Science is amazing. Really. Using science, we can send a spacecraft (New Horizons) on a 9.5 year, 4.8-billion-kilometre journey to Pluto, a task akin to making a hole in one from Vancouver to Halifax while the hole is moving at 19,000 kilometres per hour.
We can plumb the depths of the atom where logic seems to disappear and a particle literally can be in two places at the same time.
We can unravel the DNA helix, fashion amazing technologies, and cure diseases that once killed millions, yet large segments of human society doubt science.
We even have the president of the most powerful nation in the world actively denying any science that does not fit his world view.
The problem science endures is that it isn’t always right and it really isn’t ever about being absolutely right. Unfortunately, some people conflate the latter fact with the belief that “my theory is just as good as the experts”, or “they are wrong because I know what I saw”.
Don’t get me wrong – your or my theory may indeed be better. While we think we might have thoughts that are so amazing and insightful they change everything, it’s just not terribly likely. So, to make any judgement about any scientific knowledge we have to put on our thinking caps and exercise our little grey cells.
When Gwyneth Paltrow’s company Goop sells a US-$80 crystal water flask that contains a quartz crystal that, and I quote from their website, “is designed with an obelisk-like clear quartz crystal to infuse water with positive energy”.
“Tied to cleansing and clarity, clear quartz is thought to generate a productive energy, channeling (sic) focus into positivity.”
Hopefully, they should be wondering, what this “positive energy” thing is? How did Ms. Paltrow and Goop identify and measure this exciting new energy source? How does positive energy infuse water and then humans? How is anyone allowed to advertise such obvious nonsense?
Were it only a silly water flask that resides as an example of anti-science nonsense we could all have a chuckle and go on with life. I mean, who cares if someone wants to spend US-$80 on a trivial vanity (the item is currently sold out).
However, when we stray into the dangerous world of anti-vaccination campaigns, crazy cancer ‘cures’, bogus diets, detoxification, and a host of other ‘flim-flammery’ and quackery, we are cruising into a world where the potential for real harm is significant.
Point in fact – immunizations have saved millions of lives and have prevented untold misery from numerous afflictions, including polio, smallpox, the mumps, tetanus, pertussis, influenza, diphtheria, hepatitis, rabies, yellow and typhoid fevers, tuberculosis, and human papillomavirus. They have not only prevented disease in individuals, but have halted the spread of those same diseases.
However, as a fitting testament to human perversity, it took one individual, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, to derail childhood immunization. Wakefield managed to publish a tragically flawed study of 12 children in which he concluded a relationship between immunizations and the onset of autism.
Epidemiological experts (sarcasm, in case you missed it) like Donald Trump and a host of other celebrities jumped on the newly birthed anti-vaccine bandwagon and the damage was done. No matter the studies that covered over 14 million children and found absolutely no linkage between immunization and autism, far too many people chose to join the same bandwagon and to defy logic and good science.
As a result, immunization rates began to fall and the incidence of preventable disease began to rise. The damage caused by Wakefield continues today as individuals and organized groups continue to doubt good science.
Then we have climate change denial. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are annual gatherings of Nobel prize winners and young scientists intended to discuss issues related to science. It is an assembly of formidable scientific minds.
In 2015 the meeting issued the Mainau Declaration that called for the world’s nations to take action on climate change. Then in November 2017, 15,000 scientists from 184 nations issued a dire warning to the world about the dangers of climate change, stating: “Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
Yet, all those scientists are ignored by climate change deniers who now champion one Laureate, Ivar Giaever, who has come from obscurity to limelight as the poster child of the climate change denial industry.
Giaever won the Nobel prize in 1973 for his work on quantum tunnelling in solids. He is one very bright guy. However, despite his own admission that he knew nothing about climate science, he felt free to announce that climate change science is a hoax.
In 2015 Giaever took the stage at the 65th Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany, to give a speech about global warming.
“I am not really terribly interested in global warming. Like most physicists, I don’t think much about it. But in 2008 I was on a panel here about global warming and I had to learn something about it. And I spent a day or so — half a day maybe on Google, and I was horrified by what I learned.”
Having admitted he had to first Google global warming, Giaever went on to accuse NASA and federal scientists of fiddling with temperatures.
“(NASA) can fiddle with the data. That is what NASA does. You cannot believe the people — the alarmists — who say CO2 is a terrible thing. It’s not true, it’s absolutely not true,” Giaever continued.
Is there doubt about climate science? Of course, science is about doubt and being wrong. Paradoxically, that is exactly what makes it so right. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote, shortly before his death in 1988, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain”.
To increase the certainty of any understanding, scientists constantly test even the apparently obvious. They devise better and better tools, processes and language (mathematics) to measure and explain what they believe to be true and perhaps, more importantly, to correct what they learn is wrong.
The progress made by each generation of scientists builds upon that of their predecessors. Still, the best any scientist can ever say is, “It is true so far”. It is the odds that are important and while 15,000 may indeed be wrong and one right, it isn’t likely.
So, we need to think about science and evaluate the quality of its observations as best we can understand them and take logical and considered action on those observations. This becomes particularly challenging and important when the science is telling us something we don’t want to hear and when it means change, the implications of which we both fear and mistrust.
Sticking our fingers in our ears and yelling, “Na, na, na …” just isn’t on. Stephen Harper tried it with data related to climate science and Donald Trump is currently doing the same with any kind of environmental or earth science.
Of course, wiping the slate clean of any data that is inconvenient to one’s personal interests and predilections is the ultimate form of scientific denial and is something that should frighten even the most avid stalwarts among us.