Science matters because it works (but it’s not quite that simple)

Reblogged from The Logic of Science, but with this comment: No one would disagree with these claims on behalf of science, and and that’s the problem.

The climate change denialists, like the smoking science denialists before them, pretend that the science is unsettled. The creationists prattle of “creation science” and “flood geology”. The extremely able and intelligent US Vice President, pandering to his creationist base, did not claim to be anti-science. On the contrary, he used the very fact of a major scientific discovery (Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said) to blur the distinction between the established core and the fast-changing frontiers. And if we are to effectively defend science, we need to understand the emotional appeal of the ideology that leads to the rejection of vaccination, medicines, and GMOs, and to the prejudging of complex arguments in such cases as fracking and nuclear power.*

We need to think very carefully about tactics. If we seem to be saying anything like “Science is a good thing, therefore you should trust the scientists”, we are playing into the hands of our enemies. We are right to demonstrate and protest when science is denied, or ignored,  or muzzled.  And yet people (that’s all of us) believe what they want to believe.  The task  then is, how to persuade people to want to believe  in the evidence?

*This last comment cuts both ways, of course

The Logic of Science

Why should you support science? Because it works! It’s crazy to me that I even have to say that, but this is where we are as a society. Various forms and degrees of science denial are running rampant throughout our culture, and attacks on science are being disseminated from the highest levels. Indeed, it has gotten to the point that hundreds of thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts like myself feel compelled to take to the streets to march for science and remind everyone of the fundamental fact that science works and is unparalleled in its ability to inform us about reality and improve our world.

Image via the CDC

Just look around you. Everything that you see was brought to you by science. The batteries that power your electronic devices are a result of scientific advances in chemistry, as are the plastics that make up seemingly everything in our…

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on April 23, 2017, in Climate, Creationism, Evolution, Global warming, Politics, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Science has no special place in the public mind ; often it is viewed as a form of propaganda. It is certainly used by the media to promote sales and that means bad reporting. Much science is looked upon as a pointless waste of money. Who really cares about the Higgs ; just a few scatter brained scientists who don’t live in the real world. For the average man it needs a purpose he can appreciate especially in times of austerity. Some research seems almost crazy , take the headline scientists have discovered why shoe laces come undone.
    Has science got a moral direction? Is it prioritizing important research? Is it being used for destructive purposes and weaponry?
    Let’s get some money into antibiotic research. Let’s spend more on combating climate change . Let’s stop gazing into deep space and apply ourselves to earthbound problems. Above all get some good scientists into print making the case for its benefits for all.


    • I think of examples of research in whether peas are yellow or green, why flies have red eyes, why locusts have diarrhea. Obviously worthless.


      • Not everyone woll get the allusions. But then not everyone realises how much the whole of electronics technology, and the computing power it makes possible, owe to the ultraminiaturisation developed for exploring deep space


      • There are always arguments as to why a certain line of research is essential. Every researcher uses the old nut it may prove useful or there will be side benefits. Carried to its extreme it means anything and everything is acceptable. Such reasoning would be fine if we were not sitting on a time bomb and we had unlimited finances. All scientific research is interesting , but that is not the point , we are at a place in history where we must focus on the important. I might mention twenty million Indians defecate outside ; they have no toilets, meanwhile complex heart operations are taking place in other parts of the world.


      • Yes, research priorities are affected by the realities of power. No, defunding NASA will not cause indoor toilets to materialise in rural India. And remember that the whole of India’s information economy springs from pointless pure research into the strange electrical properties of slightly impure materials.


      • In no way would I advocate defunding science . You are a scientist and have the advantage on me a layman but I would immediately fund the big pharmaceutical companies to develop antibiotics . I would send a team of scientists to the amazon jungle before it is denuded to examine plants for suitable antibiotics. I would look closely at the coasts of low lying countries to find the best defense against rising sea levels. The Solomon islands is a fine example of neglect. I would get experts to consider scientific ways of reducing the sunlight falling on the planet .
        We need a global meeting of scientific experts to help us make the world a better place . The internal combustion engine needs to be replaced.


  2. I enjoyed this. Your words, “And if we are to effectively defend science, we need to understand the emotional appeal of the ideology that leads to the rejection of vaccination, medicines, and GMOs, and to the prejudging of complex arguments in such cases as fracking and nuclear power.” are a clarifying summary statement. I have discovered this in making over 20 presentations on Fracking and Earthquakes to layman groups: students or business group luncheons. Many of the non-specialists say, ” Now I can understand the truth of fracking in shale oil and gas from the data and props you share, rather than from the radical emotional statements that are out there.


  3. If we are to talk about limited resources, let us consider all places where money is spent today. Not just where money is spent on funding science. For example, where a city spends hundreds of millions of dollars in building a sports facility, lest a team move to another city. Which city a team plays in does not make any difference to society as a whole. (Whether spending money on a team benefits the city may be argued. One could argue that spending money on useless science has benefits. For example, the benefits of civic pride in being the place where Nobel Prizes are won, as much as where football games are won.)


    • Sports and prestige must take a back seat if we are to prevent serious setbacks. In 1859 the Carrington Event caused the collapse of the primitive telegraph system , imagine it’s effects on the grid today. Skilled scientists have the knowledge and engineers the ability to protect us from such disasters let’s get them engaged and financed.


  4. Sorry for being so late to this party, but I felt compelled to add…

    Yes, science works, that’s certainly true. The problem is not that science doesn’t work, but that it works so well. With the best of intentions, and with great skill, the science community is giving humanity more power than it can successfully manage.

    What is it about thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert poised to crash global civilization in just a few minutes that is so hard to understand?

    And that’s just the beginning, only the first of a growing collection of existential scale technologies which will inevitably arise out of an accelerating knowledge explosion. Each of these existential scale technologies will have to be successfully managed (avoid civilization collapse) every single day forever, or it’s game over.

    The history of humanity is indisputably clear. Everything goes along pretty well for awhile, and then every so often we go totally insane. How much power do we want to have in our hands on those occasions?

    Please note that _nowhere_ above do I blame science or scientists for this situation, other than the claim that scientists seem largely incapable of understanding the full implications of the knowledge explosion they are leading. I’ve come to see that it’s asking too much of any human being to expect them to challenge the fundamental assumptions of an enterprise they’ve devoted their entire life too. So somebody else will have to perform that function in this case.

    Guys, you’ve done a GREAT JOB, but it’s time to recognize that this awesome success has created a revolutionary new situation which we must now adapt to. It’s not the 19th century anymore, but a radically new environment where the assumptions of the past no longer work.


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