Scientific literacy is falling in America. Part of the reason is that its value is being under-appreciated by a larger and larger segment of the population. Suspicions about evolution and climate change have created an atmosphere where two of science’s most strongly supported investigations are dismissed. To do that, you have to dismiss science itself. Really.
The scientific investigation of such things as evolution and climate change include data gathering on a scale that most would find staggering. It includes data collected with some of the most sophisticated instruments ever built by humans. It includes people who have devoted their lives to accuracy, truth, and hardboiled examination of evidence. It involves the most rigorous oversight of any processes I can think of, and involves many others who engage thorough peer review to find flaws, critique analysis, and expose bad thinking–and most important declare, when it finds error, “You shall not pass!” It requires the most rigorous credentialing of any on the planet, typically taking four to eleven years after a bachelor degree. These years are spend in intense study and proving oneself adept at the tools, depth of understanding, and competency in the field. To complete a PhD one must take these tools, skills and learning, and add to the body of knowledge in innovative and new ways. Then present it to those who have gone before, make rigorous arguments as to why and how you gathered the data, what tools where used for its analysis, and how it fits into what’s been done before, and they must agree you’ve done so. If you can convince your peers (often unfriendly to your task) you will get published, but this requires being examined further by the body of those others who have devoted their life to the study of the subject. If you’ve made mistakes they will find it, bring it to your attention, and shame you thoroughly. And the most wonderful thing of all, unprecedented in any other human enterprise, is that this process is open. The data is freely available. Anyone can see what you did, how you collected the data, what the data actually are, how you analyzed the data, and how you interpreted it in light these investigations. In the history of human thought there has never been a more rigorous and systematic way to try to understand the universe. And it has brought us wonders, medicines, technology, and the ability to understand the universe in amazing ways.
Take Climate Change. The science behind the claim that the planet is warming, that the variance in weather events is increasing, that sea levels are rising, ecological systems are failing worldwide, that species are redistributing and disappearing, that the ice caps are melting, that green house gasses from humans are responsible for these changes, that worldwide droughts, floods, fires, and stronger storms are occurring more frequently are a matter of empirical evidence and investigation using the methods outlined above. (Interestingly the models did not predict the weather would be as extreme as we’ve seen it in the last few years, the models were off but in not in the direction people thought they’d be off. Thinks are getting wackier and wackier every year—maybe you’ve noticed?).
On the other side of the debate are institutes, “Think tanks!” who mine the data from their armchairs for evidence supporting their predetermined take that none of the above are happening. Or not so much evidence as glitches they can exploit to cast doubt on this or that. They publish their results in reports and websites. They have a couple of old physics professors who put their name on every report that comes out. But all in all. They gather no original data. Make no independent studies. Do no publish in the peer reviewed literature and are largely funded by enterprises with much to loose if climate change is true.
What’s been hard to watch, is these studies becoming politicized and the debate conducted largely in the entertainment media where both sides of debate have to be probed, even when the sides on the issue are lining up to be 250 to 2 climate scientists convinced that the climate is changing under human influence (and the two are the holdouts borrowed from the tobacco industry‘s attempt to claim smoking did not cause cancer). Of course you get the the usual cadre of list signers from the chemist, engineering, phychology doctorate who are only too happy to pontificate about subjects outside their decipline, but that are aligned with their perception of politics.
But I’ve blogged about this endlessly on these pages. What really concerns me is that denying this science, requires that the entire scientific enterprise be dismissed. Conspiracy theories of how scientists are working together have to be entertained. The result is that science has never been held in such disregard in our country. I remember growing up on an atmosphere where science was considered one of the finest achievements in modern history. Scientists were held in high regard. Trusted.
No longer. This is having effects. Effects that will ripple into the fabric of our society. I see it on blogs, especially within the Mormon world. Because science if not friendly to naive formulations of creation that held sway before science’s forays into our understanding of the universe required rethinking on fundamental levels, which as a people devoted to both knowledge and continuing revelation ought to have been more easily accomplished.
We live in an amazing day. As President Hinckley pointed out in his talk, Living in the Fulness of Times, in the October 2001 conference:
The vision of Joel has been fulfilled wherein he declared:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:
“And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.
“And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.
“The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.
“And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the Lord hath said, and in the remnant whom the Lord shall call” (Joel 2:28–32).
There has been more of scientific discovery during these years than during all of the previous history of mankind. Transportation, communication, medicine, public hygiene, the unlocking of the atom, the miracle of the computer, with all of its ramifications, have blossomed forth, particularly in our own era. During my own lifetime, I have witnessed miracle after wondrous miracle come to pass. We take it for granted.
As a student recently pointed out to me, the first thing President Hinckley brings up as an example of this prophecy’s fulfillment is Science!
You now have a chance to see pictures from space that our ancestors can’t even have imagined. And more than just pictures. We understand so much more of how the universe works. From the genetic fabric of life and its ability to change, to the fine scale structure of galaxy on temporal scales from the Big Bang to the unfolding of galactic motion and spatial scales from the size that gives us the structure of the atom (the Higgs Boson!) to the dark matter megastructures that make up 84% of the universe.
As President Hinckley points out. Science is a gift. Do not so easily dismiss the power of its findings in order to fuel your political and economic agendas. It will come back to haunt you. And you are missing some of the revelations promised as part of the restoration.