I was drawn to science as a pre-teen in the early 1960s. It was an exciting time for science. The space race between the US and the USSR was underway. President Kennedy proposed that the country commit to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. The first telecommunication satellites were launched and, for the first time, we saw live television coverage of events in Europe. By the late 1960s, the first heart transplant had been performed and surgeons were experimenting with artificial hearts. Nuclear power plants were being built all across the US.
What inspired me and other kids to dream of careers in science? Scientists made discoveries by performing experiments and analyzing data. These discoveries led to the development of new technologies. New technologies saved lives, kept our homes comfortable and clean, made transport of people and goods easier, enabled instant communications, and provided new forms of entertainment. We saw these things as overwhelmingly good.
I would eventually choose a career in technology. Back then, we understood that technology could be abused, that some technologies are potentially dangerous, and that scientists, inventors, and companies must act responsibly. There were government agencies, researchers at universities, and non-profit groups monitoring developments, bringing specific issues to the public’s attention, and recommending constructive solutions. But on balance, technology was seen as very beneficial to humanity, and there were many reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Unfortunately, things have changed. I don’t know when or how the changes occurred, but it seems like science and technology are viewed differently today. Some of the things that we thought were overwhelmingly good are seen as largely if not mainly bad. We are told that space exploration is too expensive and the money would be better spent on more down-to-earth problems. We worry about space junk falling back to Earth. The cost of medical care has soared, and so we are told that transplants, artificial organs, and expensive drugs and procedures should be rationed. We are depleting the Earth’s resources and destroying the planet. And if we aren’t extremely careful, hawkish politicians will start a nuclear war.
Young people are still urged to go into science, but in many ways science has become dreary. The goal is no longer to discover whatever there is to be discovered; it’s to save the planet from destruction, repair the damage caused by humans, and develop “green” technologies that are less harmful to the environment–even if they are less efficient, less reliable, and more expensive to produce and use. It almost seems as if scientists are no longer adventure seekers—they are guilt trippers.
One of the key lessons of my lifetime—that profitable businesses can actually do a tremendous amount of good provided that they don’t cheat or engage in fraud—seems to have been completely forgotten. At colleges across the country, graduating students are urged to put self-interest aside and instead “give back” to the community. Businesses are urged to operate in a socially responsible manner. And politicians are subsidizing what they consider good technologies and penalizing what they consider bad technologies. I had thought that the growth of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s proved that while no system is perfect, a lightly regulated free market is best.
Science seems dreary now for another reason. As Tony Sadar discusses, science has become politicized. There is no longer a free exchange of ideas in some areas. There are certain theories that, we are told, “real scientists” consider all but proved. Worse, in some cases we are told that opposing ideas should not be tolerated—the stakes are too high to allow skeptics to distract us. We are even told that we can’t afford to expose students to opposing ideas, the implication being that the US has fallen behind in science education because students are being needlessly confused.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that something resembling Stalinism rules parts of Western science.
In the environmental sciences, even reasoning has been politicized. There is a popular argument that goes like this: If there is the slightest chance that manmade global warming is true, then we can’t afford to do nothing.
Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that great discoveries often clash with and even contradict accepted ideas. And how many inventors were told that their ideas wouldn’t work and, even if they did, there was no need for them? My point is that progress in science and technology depends on unfettered competition. Sometimes the majority is just flat out wrong. In other cases, a seemingly crazy idea leads to a brilliant solution. I would argue that even when the skeptics are wrong they pressure everyone else to perform to higher standards.
In fact, I think there is a widespread misunderstanding about what science is and how it operates. The simplistic view is that science deals exclusively in facts. Consequently, good theories are just facts that need a bit more polish. In reality, science is a messy business. Theories are explanations—they attempt to show how facts fit together. A theory may be disproved but it can never be proved. A good theory is useful—it leads to further discoveries.
Science often advances by taking two steps forward and one step back. If an idea successfully runs the gauntlet of skeptics, then it deserves to survive. Skeptics keep science honest. And sometimes they see things that others miss.
Silencing skeptics is not only ethically wrong—it’s bad for science. If manmade global warming is true, then it should be able to run the gauntlet and survive. As Tony Sadar shows, proponents of manmade global warming seem more interested in enforcing orthodoxy, snowing the public with their credentials and elaborate procedures, and keeping the money spigot open.
Behind manmade global warming is a simplistic, mechanistic view of the world. It says that there exists a delicate balance in nature that can be easily upset by human activity. If we fiddle with the control knobs—which is what we do when we develop industries, build cities, and reproduce too much—we are likely to throw something out of kilter. If we break that delicate balance, we may never be able to restore it.
However, science has shown us that the fabric of reality is much richer than it appears at first glance. For example, the microcosm operates by very different rules than the macrocosm. We’ve learned a lot about the structure of matter and mechanical forces, but we don’t know much about how the human brain operates and we know even less about free will. (Should we allow the numerous people who believe that free will is an illusion declare that debate over?) It all comes down to this: We may know what happens when a specific force is applied to a single lever in a simple system, but predicting climate change is much, much more difficult.
Science is in crisis. Science has achieved many great things, and many scientists have grown overconfident. They think they know more than they do. They think they can predict the future. And some of them get angry when their assumptions or conclusions are challenged.
Perhaps they should remember how much we don’t know. There are still many mysteries, and they will keep scientists busy for a very long time. Anyone who makes predictions on a regular basis knows you are lucky if you are proved right even half of the time. Scientists have had much more luck making timeless discoveries than predicting the future.
If we could get back to viewing the world around us with a sense of wonder and awe, it just might restore the fun and adventure to science.