Saturday, June 7, 2014

Say it Ain't So

Science denialism is a problem in this country. (OK, it's a problem in other countries too, but I don't live there so...) We have so many varieties: creationists, global warming deniers, vaccine avoiders, Flat Earthers, folks that don't think germs cause disease and so on. These people, you probably know some, don't like what science has told us, so tell us that it just can't be so.

Sometimes there is big money behind the denialism, like that which kept lead in our gasoline for so long and the connection between tobacco and cancer (and other diseases). Other times it is some sort of cultural issue, like avoiding vaccines and creationism. But their methods are all similar.
And one of the methods that is seen making the rounds is to try to redefine what science is. By making a very restricted definition of science, that is, “Science can only be done in a lab under controlled conditions.” This sounds good to a lot of people since that seems to resonate with what they were taught in school years before. But that eliminates so much of what we know as science.

For example, the theory of gravity wasn't developed in a lab. People kept track of the positions of the planets. Then Kepler and Newton took these observations and came up with ways to make predictions of later positions that were very accurate. And then Edmond Halley used Newton's theory to show that the comet that now bears his name had been the same object that had appeared in the past. Then predicted it would return, and then was shown to be right (though his prediction was off).

And when Einstein came along and changed the theory of gravity to his new General Relativity, this wasn't confirmed by doing controlled experiments in a lab. He made predictions and observations were made that were consistent with what he predicted to be the case. You see that's what makes science science. Making those predictions. Sometimes your can test your predictions in a lab, under very controlled conditions. Some medical research is done just that way. But a huge number of scientists are doing things outside a lab. Geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, some biologists, not to mention all those theoretical physicists are still doing science even when their work isn't in a lab.

Some are out there making observations, and these observations are used to check whether predictions are correct or not. Other scientists are making the predictions. And that's what makes science self correcting. When there isn't a match between observations and the predictions, that makes people go back and re-examine the theory which produced those predictions.

And that's where the denialists fail. They always attack the science, but don't make predictions of their own. At least ones that can actually be checked. Or refuse to accept it when their predictions fail. They can't or won't change their theory in response to evidence against it.

But controversy sells. And that's why the news, print and TV, loves to find those one or two scientists that disagree with the current scientific consensus and use them to develop stories that have conflict and drama. Which drags out doubt in the public and helps voters to continue to vote against their best interests for years past when those doubts were reasonable.

 And we expect Halley's Comet to be back again in 2061.

No comments:

Post a Comment