There has again been much press about prominent figures in American life (read: politicians) who deny facts. They deny Evolution, the Big Bang and Global Warming, among other things. A few years ago, I personally woke up to realize that both my dentist and my CPA were “Young Earthers”, a position which I find laughable. Possibly a CPA might have never have been exposed to in-depth information about biology or geology, but was this possible for a dentist?
Denying scientific theories such as Evolution in their totality is the same thing as denying cell phones, computers, space travel or jetliners. What is the basis for this statement? It’s the same science.
The “scientific principle” is the idea that true knowledge is only obtained through a process of formulating hypotheses, testing them, and discarding and improving them. These tests might entail actual laboratory work, experiments in the “wild”, wind tunnels, swimming pools or today’s modern computer simulation environments. Often, as was the case with Darwin and Einstein, it may involve only “Gedankenexperiment” or thought experiments: reasoning that can be performed by a knowledgeable person in an armchair.
Given that there are few differences between the science that allows jetliners to stay aloft and the conclusions of modern geology and biology, those who deny Evolution, the Big Bang and other well-established theories are, in essence, denying heavier-than-air flight and cellular telephony!
Darwin’s theory was based on a lifetime of observation and experimentation, adjoined with the work of hundreds of others. Due to societal pressures, he declined to publish his work until Alfred Russell Wallace was about to publish his own results which almost exactly paralleled Darwin’s own. This was a classic example of Sherlock Holmes’ principle that what remains after all the impossible and unlikely events are removed must be the truth. Two men from opposite ends of the earth had arrived at exactly the same intellectual juncture. At roughly the same time, Gregor Mendel was performing simple, daily experiments with pea plants. Though largely ignored in his lifetime, his results would establish a mathematical basis for inheritance long before they could spell DNA.
Geologists Charles Lyell and Georges Cuvier, although differing in their theoretical approaches, strongly established the principle that “the rocks don’t lie.” The full normalization of the seemingly competing theories of uniformitarianism and catastrophism did not occur until early in my life, during the 1960’s, when the theory of plate tectonics was propounded and elaborated. Once again, the proofs were obtained by using chemistry, atomic physics and rational analysis using the enormous mountains of evidence (literally) to be found all over the earth.
The theory of the Big Bang was first formulated by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, early in the 20th century. As developed through the work of Edwin Hubble and George Gamow and the scientific discoveries of Penzias and Wilson, the nascent Big Bang theory was validated to the point that it predicted not only the elemental composition of the universe but the numerical value of the background temperature of the universe!
So we come to Global Warming. Mathematical modeling of weather is a very difficult and ongoing theoretical effort. As with any theory, not every observable phenomenon can yet be predicted by current models; however, the extent and nature of the changes in the world’s macroclimates are reproduced faithfully in computers around the world by scientists from a wide variety of backgrounds and approaches.
Boeing corporation, as an example, has computer models sophisticated enough to predict the behavior of huge new jetliners under almost all possible aerodynamic conditions without ever building a single plane. When the U.S. Department of Defense issued a challenge to the aeronautical industry to build the next generation fighter plane, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter, both Boeing and Lockheed-Martin designed their planes entirely on computer. Both resulting planes were constructed as complete, ready-to-fly prototypes based on the computer generated plans. These prototypes flew and met almost all of the mandated specifications, which were complex and demanding.
This same approach has been applied to earth sciences. Yes, there are more variables. No, you cannot re-run history to see how changes in variables change outcomes. However, every model carries with it a level of confidence. This level is based not only on how closely a model matches observations but on how often the model, re-run with changes to initial conditions, reproduces a result similar to previous runs. Almost all research in nuclear weaponry has used and still uses the same modeling methodology.
The truth is that those who deny these proven theories always have another agenda. In the case of Evolution and the Big Bang, the agenda is almost always the fear that acceptance of the truth will somehow undermine religious belief. I find this hard to accept, since during my extensive Catholic school education, I never once heard a priest or other teacher challenge these theories. Recently, a world-wide conference on the Big Bang was held at the Vatican.
The deniers of Global Warming have a different agenda. They fear that accepting anthropogenic global warming will result in trillions of dollars being spent on unproven mitigation techniques. Some, it may be said, are merely angry at the notion that humans can have such a deleterious effect on the earth. I personally don’t think that fear of the consequences of the truth should be a rationale for denial of the validity of a theory. We cannot “cherry pick” science and accept what we chose simply because it’s all the same science.
It is time to treat deniers as the crackpots they are. I, for one, intend to use a litmus test when choosing professional assistance in the future. If I’m planning to use a lawyer, doctor, dentist, accountant or other professional in my life, I will ask that person if she believes in Evolution or the Big Bang. If the answer is in the negative, I will decline to use her services. This is simply because anyone who can compartmentalize reality to such a degree as to deny proven science is to be suspected of a form of modern neurosis that could have negative consequences in the performance of her duties.
However, I’m not going to use Global Warming as a litmus test simply because it’s a very complex topic with many aspects that are poorly understood. For example, I don’t believe that we can or should spend those trillions of dollars mitigating CO2 emissions with suspect methodology, at least until more evidence is gathered; we should, however, do everything we can to use proven mitigation techniques. I doubt very much that “cap and trade” will prove to be a viable mitigation technique, and evidence accumulated since the Kyoto treaty seems to bear out my opinion.
In summary, then, science is science. It’s a process, and some theories are currently more complete and powerful than others. Those who deny Evolution or the Big Bang should immediately stop flying on airplanes, using cell phones, watching TV or surfing the internet. That would only be consistent with their worldview. Those who deny Global Warming should read the latest evidence closely: it’s all there. The problem is the commingling of science with public policy. We should accept the results of science and base our policies insofar as possible on results that are proven well enough to support significant investment.
Remember that no theory, even gravitation, can produce an “exact” answer beyond about 17 significant digits. However, such an answer allows us to fly rockets to Mars and use Global Positioning Satellites to discover our location to within a few feet.