12 May 2014

I Hope I'm Not Wrong

This has been on my mind a lot, lately.  I've been watching debates and lectures, and reading articles, and basically stuffing information into my brain as quickly as my computer has been willing to feed it to me, and then pondering the result.

Not unlike a Middle Earth Dwarf enjoying a particularly pungent fart, and pondering the meal which produced it.

So, I've been thinking about how science is not what gives us all of the wonderful gadgets that fill our lives with comfort and convenience and put food on our tables... it's far more important than that.

No, hear me out.

Science doesn't give us gadgets and gizmos.  It doesn't produce new medicines and new strains of food crops.  It doesn't power our televisions.  It doesn't turn seawater into fuel.  It doesn't even allow us to mass-produce books with which to educate our children.

All of these tasks are accomplished via Engineering, not science.  Engineering is the application of processes and principles learned via science to produce new technologies.  Engineering can feed back into science, as with the electron microscope, Large Hadron Collider, and the process of putting the cream filling inside Twinkies®.  (Scientists eat a lot of Twinkies while conducting research.  It helps with the process.)  But Engineering isn't, strictly speaking, science.

So, then, one might ask, what is science?

I'm glad one asked.

Science is a process.  It's the process for discovering new knowledge.  It's the process for learning new things, not from someone else, but that someone else might not know.  The central part, the most defining part, arguably the most important part of science, is The Scientific Method.  That's what's really the key to why science is important.

Sure, there are other parts of science, like the classification of things based on what's learned, but The Scientific Process is the important part.  And here's why:

Science isn't about building a smarter phone, nor a self-driving car, nor a house that does the cleaning for you.  Science isn't about flying to the stars, nor flying across the ocean, nor making a flying car.  And science isn't about curing disease, feeding the hungry, nor streaming information more quickly across the Internet.

Science is about thinking.  It's about taking existing data, conditions, observations, analyzing them, making an educated guess about what's happening, finding a way to test that guess, and testing it repeatedly to determine whether the guess is consistently predictive of the results.  But mostly it's about thinking.

The Scientific Method was one of the truly great revolutions in all of history.  Writing, the domestication of food crops, The Scientific Method, tea cups with pictures of cute animals on them, and the willingness to look beyond the ideas handed down by our elders in order to examine the facts are, arguably, the most important revolutions to happen in human thinking.

Before the beginning of what can be called Human Civilization, all communication was oral, and that tended to change over time, so that the true nature of history, law, and who won the latest stick-throwing contest would become distorted.  Writing changed all that in ways that nothing else had.  Also, that which we were told by our elders (parents, grandparents, and assorted old people) was taken on faith, even though many of those same old people couldn't remember their own names.

And before The Scientific Process came about, one might look at, for example, lightning, and wonder, "Now what could be causing that?"  More often than not, the conclusions drawn led to beliefs about supernatural entities and forces that were powerful and must be feared and appeased.  The modern Scientific Process, though, would involve looking at the lightning, comparing it with what we already know (sweaters right out of the drier), setting up a way to test that, and so on.  We would eventually gain understanding about the world around us, and, more importantly, ourselves.

That's all it was.  A revolution in thinking.  Certainly, there was a process involved.  We had to come up with new words (hypothesis, theory, Nobel Prize), but we started with some pretty basic information (maggots form on dead meat) and build up from there, and took what we learned and built upon it to learn more.  Science was born not as a gizmo to make pretty blinking lights, but as a new way of thinking.  An organized way of thinking designed to bring positive results.

And that's where it gets tricky.  We're living in an interesting time.  Mankind enjoys the benefits of science (and, by extension, engineering) like never before.  We have machines to make our morning coffee.  We can produce gasoline from seawater slightly more cheaply than from oil (and that process will become even cheaper).  We can cure diseases that didn't exist 10 years ago, and many that existed long before that, even cancer, if it's caught in time.

Ladies, check yourselves, and get regular mammograms after the age of 40.

We can cross the ocean in a matter of hours, fly to the moon, and even land robots on Mars.  So what's the problem?

There are people, many of them prominent figures with some political influence, who are opposed to science.  They aren't just opposed to creating clones of serial killers, nor handing over our nuclear arsenal to an artificial intelligence, nor even genetically engineered crops.  They're opposed to all science everywhere and always.  I hear phrases like, "Scientists don't know anything" and "Why can't science answer question answered 20 years ago" or "Why can't science answer unanswerable or philosophical non-scientific question?"

They want to eliminate science because it disagrees with their preconceived notions, or because the results of scientific studies interfere with their personal financial gain.  But, really, what are they doing?  Is science a bad thing?  What would happen without science?  If, for example, we eliminated all science and its fruits tomorrow?

Well, for one thing, most human life on this planet would be gone within six months.  This isn't an exaggeration.  Think about it.... We use machinery and chemicals to grow genetically engineered crops on smaller fields through the efforts of fewer people.  We process that food using factories and ship it using trucks and sell it using computers.  We have vaccines (and no, I don't want to hear your anti-vaxxer rhetoric, I know what's in vaccines, and I know why, and it has never been shown to cause autism).  We have personal hygiene that helps prevent the spread of disease.  Corrective lenses, endoscopic surgery, prenatal vitamins, mass transit... these are all things keeping people alive.

Why would people be opposed to something as important as science in the face of financial consequences?  Pure selfishness, to a degree that has never been seen in any species apart from humans.  The same goes for when someone chooses religion over science... it's not that the religion is directly harmed by science, but that people with their little beliefs in the superiority of their beliefs prefer for their beliefs to be dominant, and that's hard to maintain in the face of a method of determining what's real.  These people know, KNOW, that they're hurting the future of mankind.  They don't care.  Some of them have children and grandchildren who will be harmed.  They don't care.  What they care about is their own current success.  Fulfilling their own greed.  Getting their wishes.  They want their oil companies to net billions in profits this quarter.  They want their megachurches to take it billions in tax-exempt donations.  They want to maintain personal power over the lives of others.

I said that no other species has exhibited this kind of behavior.  Here's a caveat: there have been individual members of pack species that have worked against the good of the pack.  Whether it was due to a diseased brain, an injury, a genetic defect, or some other cause, there have been those who worked against the greater good.

The other pack members rose up and ate them.  THAT was for the greater good.

Right now, we're locked in a massive struggle.  Several, but they really mostly come down to the same thing.  A few individuals are in power.  They have the money, the means, and the media.  They want what's good for them right now, and they'll do anything to get it and keep it.

These individuals are diseased.  But the disease almost seems contagious.  Due to their influence, mostly through the media and through pre-paid politicians, they're able to convince seemingly healthy, clearheaded people to vote against their own interests, to donate to causes that hurt them, to work against their own good and the good of their descendants and the world in general.

What's needed, I think, is knowledge.  REAL knowledge.  Not prepackaged fluff from news agencies with an agenda.  The simple facts.  I would hope that, if people knew the truth, they would act in a way to benefit the most people over the long run.  This is what I want to believe.  It's what I have to believe.  Because if it's not true, then our entire species is diseased and we don't deserve to survive the next 100 years.

Such hope isn't science.  There's no evidence to support it.  But nor is it faith.  I no longer have the emotional energy for faith.  It's just hope.  I'm seeing signs.  I see more people opening their eyes, learning the truth for themselves, and working toward the greater good.  I see things improving overall.

I hope I'm not wrong.

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