Saturday, March 31, 2012

Science Doesn't Care Either

A new study from the University of North Carolina shows that conservative trust in science has hit an all-time low, with just 35% saying they had "a great deal of faith in science". As far as those losing trust in it, they increasingly find science to be as elitist and 'intellectual' (amazing how 'intellectual' has become an insult in some circles).

In January 2011, I wrote about how nature doesn't care what happens in politics. It's going to do what it's going to do and that's that. It doesn't have approval ratings. It doesn't debate. It simply does what it does and you just have to deal with it.

MSNBC's Maddow Blog wrote an entry yesterday entitled "Science need not be a partisan issue". It isn't. We may choose to make political hay of science, we may decide legislation and elections based on our perceptions of science, and the workings of science may be up for debate, but the actual science itself is not partisan. Just like nature, science doesn't care what politics thinks. Science doesn't take a vote. Trust it or not, but science will do what science will do whether we agree on what it does or not, whether we even understand what it does or not, and whether or not we govern our lives in a manner that agrees with what it does. The Earth did not cease to revolve around the sun just because the Catholic Church said it was the other way around. The Earth will not cease to warm up just because someone hired a lobbyist to say it isn't. Oil will not replenish itself on a timeline convenient to you just so you can keep driving to work.

This is true for pretty much any of the hard subjects. There are aspects of life and the universe that are governed by facts, absolutes, right and wrong answers, and things beyond plausible human control. Nature is one. Science is another. Math. History. You can try to cover up these things, pretend they are not there and that something else is, but they're still there. You cannot legislate those things away. Well, you can, but those things will still be true. You can't vote science out of office. You can't legislate pi as exactly 3, even though someone has tried. And what has happened in the past cannot unhappen, no matter how much one may try to hide, alter, or destroy the records. You may win a political debate about such things, but you're still going to be wrong.

In fact, even the attempt to bring law or politics into a scientific debate is enough to utterly demolish the credibility of an argument in the scientific world- if you feel the need to bring legislation or lawsuits down on the people you're debating with, the feeling is that you must know your argument doesn't hold up and now you're just doing nothing more than trying to 'win' instead of trying to be right.

One notable example of this, as Discarded Science by John Grant explains, came when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah made the announcement in 1989 that they had discovered cold fusion. After having published their findings, other scientists leapt on it to check their work and could not replicate the results. And as even the Mythbusters will tell you, if you can't replicate the results, it's no good. (Though some scientists think they have replicated the results, many more have not, and what might have happened is that they discovered something, just not cold fusion.) But more than anything else, Pons and Fleischmann went down in flames when the University of Utah started to threaten lawsuits against their critics. As Grant penned in Discarded Science, "It's an obvious rule of thumb that only a scientific illiterate would attempt to use a lawsuit to influence a scientific debate." Or as one of those critics, Dr. Michael H. Salamon, put it, "It's outrageous. It is really an unparallelled attack on academic rights. You don't threaten scientific colleagues with lawsuits. That just doesn't happen."

Trust or don't. But science, regardless of how or whether we understand it, is what it is and your opinion on what is, and the political opinions on what is, will not change that.

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