Friday, October 07, 2005

Debating Science

There's a saying "you can't reason someone out of something they didn't reason themselves into". I think it was attributed to Francis Bacon, but i can't be sure. Believe it or not, this saying explains more about media science 'debates' than just about anything else.
When i started this blog, there were 3 things that i knew i'd end up talking about, not because i wanted to but because they are the media darlings of controversy (real or imagined) and hence are bound to get a lot of column inches. As you might guess, these 3 topics are:
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Global Warming
  • Intelligent Design vs Evolution
The reason i don't want to spend much time on these:
  1. The rule of thumb mentioned at the beginning of the post pretty much destroys the 'controversy' of intelligent design, evolution is the best explanation science has for explaining the natural world, as such, it is what gets taught in science classes - deal with it. If you want to believe in God, do it in a church. There are ad nauseum websites with tireless workers explaining why science does not have a problem with evolution, i recommend Pharangula and the usenet talkorigins archive. According the rule of thumb mentioned, there is no way scientists can win this 'argument' with creationists since they aren't part of the process that arrived at this conclusion. The main objective of scientists, i believe, is to quarantine these beliefs so that they reside where they belong - sunday school, church and personal beliefs.
  2. Science isn't a democracy. Einstein blew every other physicist out of the water with his 4 papers published in 1905 (i hope you've at least heard of the centenary somewhere!?), not because he was more famous (he was an unknown at the time) or because he had the biggest research budget (none of the papers had an experimental result in them, they were purely theoretical) but because he followed a standard procedure: publish in journals that other scientists read, clearly state what you think is going on, propose experiments that can disprove your hypothesis, repeat. However, for every Einstein, there are 10,000 wannabees. You may disagree with the consensus (the 2005 Nobel in medicine was given for just such a heretical opinion becoming orthodoxy) but the chances are massively against you being right, and when you're betting everything you own (and what you don't own!), odds are the consensus is closer to the truth than the fringe. This is where i slot Global Warming. It may be wrong, but i don't think ignoring it and hoping it will go away is a credible response. Having said that, there are opportunity cost considerations on how to spend research funding which i think are valid but when you can do so much with so little effort (low power light bulbs, smaller electricity generation closer to demand, increase fuel efficiency of cars, let price signals actually get to the consumers), it would seem recklessly irresponsible to not do anything at all. Yes, i'm talking to you Dubbya and Deputy Johnny, history will judge your administration harshly. You didn't reason your way into this position and we can't reason you out of it. Our only hope is to reason your voting public to accept that 4% of the world consuming 25% of its resources is a tad unfair and may actually be a very, very bad thing...
  3. Genetic Engineering. There is no 'life force' that makes DNA special. It's just fiendishly complex chemistry. I don't think 4 cells with potential to become human are human. Hence splice and dice till your hearts content, i want cures to debilitating diseases NOW. The precautionary principle is nice but fiendishly tricky to narrow down unless you start thinking in terms of risk/reward. Until anti-GE protesters start demanding 'the chances of xyz must be less than 1/million' or some such, we aren't going to get anywhere. Most opposition to GE, at its core, isn't due to reason, its due to a belief of some sort. I can't reason you out of that position.
Anyway, thats where it stands at the moment and it will be the prism that any further postings on these 3 subjects will be viewed through. If you don't agree with me, feel free to take me to court, demand that your view (and only your view among thousands) is taught alongside mine to any of my students in order to 'show the controversy' and thus let the students decide.


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