Spend any amount of time studying science and you come to realize one very scary reality: there is no such thing as certainty in the world, no grand tree of knowledge.
That’s not to say that everything we have been taught in high school chemistry is a lie, merely that scientific knowledge is built upon a series of assumptions about the universe; assumptions that have been challenged and tested billions and billions of times, but assumptions nonetheless.
There’s simply too much information, too much noise in the data, for us to ever know something is 100% true. That’s alright though: science isn’t about being certain, it’s about making the best educated decision based on the information we can sift through, and having the presence of mind to never take that decision for granted. If ever the day comes that one such assumption fails a challenge, like someone saying they found a neutrino that travels faster than light for instance (Gee, what do you know? Someone did), then it’s the responsibility of the scientific community to relentlessly poke, prod and verify that claim until they’re as sure as they can be that a neutrino can indeed travel faster than light, and if they did verify that, then it’s also their responsibility to reconcile that new information with the current data they have, until they have the best picture of the world they can muster. Even if they have to take a sledgehammer to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in the process (though we’re still a while away from needing to do that). That’s what science does; it never solves the puzzle for us, it only gives us the best place to find another missing piece.
That being said, while nothing is ever 100% certain scientifically, that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules of the world we’ve come to accept as being close to certainty as you can get. Newtonian physics(ahem), evolution, gravity and Sean Connery being the greatest man to ever wear a suit to mention some. These and other theories about the world have passed through the fire time and time again, each time becoming more refined and strengthened. It’s a slow and arduous process, but you can’t argue with the results. Unless, it seems, you’re a Republican candidate for President.
Anyone who’s been keeping up with the politics lately has seen the likes of Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and essentially every major candidate under the Sun espouse claims that would make any middle school biology teacher cringe. Whether it’s Bachmann’s admonition of the HPV vaccine(HPV being the cause of 70% of all cervical cancers) as “potentially dangerous”, Perry’s awkward rebuttal of evolution as “a theory that’s out there” with “some gaps” (a sentiment Bachmann appears to share) or the continued denial by any politician with a R next to their name of human-caused global warming. (GOP candiate Jon Huntsman appears to be the sole holdout, standing behind both global warming and evolution) Any way you sum it up, scientific knowledge has become an uninvited guest at the Republican dinner table.
You might be able to dismiss the recent hubbub as simple pandering to the extremes of their respective party, but the fact remains that the mainstream Right is inching as close to anti-science as they can get. Not because they’ve looked at the data and carefully determined evolution is flawed, vaccines are dangerous, or climate models are wrong, but because the data paints a different picture than they’d like it to. That’s what it always comes down to.
By acknowledging global warming, you have to acknowledge that we need to cut carbon emissions while pursuing alternative means of energy, and that means less profits for the oil industry and more governmental intervention (which I’m told some Republicans are not a fan of). If you acknowledge evolution, you acknowledge the possibility of being wrong about the tenets of your religion(at least if you’re a creationist). And if you acknowledge science in general, then you acknowledge belief should not hold a monopoly on how you look at the world. You acknowledge the lack of certainty in the world.
That’s a hard thing to admit. The idea of being wrong. That’s why science is so counter-intuitive for a good number of us, and why it’s so much easier to bury our heads in the sand, nestled in the comfort of our world views.
Though that’s not to say the Republican Party is the sole culprit in the room; Democrats are just as cowardly a lot as the next political group, but this recent shift in strategy by the GOP only expose a greater problem than Perry or Bachmann flunking 6th grade biology. If there’s no respect for the sciences in our potential leaders, then how will our future generations have any respect for it themselves?
It’s especially alarming when you consider that science and technology will only have a greater foothold on our lives as the years go on. If scientific and critical thinking is pushed to the side of the national agenda, how will we properly deal with a growing world that only demands more scientific understanding, not less? With breakthroughs in medicine, communications and genetic engineering seemingly appearing every other day, how can we as a public respond to any of these changes if we’re left to think that science is something we should ridicule or be afraid of?
Now, will Perry or Bachmann even earn the GOP nod? Who’s to say(or care)? Politics is a sordid game of people with ideals and who refuse to back down from dogma even without the religious right and Tea Partiers up in the mix, so it carries little personal interest. What does matter is that the display of anti-intellectualism by the Right as of late underscores just how mainstream that attitude has become. Science is losing the P.R. battle, and at the worst possible time. The only thing there is to say is that anyone who has the power to stand up and speak for science and critical thinking should, before those in the middle of all this are swallowed up by emotional rhetoric and charm. How? I’d find some smooth-talking folk who look very good in a lab coat, myself.
FYI though, my Monday nights are busy.
That wraps it up for this week, and I’m back to a weekly basis! Huzzah! Next week’s article will actually be a sneak preview of the 3rd article I’ve written for Intersection Health, so hope you can check it out. Add me on Twitter and feel free to send off a comment or two. Thanks.