Science of the Can and Cannot

Humanity has benefited tremendously from the fruits of scientific discovery, particularly since the Enlightenment. Most of us rely on electricity for day-to-day needs, and are moved to awe upon seeing our species extend the known boundaries of existence, in space exploration for example. We are naturally inclined to value freedom, and these discoveries augment our sense of it. No one has any living memory of the historic times scientific study was considered utterly heretical, and in direct opposition to the values and norms any good citizen ought to hold dear.

Until, perhaps, quite recently.

Rather than the religious banners under which anti-science rhetoric assembled in Galilean times, it now aligns along the political spectrum. It is a war of ideology rather than spirituality. Is it all that different? Each side lays claim to their status as outsiders trying to subvert or prevent manipulation by powerful “other” forces. It’s left or right, blue or red, us versus them, down and up, matter and antimatter. Each side claims to be a victim of the sinister manipulations and devious schemes of the other.

With sources of information so tunneled directly into our eyeballs, we report multiple realities. We inhabit the era of alternative facts, and have moved far beyond George Orwell’s doublethink and into a realm where an infinite series of paradoxes no longer contradict one another. Maybe one day this will be looked upon as the greatest unintentional invention of our generation.

There have been some studies that attempted to link personal psychology with political leanings. The one I am most aware of revealed that a conservative political bias tends to be associated with fear, whether that be fear of the future, fear of the government or fear of the unknown. On the other hand, a liberal political bias tends to be associated with psychologies leaning toward hope and anticipation of possibilities. This result probably sounds quite biased, and as though there is a one-size-fits-all model to describe every conservative or liberal. That’s an extreme supposition, and not what I think can be taken away from these results. I think it’s more a useful way to try and situate where another person might be coming from. Because we all know hope, and we all know fear.

The question of fear is pertinent to the overall climate surrounding science (pun intended). Here, we see fear playing out on multiple levels. There are people afraid of the effects of climate change on our planet. There are other people afraid their fundamental freedoms will be restricted if the liberal agenda to restrict our carbon footprint is allowed to pass. What I find compelling is that both sides hold positions that fundamentally stem from an existential fear. In one case the fear of death is sparked by the fear of losing ecosystems that support us. In the other case, the fear of death is sparked by the idea of losing independent, conscious action.

If we can find no other common ground, we can safely say that we are united in our fear of death. That sounds more morbid than I intend. I actually find a great deal of comfort in the notion that at the end of the day, we are all just scared little lumps of flesh trying to our best.

Returning to the question of humanity’s relationship with science, we have to ask the question: when did our perspective shift from awe, to one where we question the notion that the Earth is round? Many people ranting online about conspiracies to hide the truth of our flat Earth are seemingly unaware that the messages they’re sending, and the community they’ve formed is entirely reliant upon satellite networks orbiting a spherical body. But I digress.

I think our relationship with science comes down to the news science is trying to tell us. In most cases where scientific discoveries are appreciated, they are associated with the fundamental extension of our freedoms. We can communicate with more people around the world? Great. We don’t have to cook our food over a fire? Fantastic. If we process this black sludge, mix it with air and pressurize it in a one ton hunk of metal with wheels, we can travel great distances? Sign us up.

Science is valued and trusted when it allows us to do more. We don’t see a lot of argumentation over the fundamental principles of semiconductors, even though we use them every day in our computers and smart phones. If scientific results expand on the ways in which we can interact with the world, and conduct our lives, then they are not questioned.

Quantum mechanics, one of the branches of physics most difficult to understand, nevertheless gives us results that we’re coming to rely upon more and more. Multi-junction solar cells rely on tunnel junctions to work properly. Tiny computer processors have to take quantum effects into consideration.

If all of a sudden, however, a physicist emerged from a lab and said that quantum physics tells us our regular everyday conduct is going to tear apart the fabric of reality, we would probably have an inrush of people wanting to understand the nuances of Schrödinger’s equation.

Scientists, as enablers of freedom, are beloved liberators. Scientists as police officers telling us what we cannot do, are burned at the stake. We are fine when scientific discovery gives us iPhones so that we can never feel bored again, but heaven forbid if those same principles and practices start telling us that we have to give up some of the conveniences of modern life.

Image slightly cropped from original from https://www.flickr.com/photos/lolaashepherd/26544415935

This can versus cannot paradox lies at the heart of the climate change debate. There’s also, admittedly, the notion that scientific results that we can’t easily observe with our five senses firsthand can be hard to take in. Most people can’t see electrons and protons, but they trust the results of physicists from generations before them.

The weather, on the other hand, is something people can observe. And everyone has an opinion on the weather. Inevitably, ideas of the weather are conflated with climate. For some reason it seems absurd to trust a scientist telling us about the long-term global climate future when a meteorologist can’t even predict the next day’s weather. Observability and comparability to experience certainly plays a role in the climate change debate.

When else has scientific discovery been met with such scrutiny and skepticism? The best example I can think of is the tobacco industry’s campaign against the cigarette-lung cancer link. Smoking (or not) was a choice that arguably affected individuals rather than entire countries, and it took twelve years (between 1954 and 1966) between the first scientific discovery, and governmental intervention in the form of warnings on cigarette packs. Nevertheless, the pernicious effects of that campaign are still felt today. I’ve met people who don’t believe in the harmful effects of cigarettes, and who swear based on a single outlier of an uncle who smoked every day and lived to 85 that the rest of the statistical results can be discarded.

This all-or-nothing thinking, or certainty-or-nothing thinking, is willfully encouraged when science gives us a result that threatens our existence. Objectivity is thrown out when it inconveniences us. So-called enabling science is welcomed, and restrictive science is spurned.

As a thought experiment, let’s flip climate change on its head. Let’s suppose that climate change scientists were telling us that as a result of anthropogenically-produced CO2, the climate has and would become more stable, that more people would live in favourable conditions on Earth. Would we have a debate? Would we question scientists and their results more than had ever been done in the last century? Even the naysayers would eventually have to acknowledge the evidence borne out by reams and reams of data around them, wouldn’t they? In this case, oil corporations would benefit from this news, so the widespread narrative would be more or less aligned. The alignment of realities is one effect, but there’s also the effect that this news, as an expander of freedoms, would be met with open arms.

Regardless of what your own stance on climate change is, I think an important act of self-awareness to take when you’re having any gut reaction to something climate-related is to examine where that reaction stems from. Does it come from a fear of death? Is it a fear of limiting your freedoms? By labelling an emotion, we empower the use of our entire brain’s circuitry to think through things more clearly and fully. Rather than staying rooted in lower-level reactional habits, this act of labeling an emotion to engage our whole brain can help us better understand ourselves and each other.

If we can acknowledge the fearful roots of our beliefs and reactions, we can examine them for what they are. If we value freedom so much that we treat any threat to limit it with outright hostility, then we ought to engage our whole brains in the examination of our fears, and beliefs, to truly express that freedom we hold so dear.

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