Thursday, February 01, 2007

Modern society vs. scientific thinking

I started this blog because I was very upset with how the Bush, along with his willing partners, the GOP controlled Congress and the lapdog media, were driving this country into the ground. I was, and remain, very annoyed with our society, the elevation of the trivial into something that captivates the national consciousness while really important items are ignored or marginalized. From five steps back, our society is bordering on being psychotic.

My problem with trying to write about all of this is the fact that I am not, and have never been, truly involved in politics. I did not major in human psychology or sociology. I do not have the time to devote to these subjects to become truly insightful. I just stand back and make observations that any reasonably intelligent and half awake person might make. And most of them do it much better than I. Check out the links over at the right hand column.

I think those are the primary reasons why my enthusiasm for writing a daily blog has waned since the elections.

However, there are some things I do know about. I have degrees in engineering and physics. I have been trained as a scientist and engineer, both of which demand a certain amount of discipline in how a person observes problems and formulates conclusions. Therefore, I thought I might try some posts involving some scientific angle. That is an area that I think I can talk with some amount of certitude.

Getting back to an actual subject.... Opinions are NOT the same thing as facts, and turning up the volume, sarcasm, or rancor is going to turn opinion into facts. This is perhaps the biggest thing that has upset me about the road our society is going down. Everyone is doing it. Religious fundamentalists, politicians, television and newspaper opinionators, citizens with an agenda, all have fallen prey to this. And because it has become so prevalent, hardly anyone even notices it happening anymore. No one (that anyone pays attention to, anyway) ever calls “Bullshit!” when this happens. This is how we got stampeded into a totally unnecessary war by a bunch of sour old white guys with an agenda. This is why we are facing, in the next 100 years, a very catastrophic period of climate change and very unforgiving weather patterns that will not be very kind to the survival of the human race. And most people would either like to just pretend either one of two things; it isn’t going to happen or it is some sort of liberal plot. Just what kind of plot and what the plotters might like to accomplish is yet to be explained.

My perception is that non-scientific people have always looked at scientists and engineers with a mixed sense of bemusement, irritation, and suspicion. Quite often, laypeople have a difficult time in figuring out what some of the more esoteric branches of science are actually on about. Discussions of bosons, quarks, and mu-mesons can cause anyone’s eyes to glaze over very quickly. People wonder why our tax dollars are being spent in pursuit of arcane knowledge that does not seem as it will be useful to anyone. Massively expensive projects such as the Hubble space telescope or the various planetary explorers are only tolerated because they produce such beautiful and tangible results that cannot be ignored. However, to the general public, superconducting particle accelerators are about as useful and relevant as Stonehenge.

Because some aspects of science are not readily understandable or even logical, people feel quite comfortable in labeling ALL science and scientists as irrelevant at best, crackpots at worst. When scientific results conflict with a basic political or theological “notion”, then it becomes time to declare war on the messengers. Luckily, there are ready and willing public media outlets who are quit willing to do the character assassination, if the politicians in charge don’t beat them to the punch.

One big problem is, of course, that most people want to be able to dismiss uncomfortable conclusions that the many branches of science provide. People, for the most part, do not want to be challenged or to be made to rethink some preciously held beliefs. Religious fundamentalists want to believe that the Earth is 6000 years old and dinosaurs and man lived together at the same time. Political conservatives want to believe that global warming and the looming climate change is a myth. This is very unsettling to me, that people can just dismiss facts, documented research, hard evidence and logical conclusions so easily. As Mr. Spock was so fond of saying, “That is not logical.”

That is not the part of the problem that I am going to discuss here. I might take that one on later, but here is what I want to talk about now. Most people in today’s society are totally ignorant about science and the scientific method. Keep in mind that the word “ignorant” is not the same as “stupid”. There are many, many very intelligent people out there who, for one reason or another, have decided that facts and opinion are pretty much the same thing. The correct word is “ignorant”, whose base word is, of course, “ignore”. Either through no fault of their own, or through willingness, they are devoid of any knowledge about a certain subject. This has helped the vast majority of the population of the United States relegate science and the scientific method to total irrelevance. The following is my little effort in trying to reverse this trend in society, even though it seems like trying to hold back a tsunami with a parasol.

The scientific method is the bedrock that the worldwide scientific community uses for their investigations and results. One big “criticism” that laymen with an agenda have for science is that they get to say “Oh, it’s only a theory.” What they fail to realize when they say that is EVERYTHING is “only a theory”. The theory of evolution is just as much a theory as is Einstein’s theory of relativity. The big questions about any theory are, how many of the outstanding questions about any particular subject does that theory answer and how many peers agree with theory? Peer review of any scientific investigation and subsequent conclusion(s) are vital. Scientists make mistakes. Scientists have vested interests in “proving” that their theory is the correct one. Scientists also, unfortunately, sometimes have agendas. It’s up to their peers to discover the validity of their work.

Everything in the process starts with facts that everyone can easily agree to. These can be easily observable phenomena or objects, or scientific conclusions that have become generally accepted as valid. (Please note that I did not say “the truth”. Truth is very subjective in science.) Using these facts as a jumping off point, the scientist or researcher uses logic backed up, when necessary, by other facts to come to some sort of conclusion. Results are usually published or presented in front of a conference, where peers get to review the entire process and make their input. Usually, if some flaw in the chain has occurred, such as a breakdown of the logical building blocks on which the conclusion is based or even a disagreement upon the fundamental “facts”, a peer review will uncover it very quickly.

One easily remembered example of this is the “discovery” of cold-fusion. Two scientists say that they had achieved cold-fusion (the combining of matter at an atomic level) without massive amounts of heat. “Fusion in a drinking cup”, in other words. There was great excitement in the press when this was first announced in the late 1980’s, and lots of immediate skepticism by other scientists. Very quickly, the whole notion was dismissed, as the scientists experimental method and conclusions were shown to be flawed.

That is the entire process. You start with known facts and, using logic, math, and other additional facts, you arrive at a conclusion to explain these facts. By an iterative process, these conclusions become more and more refined and, as a result, answer more and more of the unknown questions that people want answers to. As these results “solidify”, then more and more people start accepting the theorized result as a “fact”.

The most important aspect of this process it is never static. At any time, when new facts become available, older, accepted facts can become subject to a renewed investigation and a new theory may be substituted for the old. The classic example is how Newtonian physics was the accepted model for hundreds of years of how the universe operates. However, when Einstein and other physicists really got examining planetary motions, it became obvious that Newton’s model, although adequate to explain much of what can be observed, totally breaks down when you take a closer look. Hence, Einstein’s model became the new, accepted “theory”, until other scientists and mathematicians such as Stephen Hawking showed that there were holes in Einstein’s theory as well.

The process never stops. Theories are constantly being updated, refined, and sometimes, shown to be totally incorrect. When this occurs, the process starts over again. That is why this all works.

Many times, the entire process is not as ‘cut and dried’ as people would like. Results are vague or ambiguous. Initial “facts” can be interpreted differently by different people, such that when the scientific process is followed, different results occur. Disagreements, sometimes very emotional and personal, can break out between scientists or scientific communities, over these differences. However, even though there are these disagreements (e.g, was the Tyrannosaurus Rex a predator or a scavenger?) will always be part of the scientific debate, there is no disagreement about the goal of the process. That is, what theory can we put forward that best addresses the unknown questions that is based on solid observable or analytical facts and a logical argument that can be accepted and replicated by the scientific community?

This is where, I believe, that the layperson gets lost with science. Not only are some of the conclusions reached very difficult to grasp and downright illogical at times, but most people do not seem to feel very comfortable with the concept that ‘the truth’ is not some sacrosanct, inviolable thing that can never be questioned. They do not like that ‘the truth’ can change overnight. When one firmly believes in something, like the literal interpretation of the Bible where every single word in that book comes from God and is therefore ‘the truth and the only truth’, it is very disturbing to discover that scientists routinely go back and challenge generally accepted notions. If someone can do that, then it wasn’t ‘the truth’ to begin with. It is ‘only a theory’, which therefore, cannot be ‘the truth’. And if that is true, then my opinion is quite as good or even better than your ‘facts’, since your facts can change but my opinion never will!

In many ways, our society hasn’t advanced greatly since Medieval times. Oh, we have much better tools and we hardly have to lift a finger to have quite a comfortable lifestyle. Ruefully, we have much better weapons these days. But the great majority of us would just as soon choose to live our lives in willful ignorance and never challenge ourselves. We want the universe to be knowable, understandable, and most importantly, conform to and confirm our dearly held opinions.

That, to me, is a sure way for our society to slide backwards into ignorance. The Chinese and other societies who are not so afraid of the unknown will pass us by in very short order. The only thing that is saving us right now is the incredible inertia our society has built up. However, even the mighty civilizations of Rome, Greece, and Egypt slowly decayed and become irrelevant. That is where I think our country is heading.

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