It worries me when I see public figures, or aspiring public figures, disparaging scientific work because it is not compatible with their personal positions. The public gets to hear phrases like, “that’s only a theory,” or “that scientific theory has holes in it,” or “it’s not proven, we don’t know for sure yet;” all of which are meant to cast doubt on the validity of one scientific conclusion or another. The problem (and this is, of course, a point of subtlety that often causes proponents of science to look like they have a weaker argument in the public’s eyes) is that all those things are true for scientific findings. The good thing, though, is that none of those statements should be disparaging – if only lay people had a better understanding of the scientific process.
Scientific theories are “only” theories, yes…but “theory” is actually one of the highest terms of honor an idea can attain in the world of science. A “theory” is only accepted as such if it has graduated from the world of hypotheses after rigorous testing. A scientific theory represents the best possible idea humans can conceive of how part of the world works. And if a new theory comes along, in order to be better than the old theory, it still has to explain the same phenomena and fit the same data. Old theories often remain as subsets of new ones, rather than being discarded entirely.
Even then, when a theory represents the best understanding we have of the world, to say that it “has holes” or is “not conclusively proven” is not to say anything at all. Science is not a process of logical argument from immutable premises – it is a process of induction from observable data. We observe new data all the time, and our theories must adapt to that data if they cannot account for new observations. The most fundamental scientific theories still leave some phenomena unexplained, but that does not make them totally invalid. The theories of Newtonian or Einsteinian gravity don’t account for quantum behaviors, but knowing that does not mean that the next time I jump in the air I won’t come down to Earth again. Our best theories cannot be “proven” and cannot be “airtight” – but we can look at their track records to figure out how confident we should be in those theories. Every single time I have jumped in the air, I have fallen downward again. While the amount of observations I have are finite, and I cannot prove with 100% certainty that the next time I jump I won’t fly off into space, the best human understanding of the way the universe works says that I will be disappointed. This sort of thing – a “theory” – is what non-scientists often call a “fact.”
What I see from some public figures these days is a campaign of anti-intellectualism that I think could be extremely damaging to our society. Don’t let those scientists or experts tell you what to do; they don’t know what your problems are! Never mind that they dedicate their entire lives to studying and gaining a more complete understanding of highly specific things…so that you don’t have to. If we as a society tried to solve every problem with “common sense” and common sense alone (assume enough people have common sense to attempt that strategy…) then we would never have invented vaccines, or automobiles, or light bulbs, or computers. We would never have been able to navigate ships, cultivate barren lands, deal with chronic illnesses, or travel to the Moon. (The same thing, by the way, is true for religion.) No, to do those things requires an methodical accumulation of knowledge that stretches beyond a single lifetime…and so our society invented experts. Good thing, too!
Hand in hand with their anti-intellectualism, I see some speakers getting top billing on hungry 24-hour news networks by making intellectually dishonest arguments. The difference between a scientist and an ideologue, as I see it, is this: When a scientist sees a data point that he or she cannot explain with the best scientific theories, then the theory has to be changed to account for all the data, both old and new, because the observations happened the way they did. But when an ideologue sees a data point that he or she cannot explain with his or her best worldview, then the worldview remains immutable and the data point is called into question. In their speech, ideologues make data and observations into matters of belief, so that eventually it sounds like the scientific theories those data support are also matters of belief. Thus, individuals can choose to make up their mind to believe, or not, in climate change, or evolution, or medicine, or gravity, or thermodynamics, or electrons. And somehow, we are to suppose that the universe will bend itself to the worldview that we choose to believe in.
By implying that scientific theories are things we can believe in or not, ideologues accomplish two important goals: first, they make the debate about the existence of the theory or even the existence of the supporting data, instead of about how our society should use or respond to the consequences of the theory; second, they turn the theory into something that they can dismiss in a few words: “oh, I don’t believe in X,” or “I’m waiting for scientists to prove Y,” without having to make a rigorous argument. How much scientific work would it take to prove a theory to an ideologue who doesn’t like its implications? Impossibly much, I think.
And, of course, the Information Age exacerbates this whole problem: with so many news sources and information sources at our disposal on TV, radio, newspapers, books, and the Internet, one can find supporting statements for any argument whatsoever. It becomes easy to tune out conflicting arguments entirely, too easy to say “I don’t believe in that theory.” We end up with web sites for and against every idea under the Sun, and media outlets trying to devote equal weight to “both sides” of the story, when peer-reviewed scientific literature might have long since adopted a single theory.
So you can imagine how pleased I am when the media repeats over and over stories about how Rick Perry says that evolution is a “theory with holes” or that he doesn’t think the country should waste any effort on unproven ideas like climate change.
As far as I can tell, the Republican party has a defined position on our response to climate change – that the regulations necessary to mitigate the phenomenon would put an undue hardship on businesses and cost taxpayers too much money in the short term. That is a reasonable, defensible, intellectually honest position – one that we can have a policy debate about, one that we could combine in some proportion with its equivalent position from the Democratic party to synthesize a national strategy that works (at least a little bit) for everyone.
But instead, for whatever reason, this isn’t the kind of argument presented by many Republicans. (Depending on how cynical I’m feeling, I come up with different possible reason: perhaps that Republicans would sound callous and lose the debate if they tried to say “the climate is changing and impacting your local and global economies, but nobody should do anything about it for you;” or perhaps that the most recent crop of Republicans have figured out that Democrats are too responsible to play Russian roulette and so brinksmanship works against them.) Instead, they shift the debate toward the mere existence of scientific theories and onto the science itself. They make the observations and data matters of belief, so that you will also think that you don’t have to believe in them – and that by not believing in them, they will go away. No, global average temperatures aren’t increasing (or the measurement is meaningless)! No, there’s no record-setting drought in the Southwest! No, the Northwest Passage isn’t open! No, towns that depend on winter tourism aren’t having to shift their seasons! No, you can’t measure past CO2 concentrations from ice cores! No, Pacific islanders aren’t watching the sea rise over their land! No, carbon dioxide doesn’t trap heat in the atmosphere! And if they did…well, we clearly have to wait until the scientists prove the idea before anybody can take it seriously! Because, after all, there are still scientists investigating this idea, which is only a theory and has holes.
There is a time and a place for questioning data and disputing scientific theories. The political stage isn’t it. These theories have already been run through the wringer in the scientific literature – their methods picked apart, their data examined, their conclusions squinted at – in far more excruciating detail than a career politician, or a layman, or even a scientist in an unrelated field possibly could muster. And these mere theories, these unproven theories, have passed the tests. They now represent our best possible understanding of how the world works. And isn’t that what we should be basing our policy decisions on?