Tuesday, September 17, 2013

From Evolution to the Mily Way

We have a sign on the back of one of the doors at work. It says "Science is a package deal. Don't believe in evolution? Then no airplanes, internet, or medicine for you."

The beautiful thing about science is that it doesn't require you to believe it. Its laws are immutable and its theories are supported by experimentation. You don't have to believe in gravity. We know how it works, why it manifests itself the way it does, and how it affects the objects in space because of science that went into creating its laws. Believe it or don't, it just doesn't matter; gravity still works. A lack of belief doesn't make an airplane fall out of the sky, it doesn't shut down the internet, it doesn't stop medicine from working, and it won't stop a cheetah from killing a gazelle.

Likewise believing in something won't make it true. You can believe, all you want, that the leaves on a poplar tree will come out purple next spring. The science of biology says that they'll be green, just like every year. Believe all you want that things will be different, but it just ain't so. You can believe with your heart of hearts that the earth is the centre of the universe. The science of cosmology proves otherwise. You can believe with all the fervency of a Sunday morning televangelist, that man walked with the dinosaurs. The sciences of palaeontology, geology, and archaeology show - definitively - why this isn't the case.  

I love science of all kinds. I love data and research. I love the history of science, and I love the bright places it can lead us in the future. I love the arcane verbiage of physics, and the long descriptive words of biology. I love that the evolution of fruit flies can turn on a single environmental variable. I love that science can be simple and mind-bogglingly complicated -at the same time. I love that science can get such a hold on a person, that they will spend their lives studying the minutia of the quantum packet so they can help the rest of us understand the universe and our place in it. I love that I've met scientists who know more about the mathematical relationship between the rings in a snail's shell, than they do about pop stars and celebrities. I love that they sacrifice time, money, personal safety all in the pursuit of the knowledge that makes us all better.

Is science perfect? Well, the process of science is pretty close to it. Is the application of science perfect? Definitely not. Science did not get us into the predicaments of global warming, deforestation, water contamination, pollution, desertification, and the other calamities that have befallen us. People created these problems. These are human-caused problems that sprang from our greed, our need to consume, and our manipulation of science to feed these base instincts.

The science of creating usable fuel from the sticky, black, remnants of prehistoric plants, is amazing. It's not science's fault that we ramped up production of fossil fuels and began to slowly toast the planet.

Does science have the answers to everything? Not yet. There are many wonders in the universe that we don't understand. There are animal adaptations we've seen, that we can't explain. There are phenomena that occur daily, that may confound us. What we do have, thanks to science and scientists, is a body of knowledge from which we can learn, and which we can evolve as we learn more. We also have a process - a method - for research, experimentation, and for the creation of new knowledge. This is where the true value of science lies, and I think it's the most important idea that grew out of the enlightenment.

Early scientists recognized and accepted with humility, that they didn't know everything. They looked at the belief structures and decided that there needed to be a different way. Knowledge, they understood, couldn't be controlled by a few powerful men, who would tell the people what to believe. The scientists of the enlightenment risked their lives to show the world that it was good to ask questions. They took enormous personal risk to try to understand living processes, the mechanics of the universe, atmospheric phenomena, and evolution; beyond the dogma of the top-down belief system.

If we want to believe in something or have faith in something, then let us have believe that we can continue to learn and grow. Let us have faith that our creativity and intelligence will apply the processes of science and that we'll eventually unravel all the mysteries.

To do anything else leaves us clouded in the myopathy of myth and blinded by the fear of the unknown.

Here's something to either end or start your day with.

1 comment:

Red said...

Other than you can't spell this is a post that is very apropos today when the Harper government is dumb enough to control the flow of scientific information.
The word believe always bothers me when it comes to science. Stuff is or isn't.