Day by Day



23 April 2008

The wane of reason...



It started innocently enough. The enlightenment began when humanity began to question the accepted doctrines and dogma of faith. A few learned people started to realize that without facts or evidence, a belief was simply an opinion. And thus that belief was subject to dispute and discussion. In the latter days of World War II, the age of science entered its golden period. Atomic energy was harnessed (for good and ill), air travel became the joining connection for the shrinking globe and science was rigorously applied to the combat of disease and medical maladies.

That wonderful period continued until the turbulent era of the 1960s. Prior to that, every movie had a hero scientist. The scientist was someone to whom everyone looked to for the answers to the challenges of their predicament. But that changed in the 1960s. The tremendous cultural changes which swept the United States also carried over to the rest of the world. Science became suspect. It’s reckless application as the solution to all problems (it was once suggested that atomic weapons be used to stop hurricanes) tarnished it when it failed to live up to the promise. Rachel Carson’s work Silent Spring brought attention to the risks of science applied without adequate safeguards.

Regrettably, rather than reinvigorate debate over process and validation, a wholesale rejection of science began to form. Our space program, once the object of rapt admiration of a hopeful world, withered and faded into salacious stories of astronauts in diapers and metric to English conversion catastrophes. Individuals appropriated science for their own agendas. Greenpeace, beginning with some grounding in ecology has wandered far afield into the realm of pure politics and the philosophy of luddites (Why I left Greenpeace). Al Gore, once a simple politician from Tennessee has emerged as the high priest of climate paranoia. Various new age (or New Wage – courtesy of Cosmic Connie) folks have assigned all manner or scientific attributes to their pet theories, cure alls or philosophies. Oprah Winfrey, purveyor of pop psychology, has embraced the beliefs of Eckhart Tolle, a post-modern nihilist and expounded them through a brilliant webcast program – complete with globally connected callers (all sponsored by Skype, Chevy, Post-it, and others).

Science remains at the core of our modern lives. And yet few people understand the scientific method, the development of scientific principles or the basis for our technological world. Thus, lacking any firsthand knowledge or critical thinking skills, often science is glorified or demonized by the very beneficiaries of its application. In the case of desperate parents of autistic children, they are conned into believing that somehow mercury, heavy metals or other “unnamed toxins” are at the heart of their children’s condition. It is, to some degree, understandable. There is a powerful desire in the heart of parents to cling to hope for their children, no matter how irrational. It underpins the behavior of the parent who speaks to the media, after their own son or daughter commits an unspeakable criminal act, describing them as “the nicest child you would ever meet”. This said in the face of the fact that their child is 27 and has just stabbed fifteen people to death with a spork.

Setting deep emotion aside, it is the lack of understanding of scientific principles that permits the abuse, misuse and ignorance of science in all parts of our lives. Most damaging is when this occurs in the development of policy. We see the detrimental effects in the rush to manage climate change – based partly on incomplete science which has yet to prove causality between. This is not to say that reducing the amount of emissions into the environment should not be a goal – but the CBA (cost benefit analysis) must be weighed with real facts, not rhetoric and half truths.

Some years ago beta carotene was touted as the next cure all for cancer and a host of other maladies. With little supporting data, our irresponsible media trumpeted it as the next great thing. People began consuming this in supplement form across the United States. A little while later, several significant studies revealed that high doses of beta carotene may actually increase cancer risk in certain populations!

We see this ignorance of reasoned debate play out in the present political campaigns. Individuals simply make up their own facts, deride and abuse those who challenge their preconceived notions and make no effort to become educated on the issues at hand.

There is no arbiter of truth.

The best we can hope for is the continued use and growth of the internet as a source for verification and validation. There are ways to determine if the individual you are debating is playing from a position of integrity or emotion. I hope that we will continue to support reasoned discussion and action.

I am concerned that those people who are the true subject matter experts will shrink back from such discussions, leaving a vacuum to be filled with empty air.

11 comments:

sonicfrog said...

Is the Cap. a vitamin junkie? If so, should read this. I've always had a problem with the notion that taking these mega-doses of vitamins are so good for you, since there is no food natural food source that has the same high doses. Some of the suppliments on the market, psudo-cold remedies like "Airorne" type products, actually come close to having a dangerously high level of vitamin A, which is poisonous at high levels.

Must go to bed now. Must teach tomorrow.

PS. By the way, I only have a few weeks left for student teaching. Then I will have to go find a real job. Scarry!!!

Citizen Deux said...

Frog, thanks for the post. You'll be fine. There are plenty of schools in need of good teachers.

So much of our actions and perception is driven by hope and fear - so rarely logic and rationality. This is compounded by the general lack of understanding of the physical world (science and math). We see it in the poor presentation of statistical data, dubious choices in healthcare and ridiculous religious beliefs (see Texas polygamy cult).

Major John said...

"Rachel Carson’s work Silent Spring brought attention to the risks of science applied without adequate safeguards."

Such as believing Rachel Carson and letting millions die of malaria due to panic about DDT...

Citizen Deux said...

Major - concur - it was the over application of kneejerk reaction to that work of near fiction which bears the blood of more the 20 million people.

Citizen Deux said...

My earlier thoughts here

Gordon Marock said...

The Four Horsemen have started their ride;
Can you see them in the sky?
Racing to Earth;
Terror they bring;
The untimely end of all living things.

captjackharkness said...

Why am I the one that is supposed to have a vitamin fixation? I take a one a day muli-vite when I remember it) and the occasional Red Bull. Sheez....

Citizen Deux said...

It was Red Bull and Vodka in the Gulf which kept us going. Not that it's comparable to the Major's work. Running watches ashore in the CIC is hardly outside the wire stuff.

The occassional threat from a Shahab test launch was hardly "living on the edge".

PS - Vitamins are as much for one's mental state as for one's physical.

PPS - Miss seeing you here, ADM Marock, cheerful as usual...

Elizabeth said...

Hey, CD, it's my turn to compliment YOU on your blog! Nice job!

To add to your post here (late to the game, but still), I think that science, whatever its limitations, should and will be the arbiter of truth, even in the so-called "soft" matters, like emotions and interpersonal relationships. I have faith in science (pun intended), despite the unscientific trends so prominent in our American society at the moment.

Please see one of my favorite lectures on the subject, by Natalie Angier, here:
http://tinyurl.com/trjsy

P.S. I did not know you can do THAT with a spork...

Citizen Deux said...

Elizabeth, great to see you! For those few readers with a lick of good taste, spend some time perusing Elizabeth's blog. There is some great stuff for the mind and soul.

Not that I'm that soulful of a guy..

E - Repost the link if you would...

Elizabeth said...

CD, thank you for your kind words (again!).

Here is the link (you mean to the Angier's article, right?):
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/angier06/angier06_index.html

But be warned: it's not for the religious (which is the point, really, but still).