The War On Science
It’s become fashionable for politicians to say that they aren’t scientists. While these are usually statements of fact, they are still curious. Certainly, when it comes to issues of finance or war, we don’t see elected officials lining up to say, “I’m not an economist” or “I’m not a soldier.”
Science is what separates the kook from the professional. People who talk about aliens in flying saucers are usually written off as lunatics. Yet serious scientists are able to attract public and public funding for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) looking for alien life.
On the surface, the term “scientific” seems to be a fairly arbitrary distinction. After all, alien hunters and SETI scientists are both engaged in a search for truth, but the difference is that the work of scientists, when properly done, is reproducible and testable and that makes all the difference. Science matters not because of its greater truth, but its lesser solipsism.
Not So Intelligent Design
One of the great debates that politicians seek to avoid by touting their lack of scientific credentials is the one between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and intelligent design. Many people in the US, more than 40% in fact, believe in some form of creationism and want it taught in schools.
At first glance, they would seem to have a point. After all, no one actually saw humans evolve, so who’s to say that Darwin’s theory is true and creationism is false? Why, in the interest of academic inquiry, shouldn’t both be included in state curricula?
The reason is that Darwin’s theory is science—a subject taught in public schools—while intelligent design is a matter of faith, which is not. Darwin’s theory produces testable hypotheses that can be falsified through experiment. Creationism does not. It is a matter of belief, not a subject for investigation.
There is also a practical consideration. We expect our schools to prepare students so to contribute to future society. If we want our kids to be able to develop new antibiotics that can treat resistant infections or to improve the genetic algorithms that make our economy more efficient, then Darwin’s theory, not creationism, is something they have to know.
Does The Age Of The Earth Affect Our Economy?
Another sticky subject that politicians seek to avoid is the age of the earth. The bible says that the earth is several thousand years old, but astrophysicists say that it was created billions of years ago in something called the big bang (you can find a good explanation of the theory here).
Marco Rubio, rumored to be considering a presidential run, said in an interview with GQ that the age of the universe doesn’t matter because it has nothing to do with what people really care about, namely jobs and the economy.
I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras.
It’s seems like a reasonable position to take. When we have so many other problems, does it matter how old the Earth is? If it was seven days, or seven weeks or 4.5 billion years like the scientists say, it won’t create one job or contribute to national defense or make one iota of difference in our daily lives.
Or will it? The big bang is not just a theory, but a set of theories, including general relativity and quantum mechanics, combined with many observations over a period of decades. Students in physics class are supposed to learn about the big bang not to shape their religious beliefs, but because of its importance to those underlying theories.
And those concepts are central to our everyday lives. We use relativity to calibrate GPS satellites, so that we can find restaurants and target missiles. Quantum mechanics gave us lasers and microprocessors, from which we make barcode scanners and iPhones. In fact, the theories underlying big bang are essential for our modern economy to function.
So, in reality, teaching our kids about the big bang is crucial for our economic future. If we are to unlock future innovations, like energy from antimatter, it is absolutely critical that we develop the next generation of scientists and engineers.
The Visceral Abstract
All of this can seem quite obscure, because we don’t think much about the redshifts of stars or rates of genetic mutation on our way to work. If you are seeking a career in making coffee, serving burgers, advertising or trading bonds, you can probably live your entire life without even being aware that these things exist.
Yet that is because we live in a very special case, in which things are neither too big or too small and don’t move very fast or very slow. To unlock the secrets that actually improve our lives, however, we need to think beyond our everyday existence and enter realms that are unfamiliar and strange.
The truth is, we now live in a world of the visceral abstract, where seemingly unlikely theories affect our lives more than homespun wisdoms. That’s how we cure disease, create new technologies and discover new sources of energy to power our civilization.
And in America, we’re beginning to fall behind. The OECD predicts that China will overtake the US in R&D spending by the end of the decade, partly because government support for research has been steadily falling for decades. Clearly, the US government’s neglect of science has serious costs.
Faith and Science
Let’s return to the aliens for a moment. Many people believe in extraterrestrial beings, but they are not practicing science. Belief is based on faith. For example, I may believe that my family loves me—and it may be true—but that is not a scientific belief. (In fact, it is a proposition that is likely to become less true with extensive testing).
Science matters because it is not dependent on faith, it depends on skepticism and doubt. Nothing is ever proven, only disproven. A prevailing theory can last for decades, centuries even, and then be cast aside. Yet science moves on, making new discoveries and eliminating possibilities that have been found wanting.
As methods improve, tension between between branches of science, such as the present one between psychology and neuroscience, can arise. Science, even competently done, is never the last word, which is probably why so many politicians avoid taking a position. Science is not certainty, but its absence.
That’s why scientists must always leave some room for doubt, even if that doubt is qualified to some extent. When Seth Shostak, the Director for SETI was asked whether he thought that the government was engaged in a massive conspiracy to cover up UFO’s he acknowledged the possibility.
Then he added, “Would they really be so efficient at covering up a big thing like this? Remember, this is the same government that runs the post office.” After all, politicians aren’t scientists.