On Science

Today’s words are epistemology and positivism. Today’s march is “For Science”.  Allow me to comment on all these.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. Let us ignore the conundrum of studying how we know things if we implicitly accept that knowing things is not immediately obvious (i.e. is this something that’s impossible to study? That would be a different philosophical topic). Positivism is the theory that we can only know things that can be demonstrated scientifically. It is the rejection of metaphysics and many religious tenets. Positivism is an answer to the fundamental question of epistemology.

While there is nuance in positivism, represented by “neopositivism”, “post positivism”, “contemporary positivism”, and many other flavors, I think it’s reasonable to state that today’s marchers for science could generally be described as positivists.  Climate change is undeniable because the data tell us it’s happening. Evolution is real because the fossils, carbon-14 dating, and genetic studies provide compelling evidence of its veracity. Homosexuality and self-identification of gender are based on genetics and chemistry, not on perversity and choice. Abortion is not murder because an undeveloped fetus is, demonstrably, not “human”, at least during the first two trimesters of gestation.

These things should not be subject to religious debate, economic argument or political machinations.  We believe in science.

Given a presumed liberal/conservative divide between those who believe in science and those accused of not believing in science, how do you think today’s marchers would respond to opinions on the following topics?:

  • The safety of pesticides and GMO foods
  • The feasibility of safe nuclear power
  • The deleterious effects of unequal distribution of wealth

I won’t go into each of these in detail, instead, I’ll refer you this excellent study by the Pew Research group and this article by Real Clear Science. The TL;DR version is “both liberals and conservatives ignore science at times”.  On the first two topics above, the Pew survey shows that liberals are generally on the “unsafe” side of the aisle, in spite of the scientific consensus.  I’ll go into the last topic later in this post as this is one that hasn’t received much attention.

“But wait!”, you say, “My source tells me that GMOs are bad and look at how terrible Fukushima was!”. Those who deny climate change or oppose abortion say exactly the same things about their sources and their observations. How can we tell what is True when there are scientists who claim A and others who claim Not A? This is where a refresher course on positivism comes in.

Neither positivism nor, more specifically, the scientific method, asserts that science is easy. The scientific method includes, not only the formulation of hypotheses, the design of experiments, and the interpretation of results – it also includes the publishing of results, duplication by others and the development of consensus.  Science is not an exact process. Many scientists are sloppy; others fail to reproduce their results. Some scientists have been found to have falsified or doctored their data. Sometimes, even after duplication and the achievement of consensus, more experiments and more data come along that completely disprove accepted theory. Consider Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Newton. Each developed an accepted theory of planetary/cosmic motion only to be later proven wrong. The message for today’s marchers should not be “trust science”, it should be “trust the scientific community’s ability to eventually arrive at accepted theories which work pretty well.”

What’s marvelous about science, especially when practiced in an open, competitive environment is that it’s extremely difficult to corrupt. Yes, Monsanto can fund a study that supports their economic interests.  It can’t corrupt all scientists, however. Remember that many scientists are graduate students and assistant professors who are trying to get tenured jobs. They get these jobs by discovering new things.  It is much more valuable to find a conclusion that challenges the status quo than it is to produce yet another study that confirms it. In this fashion, it is similar to the art world. Why aren’t all artists painting water lilies? If science is “rigged”, it is rigged to disagree. This is a good thing.

So, read everything you can about Roundup and GMOs. Ignore everything from “monsanto-stooge.com” and from “organic-agrabusiness.com”. You’ll find a consensus that GMOs (especially, non-transgenic ones) are safe. Read about Fukushima, the worst atomic reactor disaster and you’ll find that the expected deaths due to radiation (over the lifetime of the affected folk) range from zero to “a few hundred” (the most likely number is around 100-200). Do you know that coal-fired power plants are estimated to kill about 100,000/year due to air pollution? Atomic power is the most feasible way to significantly reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Fortunately, the Chinese have taken the lead in the development of smaller, safer, nuclear power plants (as they have, too, with solar power production).

So, when I read things such as “We can state unequivocally, and without fear of contradiction, that no one has ever produced evidence that any specific amount of radiation will be without harm”, I cringe. While arguably “true” in the sense that even one radiated proton can damage a strand of DNA, the implication is that we should live in fear of all radiation. Consider, however, what the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reports: “The highest levels of cesium (10 Bq/m3) attributable to Fukushima that we have measured were found 1,500 miles north of Hawaii.  Swimming every day in the ocean there would still result in a dose 1,000 time smaller than the radiation we receive with a single dental x-ray. Not zero, but still very low.” As per this chart,  eating a single banana exposes you to as much radiation as does living next to an atomic power plant for a year. The same chart shows that taking a single (long) airplane flight exposes you to 120 times as much radiation as living near a nuclear plant.

Ok, so now, let’s consider the distribution of wealth in the US. Our middle class has shrunk from 61% of the population to 50% (again, as per Pew Research). This is a bad thing, no? Well, maybe. Do you know that most of the “shrinkage” has been due to middle-class families joining the upper class? Look at this chart:

The data is somewhat old (2010), but I’ve seen newer data that confirms the observation that, while the lower income class has stayed steady (or, more recently, increased by a couple of percentage points), the diminishing middle class is mostly the result of movement into the upper-income class. Is this a bad thing? Actually, I think it might be, especially since wealth tends to be centered around urban population centers and it’s the rural areas that are suffering most. Regardless, given these dynamics, it’s not surprising that wealth distribution is changing, too.  Incidentally, I think the biggest problem here is the definition of “middle-class”: families making between 67% and 200% of the median income.  Since the median family income is about $52,000/year, the upper-class includes all families making more than $104,000/year. In many urban areas (say, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston), this is just enough to rent an apartment and eat out once a week.

So, what’s the moral of this post? Think critically. Examine your sources. Venture out of your reality bubble. If you believe in science, believe in it whether or not it confirms your gut reactions. Understand that it’s not perfect and endeavor to read and judge opposing views. Trust that truth will eventually emerge.