The Billings Outpost

Despite skeptics, science is best tool we have



We are often encouraged to find the world around us mystifying and to assign those parts of it that we cannot understand to supernatural agency, in other words, to the will and mind of God.

We are told that science is untrustworthy or elitist.

We are told that we must not believe our senses or empirical findings but rather what we are exposed to in the appropriate social or political forums.

Accordingly, with the passage of two bills (HR 1029 and HR 1030), the U.S. House of Representatives continues its politically popular assault on science, seeking to curtail the ability of experts to advise on their own specialties and undermine public health studies that rely on keeping confidential the identities of research subjects. It seems probable, in light of these and other actions, that many of our politicians have little knowledge of science.

Fortunately, our academics and engineers continue their work in the trenches, and we reap the benefits of the science our leaders dismiss. Agricultural techniques, sewage and water pollution treatment, computers, light bulbs, central heating: Engineers and scientists have followed Francis Bacon’s advice and learned to manipulate our world for the use of mankind.

Ecologists, on the contrary, warn us when our manipulations go so far as to threaten our survival.

Yet, I suspect, most of us — myself included — still live with an 18th century conception of science. Newton we might trust. Gravity makes sense. Electromagnetism, however, and the manipulation of light waves by lenses seem a kind of magic.

Scientific theories can certainly be impossibly complex for the layperson; but there are some basics that are well supported and understandable.

Consider the theory of trophic cascades. Biologists who have studied animals like wolves and prairie dogs note that, when these “keystone species” are eliminated, many other things happen to an ecosystem.

 For one thing, in the case of wolves, the number of ungulates and coyotes will increase while the number of foxes and riparian trees decreases. Take the prairie dog out of the prairie and you wind up with fewer burrowing owls, badgers, black-footed ferrets, and rattlesnakes. You will also lose soil fertility and moisture.

Sure, one can argue about the ethics of management, about how one wants to manipulate the ecosystem. But one knows that, in manipulation, certain documented effects will occur.

What is disheartening today is that science itself is being discredited by ideologues with particular agendas and by the mainstream media.

When we treat every issue as if there are two equal sides to be considered, we ignore facts and, along the way, do a grave disservice to disciplines (like theology) that are not fact-based or suitable to either/or arguments.

To understand the way greenhouse gases affect our planet and how increased CO2 emissions affect the balance of greenhouse gases, to comprehend how ocean acidification works, and to study the findings of biologists concerning plant and animal behavior in response to climate change could, theoretically, drive a debate about what, if anything, should be done in response.

Is it economically feasible for coastal communities to keep rebuilding every few years? Should drought-hardy livestock breeds be introduced? Should some keystone species be moved farther north or higher up as a hedge against extinction? What provisions should be made for climate refugees or drought-spawned warfare?

These are moral issues, but we cannot even get to that discussion because we are still laboring under the impression that the science is somehow unsettled, unclear or politically incorrect.

Of course, science can be wrong. It turned out that, despite years of research findings to the contrary, white male humans do not, after all, have the biggest and best brains on earth. But the beauty of science is that theories can be refined when further research proves that they should be.

Perhaps science is the best quantitative narrative we currently have to explain how our world functions. What we do about the data should, of course, be subject to moral and religious discussion — that arena where considering two or more thought systems is quite appropriate. Science uninformed by ethics is dangerous.

But ideologies that ignore science discredit themselves. Or they should. 

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 April 2015 10:38

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