Wednesday Word of the Week: February 16

16 Feb

Not all theories are created equal.

The word of the week is SCIENCE.

the study and knowledge of the physical world and its behavior that is based on experiments and facts that can be proved and is organized into a system –  Macmillan Dictionary online

The word science derives from the Latin word scire (“to know”); it probably comes originally from a Greek root meaning to cut apart. The basic concept of science is to pick things apart until you know everything you can about them. Good science derives from principles of observation, analysis, and conclusion, not from preconceptions.

The United States government has not been friendly to science so far this millennium. The Bush administration was so hostile to science that over 6,000 scientists petitioned the White House to restore integrity to scientific processes in policymaking. There was no change in behavior; arguably the title of the petition was too complex for W.

Facts are not science as the dictionary is not literature. Martin H. Fischer

In an age of dogma and polarization, science is highly vulnerable to opinionated screeching. Good science is a plodding process that makes mistakes and learns from them; it grows over time. It has flashes of insight and occasional leaps of understanding, but it is fundamentally incremental. Ask a good scientist for an explanation and you will get a complex answer. Ask a demagogue and you will get a fact of at best marginal relevance, shouted with conviction.

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit, 1964

“Look at all this snow; guess global warming is a myth.” That kind of approach to science is favored by the dogmatists. Here is a fact (too much snow), let’s use it to support our cause (business over environment) even though scientifically it means nothing. The Right wing is masterful at using irrelevant time-specific facts to cloud issues and distract listeners. If they are really lucky, they’ll get junk scientists to conduct flawed studies that support their claims.

The forces of homophobia trot out a handful of studies that they say prove what a dangerous “lifestyle” homosexuality is. If one uses the scientific method to analyze these studies, however, one finds that they all track back to the work of Paul Cameron. Cameron used (wait for it) obituaries from selected papers to prove that gay men died young. His methods were so superficial and flawed that the American Psychiatric Association dropped his membership in 1983. The Right wing still uses his studies as the foundation of their “scientific” objection to people against whom they wish to discriminate.

The same kind of answers before questions approach is also used in the anti-choice arguments. Abortion foes use flawed studies that they maintain prove that women suffer great psychological harm and high risks of breast cancer following abortions. These conclusions, like the work depending on Cameron, stem from a very small sample of deeply flawed studies. The vast body of research debunks and demolishes these claims. The Right still trumpets them, maintaining that they have “science” on their side.

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

If the dogmatists can’t find junk science to prop up their positions, they’ll practice misdirection and invention. The shining example of this is the invention of “Intelligent Design” to counter evolution. Wishing to hold fast to a superstitious, biblical explanation of human development, the fundamentalists latch onto the phrase “theory of evolution” and maintain that they are entitled to equal airtime for their own theory. Two problems:

  1. In the scientific method, a theory is like a mathematical theorem, something that has been hypothesized and then substantiated through research.
  2. While the bible is an interesting cultural record and occasionally inspiring piece of literature, it has no science in it whatsoever.

Demanding that our children be taught that we might all be here because some big white guy with a fluffy beard waved his wand 6,000 years ago and that this bit of superstition merits balanced presentation with over a century of hard science is absurd in the extreme. As a scholar of Carroll and Orwell, I can’t imagine a proposition that would have appealed to them more as the basis of a story.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts. – Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. Senator (D, NY)

Science is a real word with real meaning. People with agendas will try to ignore it, distort it, or misappropriate it to fit their needs. Thinking people must not let them. When presented with a “fact” or an argument or a study, one must ask hard questions and demand hard proof. Basing our lives and our futures on anything less is like running into traffic without looking just because you believe you can make it across the road. There’s a big truck of reality coming, and the dogmatists are just about to push our nation in front of it.

4 Responses to “Wednesday Word of the Week: February 16”

  1. jenny68 February 16, 2011 at 6:38 am #

    I love your writings Lex- intelligent Design is disproved by the existence of SP and Michelle Bachmann.

  2. Michael Hulshof-Schmidt February 16, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    Lex,
    This is one of your finest articles. I love that you quoted Senator Moynihan. While I detest the politics of Adam Smith and his politics (he was a huge homophobe) the quotation you used was perfect and shows his broken clock moment.

    • webwordwarrior February 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

      Thanks, Michael & Jenny. I really enjoyed building this one. I thought the inclusion of the quotes (even (or especially) from people I don’t fully agree with on other issues) helped demonstrate how any thinking person can see what is and isn’t science, regardless of their discipline.

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt February 16, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

        Absolutely! It also demonstrates your superior intellect and your marvelous writing ability. Bravo!

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