On science in society


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.
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