The nature of human kind is that the more we learn the less we know.
Once we knew the earth was flat, and we were wrong. Once we knew the universe revolved around our little planet, and we were wrong. Once we knew that an airplane that flew too fast would hit the sound barrier and break apart, and we were wrong.
If this makes you skeptical of what we know today, it should. Skepticism is the beating heart of science.
As the late Carl Sagan once observed, “science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works.”
It most certainly does. Science played a big role in making possible the very comfortable lives lived by those in the developed world today. Over the long-term, as Sagan argued, science works to advance human knowledge, but it is far from perfect.
In the short-term, science has helped contribute to some of humanity’s worst.
Scientists led a demented Adolph Hitler to his ideas of a “master race,” and the master race led to the Holocaust. Though that nightmare materialized in Germany, the seeds were planted elsewhere.
“The English scientist Franic Galton coined the term ‘eugenics,’ meaning ‘good birth’ in 1883,” the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum observes. “German biologist August Weissman’s theory of ‘immutable germ plasm,’ published in 1892, fostered growing international support for eugenics, as did the rediscovery in 1900 of Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel’s theory that the biological makeup of organisms was determined by certain ‘factors’ that were later identified as genes.”
The eugenicists, as the Museum notes, “offered biological solutions to social problems common to societies experiencing urbanization and industrialization. After classifying individuals into labeled groups using the scientific methods of the day—observation, family genealogies, physical measurements, and intelligence tests—they ranked the groupings from ‘superior’ to ‘inferior.’ When perfected, surgical sterilization became the most common proposal for preventing unproductive ‘inferiors’ from reproducing and for saving on costs of special care and education.”
Eugenics was a worldwide, science-driven good idea at the start of the Twentieth Century.
“Beginning in 1909 and continuing for 70 years, California led the country in the number of sterilization procedures performed on men and women, often without their full knowledge and consent,’ writes Andrea Estrada in “The Current” at the University of California Santa Barbara. “Approximately 20,000 sterilizations took place in state institutions, comprising one-third of the total number performed in the 32 states where such action was legal.
“….The practice was a commonly accepted means of protecting society from the offspring (and therefore equally suspect) of those individuals deemed inferior or dangerous — the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, criminals and people of color.”
Scientists eventually figured out that poverty, disability, mental illness and criminality sprang from roots even more complicated than genetics, and that race had nothing to do with any of the behaviors.
Science comes up here and now because so many intelligent people these days cite science as the answer to so many problems, and all too often they do with the same unquestioning faith as the eugenicists.
Science is not, however, the answer to all of our problems. It can help with some by, for instance, pioneering the technological advances that improve the efficiency with which we use energy. It can shed light on others by, for instance, tracking the global spread of plastic pollution.
But science can’t tell us how to fairly split the allowable catch of Cook Inlet salmon between sport or commercial fishermen, or develop a national policy for controlling CO2 emissions that doesn’t push the economy into a depression, or lower the costs of prescriptive drugs while still ensuring enough of a profit margin on said drugs to keep manufacturers engaged in the expensive search for new, life-saving chemical combinations, or solve dozens of other issues.
Many of the problems involve not just science but economics, culture and politics as well. Sometimes science can enlighten discussions of these other elements of public policy, and sometimes science can hijacked for use as a weapon to try to stifle discussions.
It is strange to see those who argue for science as the ultimate arbiter attack skepticism, the cornerstone of science, as the playground of heretics on many fronts: genetically modified organisms (GMO), vaccines, climate change, gun control, and more.
One could actually put together a pretty long list of topics on which skepticism has been declared wrongheaded by the right or the left in a world where the scientific winds of popular culture blow gales in both directions. I have more than once bit my tongue and shut my mouth around people ranting about the dangers of GMO foods.
The prevailing, popular view among the health conscious seems to be that GMOs are dangerous, though the science – or at least the science of the moment – doesn’t support that conclusion. On a personal level, it’s not something worth arguing about either.
If people want to avoid GMO foods, more power to them and good luck. They don’t need a skeptic trying to educate them on the issue, and it’s doubtful a skeptic’s comments would alter their thinking anway.
“There are facts, and there are beliefs, and there are things you want so badly to believe that they become as facts to you,” Julie Beck wrote in a March 2017 article in The Atlantic that makes for a more interesting read today than it did then.
Two years on, Beck’s story is almost creepy in it’s prescience. She was writing about cults, an extreme example of group think, and the alarming similarities they shared with the evolving partisan politics of the country.
The politics are even more polarized today than they were then as I was reminded upon writing a story suggesting that climate change sometimes might not look all that bad to Alaskans. This somehow transformed me into an uncaring, climate-change denier who didn’t recognize that people in sub-Sahara Africa stood to be literally cooked to death by rising global temperatures.
OK, I admit to being a skeptic of climate change to the extent that I don’t wholly believe in the apocalypse some others see coming. “End time” thinking as to the future feels a lot more like religion than science though there is no doubt the climate is warming.
That will bring change. It already has. So far, Alaska has been a winner to the tune of billions of dollars worth of salmon. Scientists are in agreement the regional warming of the North Pacific ocean is the main reason annual salmon harvests have doubled from a previous, short-term peak of 100 million per year in the 1930s and 1940s to near 200 million per year now.
The increase in North Pacific salmon – they are now at record numbers – is a sign of warming. So, too, the glaciers generally shrinking, and the forests generally moving northward and higher everywhere on the globe.
It seems only logical as well that the steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) since the start of the Industrial Revolution has been driven by the internal combustion engine, a marvelous machine for CO2 production, and an exploding human population which discovered hydrocarbons are a highly efficient way to heat homes and power increasingly comfortable lifestyles.
Continued warming is no doubt going to create problems in this state. Some villages poorly located to begin with are either going to have to be moved or abandoned. Roads underlain with permafrost could become even more difficult to maintain than in the past, and the same for some buildings sitting above soils filled with ice.
None of that, however, renders inherently wrongheaded those who believe the benefits of Alaska warming might outweigh the costs
People aren’t automatically idiots for questioning whether all of the CO2 in the atmosphere now is human-caused or doubting the accuracy of future temperature (T) predictions based on rising CO2.
Though T and CO2 seem nicely coupled in the current age of glaciers, that doesn’t appear to have been the case in the ice-free Cretaceous period. As the glaciers continue to melt, nobody knows what could happen.
The climatologists predicting a 3.5 to 9 degree temperature increase over the course of the next century could be spot on. Then again, they could be way too low with their highest estimate, and humans could, indeed, face a catastrophe of Al Gore proportions. Or the experts could be way too high with their lowest estimate and the changes could be small.
It’s hard not to be a little skeptical of the accuracy of climate predictions as one who has watched the predictions of meteorologists and fisheries scientists in Alaska for decades. They have better tools for forecasting the future then do climatologists, and yet they are often way off.
Why? Because predicting the future is hard.
Thus it is difficult to chastise those who think everything is going to work out OK or who, God forbid, see more pressing global problems than climate change in the short-term. They are as entitled to their views as are those who think we’re all going to be flooded or dying of hyperthermia if we don’t act immediately.
The great thing about American democracy is that people are free to believe what they want to believe. That we have in recent times becomes less tolerant of these differences of opinion only makes problems like those linked to C02 emissions harder to solve.
Telling people they are idiots, or trying to frighten them with catastrophes that appear farfetched in the here and now are not particularly good sales tactics. Maybe climate warriors should consider alternative talking points both technically and scientifically.
A good, American technocrat might be interested in pioneering artificial leaves that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, as natural leaves do, and use photosynthesis to break that CO2 down into oxygen and carbon monoxide which we can, in turn, use as a fuel. There are already scientists experimenting with that technology.
Maybe more discussion about how to fix the problem with new technologies might help more people recognize there is a problem. Humans do produce a lot of CO2. It’s not natural. And though it is invisible, it is a form of human waste and, in that context, as much a pollutant as human excrement.
But if people can’t get anymore worried about the chemical in the air than the stream of Anchorage shit right now flowing into Cook Inlet, it’s not their fault. Maybe they’re just not doom-and-gloom people, or maybe they’re just put off by people who don’t even know how to spell science lecturing on the climate change hypothesis as something destined to bring the world to an end in a dozen years.
The climate-change ranters do make it easier understand how President Donald Trump, possibly the most flawed president in our history, maintains a rock-solid, 40 percent of the population that backs him no matter what bizarre statements he Tweets.
Most of the people supporting Trump are not morons. Most of people skeptical of climate change predictions, or at least the worst of climate change predictions, are not morons. Just because people happen to disagree with you doesn’t make them morons.
It’s time to accept the fact that some very smart people sometimes support very strange positions wholly unsupported by data. Look no further than this country’s long-running debate over gun control. The data on that issue is clear.
The gun control debate might be this country’s biggest waste of time given there is no real evidence to indicate gun laws make any difference. Despite that, there are a lot of people who want to believe it would make the country better because the idea of more gun laws makes them feel safer.
Some would ban so-called “assault rifles” even though it is almost impossible to define what is and is not an assault rifle, and even though such a ban is likely to prove near meaningless if not outright meaningless.
All rifles combined, as Campbell points out in another story, accounted for 403 deaths in 2017, a year in which 467 people were killed with blunt objects (hammers, clubs, etc.); 696 people were beaten to death; and 1,591 people were stabbed or hacked to death.
“Also note, that the 403 murders in this chart are by all rifles, not specifically ‘assault rifles,’ and ‘assault rifles’ are a vast minority of all rifles,” Campbell writes. “The Republican Congressional Baseball Field Shooter, for instance, used a rifle that wouldn’t even be considered an ‘assault rifle.’ It also bears mention that magically evaporating all the rifles would likely just push most of these numbers into the ‘handgun’ umbrella, saving very few lives. Presuming magical gun evaporation were possible of course, which it isn’t.”
Somewhat ironically, there are people who wholly believe the climate change estimates but refuse to believe the hard data on guns. Some of them are even scientists or were trained as scientists.
Scientists, like the rest of us, are human. And as humans, we have a bad habit of seeing what we want to see. Sometimes it agrees with reality; sometimes it doesn’t.
This has always been a problem. It has become a national nightmare in this age of overwhelmingly partisan politics.
Left versus right
“…In modern America,” Beck observed two years ago, “one of the groups that people have most intensely hitched their identities to is their political party. Americans are more politically polarized than they’ve been in decades, possibly ever. There isn’t public-opinion data going back to the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, of course. But political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal look at the polarization in Congress. And the most recent data shows that 2015 had the highest rates of polarization since 1879, the earliest year for which there’s data. And that was even before well, you know.”
The “you know” would be Trump who since 2017 seems to have met his doppelgänger in the form of Democrat extremists in the House of Representatives. See Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and her call to war because “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change…this is our World War II.”
No scientist has made that claim. There is no scientist that would support that claim because there is no scientist who believes “the world is going to end” because of climate change.
Climate change is not a world-ending event. It could be a human-ending event, although that seems unlikely as well. Our species has proven as adaptable as the insects. Some humans are likely to survive no matter how hot the planet gets.
But climate change in the possible worst case scenarios could be a chaotic event leading to changes that could devastate the lives of hundreds of millions of people and kill untold numbers.
That alone makes the end-of-the-world pitch saleable, and there are surely some who now believe it because Ocasio-Cortez said it.
“While some studies suggest that conservatives are more susceptible to fake news—one fake news creator told NPR that stories he’d written targeting liberals never gained as much traction—after the election, the tables seem to have turned,” Beck wrote. “As my colleague Robinson Meyer reported, in recent months there’s been an uptick in progressive fake news, stories that claim Trump is about to be arrested or that his administration is preparing for a coup.”
The latter thinking has only spread since then. MSNBC was busy speculating on a Trump impeachment on Sunday although the country is only a year and a half away from an election that would give voters a chance to toss him out if they wish.
Despite that, there are many on the left hanging on the edges of their seats hoping the Mueller Report to be released Thursday will implicate Trump in an obstruction of justice and impeachment can begin. Here’s a concise summary of all of that from NPR:
“The fact of the interference itself had been long established, and last month Attorney General William Barr told Congress that Mueller did not find that Trump’s campaign was involved with it.
“Barr also told Congress that Mueller didn’t establish that Trump broke the law in trying to frustrate the investigation — but neither did Mueller’s office “exonerate” the president.
“Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded for themselves, based on the special counsel’s findings, that Trump would not face obstruction-of-justice charges.”
Impeachment discussions hinge on the idea that even if Trump didn’t illegally engage in an obstruction of justice, he might have interfered with the investigation of Russian influence enough to be guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the Constitutional standard for impeachment.
The law here has a lot in common with science. Both are open to broad differences of interpretation, and that is where things get messy in a country split into warring tribes.
Science can’t save us from this, though it might offer some insight into why we are the way we are. Beck again:
“As Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis points out in his forthcoming book The Most Natural Thing: How Evolution Explains Human Societies: ‘The natural environment of human beings, like the sea for dolphins or the ice for polar bears, is information provided by others, without which they could not forage, hunt, choose mates, or build tools. Without communication, no survival for humans.’
“If you can get people to believe you’re a good source without actually being one, you get the benefits (of being a knowledgable expert) without having to put in the work. Liars prosper, in other words, if people believe them.
“Spreading a tall tale also gives people something even more important than false expertise—it lets them know who’s on their side. If you accuse someone of being a witch, or explain why you think the contrails left by airplanes are actually spraying harmful chemicals, the people who take you at your word are clearly people you can trust, and who trust you. The people who dismiss your claims, or even those who just ask how you know, are not people you can count on to automatically side with you no matter what.”
Those three sentences just about perfectly sum how things are going in the United States today. We have become intensely tribal, but maybe this was always there only in not such obvious ways.
Whichever the case, no amount of science can save us from ourselves.