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Why does science matter?

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The following has been excerpted from “Science matters because it works”, by The Logic of Science website, 4/23/17.
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Why should you support science? Because it works! It’s crazy to me that I even have to say that, but this is where we are as a society. Various forms and degrees of science-denial are running rampant; attacks on science are being disseminated from the highest levels. Indeed, it has gotten to the point that scientists feel compelled to take to the streets to march for science and remind everyone of the fundamental fact that science works, and is unparalleled in its ability to inform us about reality and improve our world.

Just look around you. Everything that you see was brought to you by science.

  • Batteries that power your electronic devices are a result of scientific advances in chemistry, as are the plastics that make up seemingly everything in our modern world.
  • Planes that let you travel the world in mere hours were produced by our understanding of physics.
  • Medicines that have doubled the human life expectancy came from biology, physiology, etc. Diseases that once claimed millions of lives each year are now almost unheard of thanks to advances in immunology, virology, etc.
  • Even on topics where people frequently criticize science, like cancer, there have been great advances. Our ability to fight many cancers is improving, and, at the risk of appealing to anecdotes, I personally have family members who recovered from cancers that were untreatable just a few decades ago.
  • Our entire modern world only exists because science works. Medicine, computers, cell phones, satellites, plastic, etc. all exist because science works.

Nevertheless, here we are, in a reality where some politicians [refer to global warming as a hoax], where countless celebrities go around promoting all manner of unscientific woo… a world where even a notion as ridiculous as believing that the earth is flat can enjoy a resurgence of popularity.

… At this point, inevitably lots of people are going to get offended and respond with something to the effect of, “I’m not anti-science, but…I disagree with the way that science is being done, I think that massive corporations are buying off scientists, I have anecdotes that don’t match the science, scientists have been wrong in the past, scientists are close-minded, etc.,”

Those aren’t valid responses [because] science is a method, and it either works, or it doesn’t. You can’t pick and choose when you want to accept it and when you want to reject it.

This brings me to two important points. First, the people who make, “I am not anti-science but…” arguments are nearly always people with no experience in science. They are people who are projecting their preconceptions onto a method that they know nothing about.

When people say that “scientists are just going along with the dogma of their fields” they are revealing how little they actually understand about how science operates… No one gets funding for blindly going along with something that everyone already knows. You only get funding for pushing boundaries and chasing novel ideas. Indeed, every great scientist was great precisely because they discredited the views of their day.

Arguments arise when science conflicts with someone’s personal beliefs.

For example, some people are happy enough to have science make more efficient batteries, predict tomorrow’s weather, cure their illnesses, etc., but the instant that it says that burning fossil fuels is bad, they turn on science and invent fanciful conspiracies, appeal to a minority of fringe researchers, cite discredited papers, etc.

Conversely, droves of people stand behind the science of climate change 100%, but when the same scientific method says that GMOs are safe, suddenly we are back in conspiracy land.

That’s not how this works… When thousands of papers conducted by countless scientists from all over the planet arrive at the same conclusion, you don’t get to reject that conclusion just because you don’t like it.

A final group of dissidents take things even further and directly question the validity of science itself. They claim that decades of research on vaccines is discredited by the simplistic notion that “mothers know best.” They ignore the scientific impossibility of homeopathy in favor of personal anecdotes. They insist that the fact that something has been used for thousands of years is more important than the fact that numerous studies have shown that it’s nothing but a placebo, and they embrace all manner of nonsense about energy fields, crystals, etc.

All of that is discredited by the obvious fact that science works: We had anecdotes and appeals to antiquity (or popularity, or maternal instincts) for thousands of years, but they got us nowhere. Science is the thing that allowed us to tell which of those anecdotes were based on causal relationships and which ones were based on spurious correlations,

Science is the thing that allowed us to know which natural remedies actually worked (e.g. aspirin) and which ones were hogwash. Further, science is the thing that let us improve on nature and synthesize purer and more concentrated forms of natural chemicals, as well as making medicines that aren’t even found in nature.  For example, if you have diabetes and take insulin, you get that insulin not from nature, but rather from a GMO that was produced by science. Similarly, if you need surgery, you are going to want to be knocked out using the best anesthetic that science has to offer, rather than eating some herbs.

The history of tobacco actually illustrates this well. Tobacco was used medicinally for centuries by Native Americans, it was supported by countless anecdotes, it was 100% natural, mothers thought it was best for their children, etc. Today, however, we know that not only does it fail to cure illnesses, but it is extremely carcinogenic.

Why do we know that? Because of science! Careful and systematic studies revealed that all of those anecdotes, maternal instincts, etc. were wrong.

Now, someone may write a comment about the time that some scientists were paid off by Big Tobacco to support smoking, or the doctors who thought smoking was safe, but those are distortions: Sure, there was a transition period when evidence was still being accumulated and scientists and doctors were not convinced. Nothing in science changes overnight. But that period didn’t last because science prevailed.

Similarly, there were a minority of scientists that were paid off, and tobacco companies put tons of money and effort into creating the illusion that there was no scientific evidence that smoking was dangerous, but that was a smoke screen created by the tobacco companies, and their efforts ultimately failed.

This is the same thing that is happening today on many issues.

  • The science on climate change, for example, is extremely clear. It is supported by thousands of studies and is agreed upon by virtually all climatologists. Nevertheless, fossil fuel companies have created an illusion of controversy. They have a handful of scientists that they publicize strongly, and they pour tons of money into promoting the notion that the science isn’t settled.
  • The anti-vaccine movement is the same thing. The science for vaccines is solid, but they have a handful of “experts” and pump so much money into it that it appears that there is a conflict, even though this is a settled issue among medical experts.
  • Similarly, big organic companies pump untold millions of dollars into opposing GMOs and making it appear that the science isn’t settled, even though nearly 2,000 studies have conclusively shown that GMOs are  safe for humans and no worse (or even better) for the environment than traditional crops.

If you want life-saving medical breakthroughs to continue, then you need to support funding for agencies like the NIH. If you want to benefit from an enhanced understanding of the universe, then you need to support funding for things like the NSF. If you understand how many technological wonders have come from the space program and want more technological advances, then you need to support funding for NASA. I could go on, but hopefully you get my point. The way that I see it, our society is at something of a crossroads, and either we will fight for science, support it, and move forward because of it, or we will reject it, downplay it, and ignore it, in which case, at best, we will stagnate and halt our progress, and at worst, we will move backwards (e.g., increased disease outbreaks as vaccination rates fall). The choice between those two options seems pretty obvious to me.
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