On science in society

by Jim Caryl

[ratings]

AT this time, as the Large Hadron collider (LHC) comes online, and we hear tales of the doomsayers (and here) who would stifle curiosity, free enquiry and discovery, I think to my own area of science and the great efforts we have to go to defend the science that gives, and has given, so much to society. The LHC beam line has thus far met all expectations, and when it starts the actual collisions in the next few months there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it will cause the end of the world. Science is under attack like never before; media sensationalisation, poor science education, the barrier between those “in the know” and those not, and the rise of religious fundamentalism are largely to blame.

There comes a point when you really must accept the advice of experts, because you can’t expect to be an expert on everything about which you hold an opinion, this would be an unreasonable and untenable position. You trust that a cardiac surgeon knows how to perform your quadruple by-pass surgery; you trust that aeronautic engineers have really created an aeroplane that will fly; and you trust that if you buy a phone, you are in fact going to be able to call someone with it. So if the LHC scientists say that the comparatively low energy bombardments (yes, large for human experiments, but nothing compared to what the Earth experiences from the Sun) are not going to cause cataclysmic damage to the Earth, then you have to trust that they are sensible, rational, careful and intelligent people who know what they’re about, and believe that what they are doing is good for our society.

Many people go through life imagining worldly attributes into a world that is inherently, and obviously, physical in nature. A world that does not in fact conform to any such imaginings, except in the heads and societies of those who enjoy protection from the crueller and more selective attributes of the physical world; a protection afforded to them by scientists, technologists and engineers, people whom they presume to lecture, deride and slander in the errors of our ways. This is largely because the pursuit of knowledge in the physical world has resulted in knowledge that contradicts the inherited fantasy of some social groups. All I would say is that it is not sensible to hold an opinion in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary; wisdom comes from noticing when ones opinions are disproved by evidence.

The act of scientists always requiring evidence is often attacked in itself, as if we are thinking one-dimensionally by requiring observations and theories to be substantiated by the reality. Yet requiring evidence is nothing new to humans; we all use evidence of the physical world in our decisions, even before realising it. We have five senses and a brain that evolved for this purpose, to evaluate the physical world around us, and it is for this reason that we don’t pick up hot kettles with our bare hands, why we look both ways before crossing the road, why we respond to a scream for help and why we don’t eat the food that smells rotten. If we were to ignore such sensory evidence, in favour of some fantastical idea of what the world is, then we wouldn’t last long.

People make evidence-based decisions on a daily basis, on an almost sub-conscious level, but when such decision-making is elevated to the higher reasoning parts of the brain the natural evidence, the sensory data, become confused with the programming in some people’s brains, i.e. there’s a problem with the “software”. The other big problem of course, is that there are a great many sources of evidence out there; some of it is valid, but much of it is inaccessible to most people, and the evidence that is easily available is frequently dubious to say the least. Thus we return to the point of having to trust the advice of people, whose business it is to know the evidence.

We, as scientists, have a burning desire to understand the universe in which we live; what makes it tick? We do this by not so much proving a truth, but by formulating testable hypotheses (a hypothesis, by definition, has to be testable), making experimental predictions to test them and, assuming they are not falsified, introduce a theory describes the observed hypotheses in a coherent manner, commensurate with the evidence. Whilst we can have some idea of a likely answer, we do not hold that answer, or truth, in our head as something that has to be achieved. If you already absolutely know the answer, why do the investigation? Thus, if the evidence suggests an alternative answer, then we are obliged to accept it, until further evidence suggests otherwise. By this means, science permits a us to have, with the highest degree of certainty possible, a reliable knowledge of nature.

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