The realm of science can be a very tricky and unknown place filled with doubt and wrong turns. Sometimes it can get pretty dark and lonely, and for each useful discovery, there could be hundreds that are not so easy to find and even less that are very useful. And while you may think that every scientific discovery is worth knowing about, every now and then, humanity uses them for evil, fucked up purposes. And yet, I still trust science more than anything else. And so should you.
That tragic scenario I just described is just one face of the scientific process where even your guides (scientists) doubt themselves often and where even the smartest people in history have felt dumb at times. Science is a surefire way to humble even the most learned, the most respected, the most insightful of human beings. Why? Because it’s perfect!
Be a Skeptic!
Imagine if all the works of your favorite author, whether it’s Fitzgerald, King, Hemingway or even Dr. Seuss, had never been properly edited and carefully combed through for mistakes and errors, imagine how many glaring punctuation fails and misspellings (Scott Fitzgerald was known for not knowing how to spell simple words) those famous and important documents would be full of had not an army of editors fixed them word by word to shape them into the timeless works of art that we have now. I simply couldn’t imagine having to go through “For Whom the Bell Tolls” stopping every two words to make sense of what I just read- not that Hemingway was a terrible speller or a bad punctuationalist (I think I just invented a new word). Imagine just how difficult to understand anything would have to be if there were not people criticizing and editing every book that came out.
Believe it or not, science works the exact same way. With each experiment performed, and with each result obtained, there is usually an army of scientists all over the world expecting to scrutinize those results to fine-tune the original hypothesis, or to add commentary on it. Sometimes this “fact-checking” starts long before the actual experiment is done and continues on long after the results have been published, sometimes taking years, decades, or even centuries of proofreading, if you will.
Science is like a very exact and methodical art. Unlike a painting, science cannot just be created or manipulated at will, it cannot be thought up or destroyed and restarted, science is discovery, and while some experiments can in fact be manipulated and created, most of the science that is performed in labs, under very specific conditions, follows very strict rules that all scientists are bound by.
If you are thinking we created things like nuclear power, I will be inclined to say that you are very, very wrong. Nuclear power has existed for billions of years, and it is even the stuff that powers our very own star- the sun. However, humans did invent a way to harness that power for good and for nefarious purposes. It can be used as fission to create huge amounts of energy that could power entire cities with just one nuclear plant, or it could be used to destroy entire cities with one bomb. But putting aside for a second the moral implications of this discovery, we can all assert that even discoveries like these- used for good or bad purposes- usually follow this scientific process that we call the scientific method.
Mostly all scientists who devote their lives to the fields of science, recognize the necessity to employ this scientific method in all their work. After all it was a practice (more like a discipline) that has been evolving for millennia and continues to evolve. Without it, perhaps every scientific field would not have gotten as far as it has, and many more preventable accidents would’ve occurred, not to mention that the incidence of questionable practices might have multiplied many times over from what we know now. Along with the moral rules that evolved into their present form not too long ago, the scientific method is not very old either, although its background extends further than we think. But today we will focus on one specific part of this process as you can definitely find everything else there is to know on the rest of the scientific method.
What might look like a common cut-throat practice- as the revision process can be quite brutal sometimes- the scientific method allows scientists to build upon the initial research and help their fellow scientists achieve that goal in global unity. Skepticism is name of the game! It is a very important part of science that, once again, although it might seem harsh at times, it is essential in understanding the work better.
Over the years, many scientists have been bullied and sometimes even discredited for publishing works that, at the time, were condemned by their peers. Some of them have been avenged by the advancement of technology, allowing modern scientists to test these otherwise untestable theories and confirming or denying their results. Some others slipped into obscurity due to the harsh rejection. But for every instance in which a scientist has been rejected even by their own community, there are countless others who have pushed forward progress and understanding due to their ability to work with other scientists in testing these theories. Another important reason to use the scientific method is to simply find better ways to do things.
It is no wonder that in less than 30 years, humanity went from carriages to cars, from dreaming about flying to achieving flight. And less than 50 years after the invention of the first flying machine, humanity was able to do what early humans first thought about doing- reaching space.
The clear, and rather fast, advancement of technology to what we have today is only a testament to the power of this discipline. The power to ask why and how has pushed through boundaries that humans believed were impossible to reach. And yet, there are many who are unbelievers just for the sake of it.
In the realm of science there is a little device each and every scientist must make use of to expand the knowledge that any person has just acquired, not only for the advancement in his or her field, but for everyone’s understanding, the scientist and the layperson alike, this thing is called skepticism.
If you were not aware of this before, skepticism, in this context, is not the willing deniability of something simply because you don’t believe it, it is the questioning of ideas and processes to better understand them. Basically, it’s scrutinizing the scientist’s own work. Why do scientists do this? You might ask, well the answer is a lot more fascinating than you think. Keep reading, if you are interested to know just how skepticism, not only helps science, but actually is one of its cornerstones.
Skepticism takes whatever claims science and scientists make about the world and questions them to make sure that what’s being said is correct and clear and that it benefits us in some way. Sometimes the results, even those already questioned, are a bit muddled and what they say doesn’t benefit us in the ways that we would like, but really the point of being a skeptic is to understand the conversation. And in this regard, we are all beneficiaries.
There is also an ugly side to skepticism that doesn’t benefit anyone, not the scientists, not the policy-makers, not the public, not anyone. This ugly side actually shuts down the conversation and stops whatever possibility of understanding right in its tracks and it should never be used. Deniability is the thing to avoid.
Deny the Deniers
Imagine that you’re standing in the Louvre, there are hundreds of people crowded around you trying to get a glimpse of one of the most important paintings ever, and all you can see is a wooden frame, no picture inside it. You’re wondering what the hell is going on, you even ask someone next to you what it is that everyone is staring at. You expect some museum curator to walk out with DaVinci’s famous Mona Lisa. The person next to you turns and starts laughing at you, and you’re just there wondering why all these crazy people are laughing at you.
Deniability exists everywhere. From the moment we wake up, to the time we go to bed, we are deniers of one thing or another. Whether we believe in god or not; whether we believe in aliens or not; whether we believe in the healing power of popping plastic air bubbles or not, deniability exists everywhere. The world is ripe with it. However, there is one place where deniability just has no place for. If you said “church”, you might want to stop reading here and go pray or something. And no, the answer is not the church.
While you may think that denial and skepticism are two faces to the same coin, or that there is a fine line in between them, let me tell you flat out that you are wrong! To not make it sound so harsh I’ll just say, nah.
The word skeptic is not very well understood by many people, while the word “denial” is clearly defined by most, the problem is when people confuse the two- and it happens a lot more often than you think.
Let’s go back to the Louvre.
Imagine yourself among hundreds of people laughing and pointing at you and you are just terrified. People are urging you to look at the picture, but all you see is an empty wooden frame hanging on the wall. How can you possibly see something that it’s not there? Then someone tells you to go and touch the picture. You do, and to your surprise, before your hand touches the wall it touches something else. It feels flat and grainy- a canvas. Then you see it, the face of the Mona Lisa staring at you smirking, watching as the security guards are racing towards you to tackle you.
Science is very much like this scenario. Researchers and scientists formulate conjectures about problems they come across and review ideas formulated much earlier than them to turn that canvas into something real. Sometimes it takes a lot of work and a long time to make that canvas appear before all those who can’t see it. These people are trained over many years and mostly always have a lot of schooling behind them to prove that the rest of us are not just crazy, and that certainly they themselves are not cuckoo.
So when does skepticism become deniability and how does it hurt us?
At present, 18% of people in the United States don’t believe that global warming is a real phenomenon. An even bigger number, 40%, does not believe that it is man-made. And being skeptic about the following poll numbers, a preposterous 36% of Americans believe that global warming is directly related to the end-times. Now I don’t want to offend anyone, but this is my blog so I can pretty much say what I want, and in that regard I’ll say, don’t pay attention to this last group of yahoos. As for the other two groups, there is a huge disconnect between what scientists know and what people believe, even though those numbers have been declining over the years.
It is no secret that people will believe what they are often told by authority figures, even if some of those figures have nothing to do with scientific research, ahem, politicians, cough cough. And it is also not news that what people believe is psychologically understandable in some context or other. What seems to be true however, is that the majority of people often believe- or don’t believe- what is convenient or inconvenient, respectively, for them. Even when the problem is staring them straight in the face.
China is the most populated country on Earth. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, China has 1.3 billion people living within its borders. Out of those at least 50% of its population already live in major cities where the vast majority of rivers and canals are severely polluted to the point that there will not be any potable water left in China in the next few decades. These are figures that you can find anywhere but even the Chinese ministry of public health is saying that soon even the aquifers are going to go dry and that there will be no more clean water in the surface. And yet, there are no massive mobilization efforts to clean up the very water that the Chinese people consume on a daily basis.
If you can muster the courage to look at the pictures of animal carcasses floating by a child swimming in oily, trash-ridden, lakes and rivers, you should. The clear devastation of the environment in a growing economy, cannot and should not be ignored any longer and yet it is. It is inconvenient for the Chinese government to reduce it’s CO2 output and stop factories from dumping acid in the water systems. It is inconvenient for a growing economy and at best it is mostly allowed by the Chinese population, at worst they are being victimized by it.
There is no reason to deny such clear-cut evidence of human destruction on the environment on this case- any attempt would be cynicism at its worst. But there are other instances in which the evidence is not so well defined by what we can see, and which affects us at a pace that’s so slow that most of us deny it almost unanimously. This is when scientists have the hardest time convincing us that the Mona Lisa, really is there. Yes, this is one of those blogs!
Why Should We Trust the White Coats?
Right now, there is no doubt that the planet is heating up. The polar ice caps, and many glaciers around the world, are melting faster than previous years, and the chaotic weather anomalies all over the world seem to be multiplying year to year.
Over the decades many people, some scientists included, have declared that these weather patterns and natural occurrences are not due to human actions (“how could they be?” is their battle cry for some). But as more and more studies are done, something incredibly difficult to do by the way, many of these people have even retracted their statements showing- keyword SHOWING- us that not only is global warming a real issue, but that it is also man-made because of the burning of fossil fuels combined with the natural heating patterns of the planet, among other causes.
We could debate the issue in public forums, and we could even go as far as to say that the research is incomplete or fabricated, and yet we continue to experience rising temperatures and crazy weather all the time. The people denying these claims simply say that it is a normal occurrence and forget that 97% of scientists (government and private organizations included) say otherwise. And that their denial hurts honest opportunities to set the course straight.
But that is the beauty of science, that it is blinder than justice, because although you can mask the results, destroy the research, even stop all further inquiry, the answer will always still be there, truer and permanent for any other person to eventually find it. Many discoveries scientists, or natural philosophers as they were known not too long ago, have been duplicated and even rediscovered by a lot of people over the centuries in different ways or for different purposes.
Most people who deny sound scientific evidence, cannot themselves put forth a better explanation of the facts and/or lack the capacity to conduct these herculean researches due to a lack of understanding of science. I mean 97% of scientists is no small number. Most of these people often fear what the results will show and thus deny them out of incomprehension- this is involuntary denial. These are the ones we forgive because with education we can show them that the evidence, while scary, it’s true and most of all important for we can still reverse that course. Then there is the other kind, those who deny it out of interest. Those are certainly the ones we do not forgive, even though they often walk free. It is no surprise that destroying the environment is much more profitable than protecting it, but if these people at least had the balls and the decency to admit what their interest does, not just to environment but to all forms of life, us included, and stopped trying to falsify the evidence and hard work that has been put into showing the population what they do to us, then maybe we would have a greater chance of doing something about protecting the environment or at least giving a lot more credibility to scientists and researchers. Until they do, public policy will always sway in between those who believe and those who stupidly don’t, to the benefit of no one. It is sad to admit that while science is infallible, public opinion and public action are not.
The Benefit of Believing.
If you are one of the objective ones, it will console you to know that the gap between those who trust science and scientists and those who still do not is narrowing. In essence, as the population gets smarter and more educated, there is a new front pushing for logical principles based on evidence, and this totally helps the scientific cause- the most noble of them all.
No one is telling you to believe blindly. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Scientists and researchers invite and encourage others- especially people not very literate in science- to question everything, even their very own beliefs. They ask you not to trust, in good faith (pun intended), anyone’s claims until they have been substantiated by hard evidence, through the revision of their work. And we should trust what scientists have to say because unlike the rest of us, they can actually explain it and they do. Not to mention they way more PhD’s than I do. The best part is that the more they know, the more we know and then we can influence our decisions and base our fears on more solid evidence than on no evidence at all.
It is a basic human need to feel accepted and included, and even scientists feel annoyance, frustration and even anger when the arduous work they put into understanding something doesn’t yield the results they hoped for or is simply not accepted by the scientific community or the public. However, most of them are adult enough, and sound enough, to admit when they are wrong and when their research lacks substance. But unlike the scientists from thousands of years ago, when nobody had any idea what the hell was going on, and even if you did you couldn’t prove it, the science from today is conducted in a more professional manner in which not only you question what they do, but they also question it among themselves. And if you have ever been questioned by someone who knows exactly how your job is done, then you know just how frustrating it can be.
Scientists- or at least the honest ones- are not making empty claims that they know you will simply trust. Unlike religion, or other organizations that make impossible-to-prove claims, science is relatively easy to use, if you have the know-how, and everyone is welcome to do it. I will not deny that science has created some of the most vile inventions in human history and I will not justify that reality. But, if humanity had the power and determination to create such horrible things, then we surely have the power to turn that destruction into creation. Let’s not forget that scientists are humans too and they err, but lets’ also remember that science is true and that it exists whether we deny it or not, but most importantly, it can be tested and proved to be either accurate or otherwise.
There is an obvious benefit to trusting what people who are more knowledgeable than us can teach us. Not only will we know way more about the world we inhabit and the universe we are part of, but we can also spot the threats, change the course in which history is going, and perhaps even one day do what countless generations before us have imagined they could do, to go places where we think it’s impossible to go. While other, less true disciplines deny their own impossibilities, science is the only one that can prove that nothing is as impossible as we once thought. And we should trust that.
But above all, question everything.