Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Negotiability of Objective Truth

I recently had the good fortune to be the guests of friends of The Lady's for supper - a truly delightful meal punctuated with thought-inspiring comments that would have been cause for intensive discussion were it the place or the time. As it stood, it's gotten me thinking for the better part of a full 24 hours.

One of our party was under the distinct impression, or more accurately, of the opinion, that today's world "relies to heavily on science", that the average person "puts too much into it". I found both of these statements extraordinary, but in a manner that was at once entirely unlike me and apropos, shrugged the comment off and turned the conversation back to the matter at hand, which was the differences between western-style eggs and tamago.

Both parts of the statement, however, are surprising. The idea that a world governed by scientific understanding and provided for, at least in the Developed World, entirely by technology, which is to say applied science, could ever be said to "rely too heavily on science" is absurd. Surely, a person eating foods made possible only by refrigeration, wearing cotton-polyester blend, wearing a digital watch wasn't about to insist that science was somehow a negative, and yet, there it happened. Not that anyone should be faulted for it, certainly. We are all entitled to opinions, and no one position is any more or less right than another, with the colossal caveat that two positions are fully logical.

So, how can I say we don't rely too heavily on science, given things such as Fukushima Diaichi, GMO foods, vaccination, and global warming fearmongering? Probably because I understand enough about physics to know that the first three of those things aren't worth fearing, and that the final is objectively true. Fukushima was a horrific disaster, the ultimate environmental harm caused by which is ultimately negligible. Actual radiation levels in the exclusion zone are chronic health hazards. Outside the exclusion zone, even in downwind fallout areas, the radiation elevation is less than or comparable to taking a flight. Fukushima poses the exact same health risk as Chernobyl, which was locally not outstandingly good, for a rather small locality, and globally insignificant.

Genetically Modified Food? I admit I'm leery of the prospect, but I am leery on principle, for the same reason I generally tend toward organic. I'm a perfectionist, a purist, a bit of a luddite when it comes to the arts, and cooking is an art which I like to see perpetuated in the older forms rather than the new. I don't see anything wrong with modifications to make foods more naturally unattractive to pests, or have a longer shelf life - so long as I get to see data showing a lack of health impacts first. What I don't think is necessary, or even desirable, are self-terminating organisms.

Vaccination? Non-issue. Anyone who understands a drop about the process and can actually read knows there's no serious health risks associated with vaccination programs and a huge amount to gain by adhering to them. Personally I think vaccination for certain particularly nasty strains should be compulsory, but I don't live in a society that allows for compulsory medication. Shame.

And Global Warming? Well, climate change, in the form of rising oceanic temperatures, is objectively true. The truth of the matter is very hard to determine - you have to look at temperature data. The IPCC produces very nice reports every year collating the data for you - not because you can't be trusted with the raw data, but because even very smart people suck at statistical math.

But really, the problem isn't that people are ignoring scientists. The problem is the idea that somehow we're in an ideological war between the scientifically minded and not-science. The problem is the idea that even people who insist on absolute objective truth fear, despise, or are otherwise averted to the genuine quest for the objective truth.

Now, I don't mind people not taking scientific assertions on faith, because you aren't meant to. The correct reaction to OPERA's superluminal neutrinos, even with my bet of "faulty equipment" working out to be correct, was not "That can't have happened because Einstein said this." The correct response was "Let's get someone else to try doing it too", and then, if it had actually worked, "Cool, Einstein was wrong."

As near as I can tell, people who are averted to using science to understand the practical world - the same people who love their cellular telephones, portable music, and continued existence of being both clothed and fed at the same time - find that aversion rooted in the terrible truth of science, which is to say that Science is never right.

Put one way, we can say that there are two kinds of ideas in science: Theories and Hypotheses yet to be proven wrong, and those which have been. What can be certain, however, is that no matter what you believe about the ephemera - regardless of religion, theology, or philosophy, the objective truths of science simply aren't negotiable. The universe isn't a few thousand years old. There was no Great Flood in a literal sense. Raven did not steal fire from the other spirits to give to the humans. Vaccines do not cause autism. Carbon Emissions are cause for alarm.

So on a personal level, in a level that's relevant to this blog, Science and Religion aren't contradictory. They aren't involved with one another, really, in the slightest of possible ways.

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