Saturday, December 17, 2011

Are Republicans Anti-Science?

I recently read an op-ed piece in the New York Times claiming good odds that the next Republican president will be anti-science and anti-knowledge. The author went on to prove his point by saying both Governor Perry and Mitt Romney, two front runners in the Republican race when this article was written, are both against evolution and the idea of man-caused global climate change. The author finds this "terrifying," a word he used multiple times. This is the latest example of a common meme popping up recently where disagreement on certain topics, particularly evolution and climate change, are anti-science. I want to address this claim.

First, I am not a die-hard Republican. There are many issues upon which I disagree with much of the Republican leadership I see and hear at the national level. I don't really like any of the front-runners. So, I am not trying to defend and support this party over any other. However, I am a technologist who uses the scientific method on a daily basis. I have interests in both the hard and soft sciences.

I find it somewhat interesting this conversation is occurring in the political arena this time. Typically when I see public argument over creation/evolution, it's presented as a battle between Christianity and Science. I'm going to attempt to explain what science is and how being either for or against evolution or human caused climate change, or any one of many other topics, has nothing to do with science. I suppose you could call it the philosophy of science.

Simply stated, science is about what we know about physical objects and processes. Science is what we can, using our five senses, establish facts about. Science is based on what we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch, either directly or through proxy using instrumentation. The scientific method is a means by which we can reason about things we can sense. It involves hypothesis and experiment. And it requires repeatability. If experiments cannot be repeated by different people in different places at different times with consistent results, then the hypothesis is called into question.

However, science is not the only way of knowing. It works really well to discover things about the natural universe: physics, biology, chemistry and other things that we can manipulate in the physical realm. Things that can be directly measured lend themselves to the scientific method. It starts to break down when it's applied to the fringes of our senses in hard sciences and to softer sciences such as sociology, anthropology and psychology. These work less with individual things and more with groups. Measurement is done at the statistical level, rather than directly. Because of this, there is more room for interpretation and bias to enter into the picture. There is at least one level of abstraction through which to obfuscate and introduce error. And typically, there are many more than one.

Finally, there are areas of knowing to which science cannot be applied. History. Literature. Language. Anything that cannot be experimented on. Things that cannot be reproduced. Things that cannot be measured. These are areas where science is agnostic. They are outside its domain. That's not to say they're not unknowable, just that science cannot be used to know them.

The entire argument over origins, whether you stand in the evolution or creation or some other camp, is not science. It falls, in its entirety, into the last category of things we can know. It's history. It's philosophy. It's faith. It might be an interesting thing to think about and debate, and it may turn out to be very critical to your future, but it is not science. There is one simple reason for this assertion: it happened in the past. You cannot create experiments about the past. You cannot see, hear, taste, smell or touch things in the past. All science tells you about is what we can observe in the present, now, today.

Yes, there are quite a few scientists who believe the evolution story. However, that does not make it science. And there are quite a few scientists who do not believe the story of evolution. But that does not make it non-science. What makes it non-science is that it is history. It cannot be repeated. And of course, the same is true of the creation story. Those who want to place creationism in the science curriculum are as misguided as those who want to put (or more accurately, keep) evolution there. Both belong in the humanities along with US History, World History and Philosophy.

Moving to the other topic of the op-ed author: man-made climate change. His assertion that any climate change we see is caused by humans is a statement of belief, not science. Again the reason is based on the problem with establishing repeatable experiments. Because it is a planetary phenomena, experiments also must be of a planetary scale over geologic time periods. In order to do any valid experimentation on this problem, one would need multiple, identical planets, some for controls and some on which to vary experimental parameters. One would also need to either be able to manipulate time or have a very long period over which to run the experiments. Further, there is very good evidence that the planet was much warmer in the past. Humans probably didn't cause it to cool to the present temperature. And we probably can't keep it from warming in the future.

What the author of this NYT editorial does is elevate science to a religion. He puts faith in things that have an air, but lack the substance, of science. He then wants to take action based on that belief. And then anyone who doesn't worship at the same altar he does, he disparages by calling them "anti-science" and "anti-knowledge." They terrify him.

Mr. Op-Ed Author, these people may not be anti-this or anti-that. Rather, perhaps they better grasp the limits of science and, knowing these limits, they are better equipped to evaluate the things science is capable of telling them, integrate the data with other knowledge, and have simply come to different conclusions. That should not make them terrifying. That should make them engaging and interesting.

I hope all those who equate evolution to science and anyone who disagrees with them as anti-science are simply ignorant regarding what science is about. Ignorance is easily dealt with through education. We can discuss and come to an agreement, or we may agree to disagree and still remain civil. However, if they are being disingenuous and intentionally framing the debate in a wrong and inflammatory manner, well, I'll let the reader apply their own description to that behavior.

In summation, the problem comes when things are asserted as true, particularly under the guise of "science," that are not scientific facts but rather conjecture, opinion and untestable hypothesis. As a society, we need to be honest with the frames we use to present arguments or we are going to get more and more polarized and divided. Calling groups "anti-science" or "anti-knowledge" simply alienates and furthers the gap between people, ultimately pulling society apart rather than building it up.