Only science can give us reliable, useful knowledge about the world

THE OLYMPIANMarch 28, 2012 

The democratic spirit embodies the principle that all people have equal rights – to justice, to protection under the law, to the pursuit of happiness, and so on. But this principle makes some people think there’s equality in everything and that all ideas are just a matter of opinion, so Joe Blow’s ideas are just as good as Jefferson’s or Einstein’s. Some students, for example, have asserted their “right” to spell words any way they please. In ethics and morality, this becomes the attitude that there are no objective standards for behavior, so – as one of my colleagues put it – “Mother Teresa does her thing and Hitler does his thing, and it’s all cool.”

In trying to understand the physical world and how it operates, people who think this way believe that knowledge can come not only from science but from a lot of other sources such as traditional ancient wisdom or divining the position of the stars or just thinking imaginatively. This is Kermit the Frog’s theory of knowledge, as expressed in his little song about rainbows: “Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.”

This worldview is not only outrageously stupid but incredibly dangerous. People who don’t understand science – and there are far too many these days – treat scientific concepts as if they were just like religious beliefs or political ideals. They say, “I don’t believe in evolution” or “I don’t believe in global warming,” just as they might say, “I believe in God the Father,” or “I believe in working hard and saving your money.”

But this is all wrong. A scientific statement about the world is not “believed in” in the way one believes in a religion or a political philosophy. A scientist doesn’t say, “I believe in X.” She might say, “That’s a firmly established principle,” or “That’s generally correct, but at very high energies some other factors become significant,” or “That seems to be true on the whole, but Carlson has just published some interesting observations showing that in some cases . . .” And just how is a concept or a law established? By empirical methods: by actually looking closely at part of the world or some phenomenon with appropriate tools and with a reasonably open, inquiring mind, to see what is actually there or what is actually happening.

Empiricism isn’t just a philosophy one chooses. It is, rather, a fundamental biological way – or at least animal way – of living successfully in the world. As our remote ancestors gradually evolved into us – and yes, they did, no matter what kind of ancient mythology you or anyone else might “believe in” – they depended upon the ability they had inherited from animal ancestors with well-developed nervous systems and sensory organs: an ability to perceive what is happening in the world around them and to learn from it. Those who didn’t perceive accurately or who were poor at learning from experience wound up as meat for someone else’s meal. There is simply no other way to live successfully in the world. And this is what science is all about.

Science-deniers have had their days in the past. The 17th-century church denied that the sun is the center of the solar system and persecuted Galileo for it. Soviet Union leaders once denied genetics because it didn’t fit their political ideals and so imposed Lysenkoism on themselves. Today’s science-deniers are trying to lead humanity down just as false and as dangerous a path, encouraging people to continue living in ways that are destroying our planet by heating the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans, and killing the wildlife.

Burt Guttman, a professor of biology emeritus at The Evergreen State College, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at burtguttman@comcast.net.

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