Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Art of Being Scientific

The movie 1984 was on TV last night, which got me thinking about groupthink. According to Psychology Today, "Groupthink occurs when a group values harmony and coherance over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the concensus." The book on which the movie is based came out in 1949, but George Orwell's message seems unheeded 68 years later. It is disconcerting to see many college campuses become bastions of intolerant Progressive groupthink. One example of Progressive groupthink is:

"The science is settled."

Any time you hear those words, check to see if your wallet is missing.

The words are used to justify an aggressive agenda regarding climate change. The chain of reasoning is (a) there is climate change, (b) it is caused by humans, (c) there are actions humans can take to slow or reverse climate change, (d) therefore the United States should discourage or ban use of all types of fossil fuels. Dispute any link in that chain of statements and one can get labeled as a "denier," an intentional use of disparaging language by Progressives to link their opponents with lunatics who deny the Holocaust. According to this line of reasoning, "science" dictates that item (d) must happen, therefore anyone who disagrees is anti-science.

Science is a method of inquiry. It is never settled. There is always more to be discovered. To claim otherwise, to claim that you are in possession of the only truth, is unscientific. My personal view on the above statements, if anyone cares, is (a) has been true for billions of years, (b) is true but we don't know to what extent, (c) if true are probably unachievable, and (d) would be a futile gesture in a world where billions of Chinese, Indians and Africans aspire to a higher standard of living and are going to keep burning coal and oil.

What happens when Progressives line up on the other side of the science debate? An example is the fight against GMOs (genetically modified organisms). See this link about golden rice, which could help cure many diseases linked to vitamin A deficiency. Groups such as Greenpeace would deny this benefit to millions of people in the underdeveloped world due to unproven suppositions that GMOs are inherently bad. I found the following quote in this interesting link about former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas:

"One of the case studies that really changed my mind about this was the saga of golden rice, which was developed to be vitamin A-enhanced, because something like a quarter million children per year die from a vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries, particularly in South Asia ... Greenpeace has been waging a campaign to stop this rice from ever being developed ... You can make a pretty strong case that tens of thousands of children have died because they were denied access to this purely because it's GM, and there is a ideological bias against that."

The problem, not just with Progressives but with adherents of many beliefs, is they tend to look for information confirming their biases rather than being truly skeptical. Society today has too many believers and not enough skeptics. In that way, have we really advanced much since the religious inquisitions of Medieval Europe? Now, instead of religious zealots, we have environmental zealots. But only 2,000 deaths were attributed to the Spanish Inquisition, so it can be argued that the social justice warriors at Greenpeace have killed far more people than those reviled monsters from history. Warriors indeed.

Maybe we rely on belief and groupthink because the universe is so complicated that it is impossible for one person to understand more than a small fraction of what the human race has discovered, and so much remains undiscovered. When it comes to science and the man on the street, a certain amount of faith is necessary. I have no way to prove that the sun is 93 million miles away, but there don't seem to be any sun distance deniers out there so I feel safe in accepting that someone has proven that the sun is 93 million miles away. But as the questions become more complicated, skepticism is necessary for scientists and even for the man on the street.

About 90 years ago Edwin Hubble discovered that there are other galaxies and the universe is expanding. After getting over that shock, the scientific community then presumed that the expansion was slowing because, well, it just made sense that it had to be because everything in the universe has gravity. In 1998, two groups tried to measure how much the expansion was slowing and instead both came up with the startling conclusion the expansion is accelerating for some reason no one yet understands. It is said that dark energy is causing the acceleration, but that term was invented to represent something that is completely unknown. It seems to be dark, and it seems to be energy, but other than that we are clueless.

Is it possible for me to truly believe that the universe is expanding? "Believe" is too strong a word. For now, based on everything I've read and subject to future discoveries about the nature of dark energy, I accept that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. There, is that nuanced enough? But that simply says beliefs should be challenged and acknowledges that we have so much more to learn. In attempting to answer one question, rather than settling the issue the unexpected answer raised many more questions, and that's how science works.

The true deniers are those who deny skepticism for they would condemn us to groupthink and stagnation. Orwell warned us, and we should heed.

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