Sunday, September 29, 2013


We all tend to reject some practices that were considered conventional in the past.  Would we countenance the way the EuroAmericans treated the Native Americans who hunted down and drove out from their lands the Seminole, the Chickasaw, the Creek, the Choctaw, the Cherokee?  Would we have participated in the night patrols seeking to recapture runaway slaves in the 1850s? What was practiced in those times was consider conventional and necessary by otherwise god-fearing Americans.

But what is conventional and seemingly fitting to the times need not be wise or fitting for the long term.

Adam Frank, a physicist at the University of Rochester, has written such a nice statement on popular attitudes toward science [NYTimes 8/22/13].  What the article implies but does not state is that the doubt about scientific formulations in our time has potentially tragic -- rather, catastrophic -- consequences.

Global warming is the most obvious example.  A few days ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established by the United Nations issued a 2,000 page report claiming again that human beings have caused the warming of the globe and that if the trajectory of warming is not interrupted human society will be radically disrupted.  This time they have announced that they hold this position with 95% certainty, a rare degree of agreement among independent scientists.

We live in a time when a confusing mix of politics and religious faith has undermined the authentic attempts of scientists to reach a degree of certainty about what is happening to our world.  So the claims of science about a vitally important condition, the physical object we live on, are openly scorned.

I have friends who want their doctors to be the best trained and the most up to date physicians available but at the same time refuse to accept the results of scientific knowledge in other fields such as biological history and the climatic changes in our time.  In truth the scientific assumptions and methods that enable medical science are the same as those that lead scientists to conclude that the earth is warming.

A fundamental assumption that made "science" as we know it possible was uniformitarianism, the notion that everything works the same everywhere, provided that the conditions be the same.  Such assumptions and others make a science of the natural world possible.  The knowledge tradition we call science is a single fabric of assumptions and approaches.  Science is a way of thought, a way of seeing.

But in a sense it can never be fully right, which makes it possible for "experts for hire" to claim, as some did, that the evidence linking smoking and cancer is uncertain. And some "experts claim that the evidence for global warming is incomplete and can be doubted.  So in the United States -- nowhere else, I hear -- many people believe that the issue of global warming is highly contested. People seem unaware that those "experts" who contest that claim are funded by the industries whose operations are most at risk if anything is done to reduce the causes of global warming -- most notably, of course, the energy industry.

To neglect to act on what is broadly believed among the real experts and accept the claims of those who have funding from the fossil fuel industry, for instance, is folly.  If the true experts are correct the day will come when it will be too late to save the earth from a crisis, when all hope of avoiding calamity will have evaporated.

A personal grief of this for me is that some of my dear friends, who share a belief in God, nevertheless reject the claim that the earth is warming, convinced that they cannot trust science.  Will our generation reproduce the folly of King Canute, who according to legend tried to hold back the tides?  In our case the price of such folly could be the collapse of modern civilization.

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