Science is True, Even for non-Believers

From Ninety Million Miles to Earth
Image by fred1st via Flickr

In the mid 80s, humanity learned a shocking fact that certain chemicals (freons) present in our air conditioning coolants, added as a propellent in household sprays, and produced by certain industrial processes had over the decades resulted in a massive and growing hole in the protective layer of atmospheric ozone, especially over the Antarctic.

No natural sources could be blamed for these harmful, chlorinated compounds in the upper atmosphere. Their presence was clearly due almost entirely to industrial processes.

By then, food crops and forest plants already showed evidence of UV-B damage. As the hole expanded, the incidence of skin cancers and cataracts were expected to increase, and the phytoplankton–the tiny floating photosynthetic base of the marine food chain–was at risk of fatal sun injury.

This was an environmental challenge we could have learned about only by means of the instruments and methods of atmospheric science. The problem was reported widely by the newspaper and magazine journalists of the day, and we were grateful.

Humanity as a whole, while not fully understanding all the technical details of the issue, trusted the information that warned of a danger that could, if we failed to change, cause serious health problems and environmental harm around the world. Industry, with some reluctance, listened to and acted on the evidence, and found ways to limit aerosol distribution of these chemicals into the atmosphere.

The good news is that, though it is a slow process, the levels of the most harmful ozone-depleting chemicals have been significantly reduced, and the Antarctic hole could completely recover by 2050. Even with differing views of what should be done, world governments influenced their industries and citizens to act in time.

However: let’s not do the happy dance just yet. In the decades since we gave our ears and open minds to atmospheric science of the 1980s, much has happened that has made consensus-building on urgent global environmental issues more difficult and less likely for resolution. What has changed since Silent Spring?

Science as a way of understanding the world has taken a hit. American students’ science and math scores have plummeted over the past three decades. On many fronts, we’ve been lead to mistrust science and discredit scientists, fallible as they are as individuals, and have largely lost our accurate understanding of the concepts of theory and proof and of how science works.

Of all the calamities facing humankind, society’s turn away from science and toward sound-byte truthiness is to many the most alarming threat of all, because it undermines rational debate and action across a wide front of planetary health issues. Science was once a universal language for discussion. Facts were facts in any language.

As someone has said: “we are entitled to our own opinions; we are not entitled to our own facts.”

Global climate science in particular has become politicized to the extent that those who deal with data are damned if they offer too little of it, damned if they offer too much, and are held to a standard of accuracy not borne by those who are merely critics of the implications of the numbers.

We’ve thrown the science baby out with the murky bath water and sadly, science is considered by a growing number as simply a kind of faith. We say we do or don’t “believe in” climate change or global extinction as if science may be true for some but not for others. We are divided by gut reactions and fear when we must insist on and be united in response by the underlying truths.

Our problems in the soil, air and water today are far more complex and potentially future-changing than those that lead to the ozone hole decades ago. Coping wisely with the global environmental issues of tomorrow (the list has grown long) requires a return to confidence in the sciences so that we can gather the necessary facts.

The issues require science-trained writers and journalists who can help us understand the facts and interpret them accurately and comprehend their significance.

And the issues we face require that community, corporate and government leaders use their influence to help us confront the facts together through appropriate and just action. Solutions to global-scale problems will bring contention, cost and inconvenience, but we urgently need good science now if we are to map our way forward past those hardships with the fewest wrong turns possible.

This piece appeared in the Horizon section, Roanoke Times, 21 March 2010

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. It makes no difference, after the fact, whether you believed that bus was gonna run you over. It is a prudent feller that get’s out of the way.

    Nice story! Thanks, Jeff

  2. I’m not sure, in an age of sound- and text-bites, that an appeal to science education will do a whole lot of good. Not many people read any longer – they watch TV, listen to music, and react to Twitter. I’ve always maintained that television is a corroding influence on human interaction and I think we are now seeing the results of the rise of the television (and now, Internet) age. 40 years ago, people trusted their elites (think Walter Cronkite) but now, when we desperately need leadership from the elites, all we get is hate and simplistic thinking from the religious right and the followers of Beck, Palin, Limbaugh, etc. that undermine any leadership at all from anyone. It has become a finger-pointing free-for-all. Beck’s latest assault on “social justice” among Christians may backfire on him, though. I hope so. In the meantime, Jeff T.’s idea of getting out of the way is not a bad idea at all. It really is time to focus on building alternatives and to stop paying attention to the fear- and hate-mongers.

  3. We are at the dawn of science. We still have not fully understood the immediate three dimensions that we experience daily, and we choose to forget that we have mathematically shown there to be something like eight more. Each day is a challenge. Each day we have to reach where we have not yet been. Each day we must have the courage and faith to challenge what is believed to be true. A pretty tall order for a species that is resistant to change. Wouldn’t you say?

    It is unlikely that the greatest riddles will be solved by the human mind. Our curiosity, and the truth, is being circumvented by greed. Overcoming this failing will be our greatest challenge.


  4. Thank you for submitting your podcast “Grace, Descending” for the “I And The Bird” carnival. It is a beautiful piece and it led me to your blog.

    I agree with your conclusion in this article that many people no longer look at scientific fact as science, but rather some kind of possibility of the way things are. I think there are many reasons for this but I agree with Jeff that many folks no longer check their facts, they simply trust the talking heads they see on TV and blindly follow.

    The rabid partisan politics, exaggerated and hyped by the 24 hour “news” stations (that are no more than theatrical nonsense), make it nearly impossible for the honest, well-intended politicians to get anything done, or even get their ideas for a better world across to the citizenry.

    Thank God there is still some rational debate going on in the world and people still willing to take the hard road to the correct solutions for solving some of our global problems.

  5. Thank you, Mr First, for this column (which I just read in my Press of March 18) ~~ people need to take note of this really frightening trend. And it’s not just politics that is undermining science, it is also “science” from groups that are afraid of real science, and wish to prove that, for example, evolution is another “faith”, or a conspiracy of atheists, and that mainstream science is anti-God. Thanks for the article, these things cannot be said too often.