds outward, from observations, and yes, theories that appeared to explain those observations. Further observations and analysis either establish that framework of theories either as strong enough to build on, or in need of buttressing or even a complete tear-out and re-build. Everyone working as a scientist is working off of, evaluating, and building onto that framework. Individuals may have motives, and agendas, but scientists operate within a large peer network which operates to preserve the process and the structural integrity of the framework. No one wants to build on a crappy foundation and find out later it doesn’t hold up.

People (non-scientists) assume that, for example, global warming is scientists engaging in self-preservation by driving more funding. From a capitalist point of view this makes sense, because there money, in the form of investments and markets, is the engine. But from a scientists point of view, funding is just a necessary evil; the true engine, the core principle that allows us as humans to build an understanding of the universe, is the iterative process of the scientific method. In other words, capitalists assume that scientists think that without funding, they’re out of a job; when what we really think is, without attention to the process, without attention to weeding out the bullshit, what we’re doing is pointless.

So yes, evolution is a theory, but so is gravity and Newtonian physics. All are time-tested, and supported by a plethora of observations. They have been challenged and reviewed and determined to be sound enough to build upon. And the work is published and available for you to review, if you have the time and inclination. As for climate change, it’s not my field and my concern is that it’s a new field (and it takes time for the scientific community to reach consensus and weed out the bullshit), but if the National Academy of Sciences states (as it has) that the science behind man-made climate change is sound, that means a lot to me.

Which is the sort of thing I don’t have time to explain to the (potentially willfully) ignorant person in line at the museum. Larger problem is, however, that our society is at (or beyond) the point where negative consequences will result from our technological society being increasingly at odds with policy decisions that are driven by those who dismiss science as “only a theory”.