I, Science

Around the nation tomorrow, there will be marches for science.  Why should that be so?  We might understand marches for women, or marches for a minority group, but why should scientists march?  We make only 5% of the population, it’s clearly a small proportion of the workforce.  I am sure I could build a compelling scholarly argument for the importance of science, but rather than go about it mechanically, I’ve decided to talk more about my relationship with science and why it’s so important to me.

Like many children I enjoyed books with different animals and learning about their characteristics.  I remember watching many an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  I had a book on whales that I love to read a lot, and one on dinosaurs.  I remember learning about the different planets.  I found the colors of the planets, the sun, so stunning.  Different atmospheric compositions led to vastly different looks.  I marveled at the thought of looking up at the red sky of Mars.  I used to capture a variety of insects in jars.  And while I would certainly not encourage such behavior from my child without proper care and the hopes of setting it free, I marveled at the structure and behavior of such creatures.  When I look back on these memories, I have hard time imagining every child not being like this.  Maybe it was a precursor to what I would eventually become, but there seems nothing so natural as wanting to observe the world around us and learn about it and wonder how it works.  How can one not marvel at the array of colors that nature provides?  How can we not wonder at the flight of some creature and the scurrying of others?  How can we not be fascinated by the massive size of the blue whale, to the little aphid that seems but a speck in your hand?  I am certainly not an expert in child behavior, but I have watched enough children to know what observers they are.  And while they may not understand all they see, they are constantly looking.  It seems to me the essence of science lies in the very heart of who we are as humans.

From at least my early elementary age, I remember being fascinated by thunderstorms.  Seeing the lightning streak across the sky was nature’s fireworks and I loved every minute of it.  Often peeking out the window at night, and occasionally sneak out at night so it under the ledge of our house to watch the thunderstorms.  My very first introduction to meteorology was in grade 6 when we learned about different cloud types and how different cloud types could often be predictors to the type of weather that was coming your way.  For some reason I found that fascinating, but I know there was also an aesthetic quality to clouds that I found beautiful.  Their variety of shapes and colors depending on the position of the sun.  To this day I still look up at them and they seem almost beautifully magical floating there.  My first real act as an atmospheric scientist at around adolescent to early teens.  I say this because my observations were recorded mentally over probably a couple of years.  Thunderstorms in the prairie of Alberta are seen a long way off and I noticed that when a line of bubbling cumulonimbus clouds was on the horizon the wind was always blowing towards the clouds, yet the clouds kept getting closer.  After enough observation I saw this as simply a fact, and knew when to tell my family to prepare for thunderstorms.  Often adults would question me, saying “you’re wrong kid, the wind is blowing the other way”.  Of course I wouldn’t learn why this was the case until university, but it gave me some pride to recognize patterns in such a way.

My mother was always good at supporting me asking questions, and even better at showing me how to find those answers.  In those days it was the library.  How easily today I could have looked up the answer as to why wind blows towards the thunderstorms before they come to you. Kids today really have it so much easier, but they also have to deal with a lot more misinformation than I had to deal with in a library.   She taught me a lot about research and to look for answers in multiple places to make sure there was some consensus.  Though she didn’t have an advanced degree, she was always one to have questions herself and research the answers before forming an opinion.  Although she never said so explicitly, I think it was important more to see that our own senses are not enough to really understand how things work, and having information from other sources can help us answer our questions and make better sense about what we see.

When I look back, the ingredients it took for me to become a scientist seem rather organic.  Parents who encouraged questions and were curious themselves, made science feel like it was no extra effort.  School was effort at times, and I didn’t understand everything easily, but it never stopped me from finding it all quite interesting.  My favorite subject in high school was actually biology.  I loved learning especially about organ systems.  The way the body works and maintains itself still amazes me to this day.  So while there may be some combination of genetics that works in my favor, I find it hard to understand how we aren’t all scientists.  Not by profession, but just by nature.  I think, that regardless of my job, science would be a part of my life.  It has already helped me immensely in understanding so much and answering so many questions, and knowing that there is always more to learn is rejuvenating because it means that maybe I will learn something and it will change my whole outlook.  It means that what I do today, because of what I have learned, might be something that I never saw myself doing before.  I used to think that it was sad that I could not learn everything there was to know.  Beyond the impossibility of that task, I think life would go stale quickly if there wasn’t newness.  Science may not bring certainty, but it does bring to the fore previously unknown possibilities and who can say that does not make life more fulfilling?

Some people think that science removes mystery from the world and thus makes it less exciting.  It was in the 8th grade that I decided to become a meteorologist.  I can tell you that a thunderstorm today excites me to less than it did when I was a child.  In fact now, when I look at a thunderstorms I see equations and physical laws floating around like code from the Matrix.  I see into the cloud and in my head see interactions between droplets and crystals that I never saw when I was a child.  I understand the magnitude of the forces that meet to produce this wonder of nature, and I feel the weight and power of it, in a way I never could have as a child.  It is like the difference between falling in love with someone, and the deep intimacy and friendship that you develop after you’ve known that someone for many years.  It is love with depth, it brings a lasting feeling of happiness and well being.

Somewhere a child has nowhere to turn for answers to the questions they have.  Somewhere a child is told not to ask questions, or is simply told what their parents say is the truth of things, and that questions are dangerous.  Somewhere parents have decided that their girl shouldn’t be educated, or that science is not for girls.  Somewhere a teacher doesn’t understand science themselves and thus kills the joy of curiosity and learning in their students.  Somewhere a group of politicians have decided that memorization-based exams are the important metrics to determine funding.  Somewhere a television show is making scientists seem irrelevant and worthy of ridicule for finding excitement in discovery. Somewhere a journalist is completely misrepresenting a scientist’s findings.  Somewhere a government is denying the findings of scientists to help rich people make more money.

These things make me sad.  I see no reasons why we can’t be a society that is constantly asking questions.  We have a tool for answering those questions that we know is reliable.  It is so pervasive now that we don’t even recognize all the ways it shapes our lives. If we supported that scientist in all of us, the one who first makes their appearance at the earliest of ages, the power and value of this tool would be immense.  It helps us ethically and morally.  It helps us fight oppression and inequality.  Science is the only thing that has no politics, no religion, no race or culture.  It truly is for everyone, and in everyone.

I see the March for Science as not just a political statement.  It is about showing the value for curiosity, for education, for discovery, and for wonder that we seem to be losing.  Our government has become one which seems to think it has nothing to learn.  One where opinion is as valid as fact.  One where there is no consequence for lying.  I don’t blame Trump for this alone, he may be the penultimate in this dangerous attitude, but it has been bleeding into our society for some time.  The March for Science is a march for progress.  A march that shows we care about our fellow human, and that we value science as a means to reduce suffering in the world.

I say all this, not because I am a scientist and I worry about my job.  I say this because it is my lived experience.  I say this because we all intrinsically know that change is the only truth in this universe, and that time makes a fool of the arrogant who think they have nothing more to learn.  I say this because history is full of the darkness that follows when we rest our futures on superstition and falsehoods.  Finally, I say this because I do think there is significant evidence that human-induced climate change is the scientific issue of our time, and threatens our very existence.  It challenges us like no other issue, because it cannot be solved by one nation.  It cannot be “felt” on a day to day basis.  It is the essence of science because it takes us beyond the narrow field of view that we each individually possess and asks to widen the lens and reach out into space and time, and think big.  If we cannot do that, the story of humanity becomes a tragedy.  I, for one, refuse to let it be, because I know we can do better.

 

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18 thoughts on “I, Science

    1. I agree John. It does seem like the value of science should be obvious, since well it really is part of every facet of our life. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s in us, and it should be no surprise that we use it everyday. It would seem that something so ubiquitous causes people not see it at all. But maybe what it really means is that we aren’t doing a good enough job educating. Perhaps humans don’t really like taking things on faith after all, even if it is scientific facts. Students aren’t understanding how reliable the fact finding process is, just being told to memorize stuff.

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      1. I wrote a post ages ago now that addressed the matter of how we, as a species, score time, arguing BC and AD were entirely meaningless partitions in the human condition. My alternative suggestion was, ultimately, the 12,000 years old Thaïs bone as it marked the commencement of science.

        Here’s how I concluded that post, which was actually petitioning Sir Paul Nurse of the Royal Society to correct the mistake they’d made 263 years before when they adopted the Gregorian Calendar for the British Empire.

        “The Thaïs bone is credited by UNESCO as being “the most complex and elaborate time-factored sequence currently known within the corpus of Palaeolithic mobile art.” This inscribed rib bone (measuring 87mm × 27mm) is dated from around 12,000 years ago and the meticulously etched sequences on its faces are a 3½ year record of the day-to-day lunar and solar observations taken by a nameless but astonishingly dedicated, magnificent ancestor of yours and mine. The Thaïs bone is evidence someone wasn’t just looking up, but looking up and recording what they were seeing. The Thaïs bone is the first evidence we have of pure science.

        Now, possibly even older finds like the Wurdi Youang site in Australia might push this date back even further, but for my purposes here I believe the Thaïs bone should mark the moment the human calendar begins, meaning today is not the 29th of August, 2015, but the 29th of August, 12015. Think about that for a second. Savour the date. Let it sink in. Notice how your perception of human history is instantly reformed? As Marshall McLuhan so aptly put it, “the medium is the message,” meaning the medium (the calendar itself) influences how the message (human history) is perceived. In no small way, this entirely painless recalibration would fundamentally shift the very way we look at our history, and if you change that then you alter the very way we look at ourselves regardless of borders, culture, or belief systems… and that, my friend, is priceless.

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        1. I am in agreement here most certainly. A blog post that I’ve been meaning to write for some time is one discussing the fact that are inability to process numbers across multiple orders of magnitude limits are ability to really understand the universe as we know it. Both in terms of time and space. I believe this is something that can be unlocked through practice, but it requires doors to be opened and your suggestion on adding 10,000 years is a good step towards that end. If you don’t mind could you link the post of yours you were referring to, so I have it here and can link to it, when I eventually write that post. lol It’s been on my mind recently and so I’ll be able to get to it some time this summer. lol

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  1. Swarn, very well said, and I’m with John — it’s surreal that we are having this conversation. You wrote:

    “Our government has become one which seems to think it has nothing to learn.”

    I follow Tyson on FB, and he published this 2 days ago. Wasn’t sure if you’d seen it yet.

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    1. Oh my. The video and the comments by CS and his sycophants sucks hope from my soul. I mean in some way you expect such Christian fundamentalists to be as divorced from reality as possible in all aspects of life, so perhaps this isn’t surprising. The velocity to which this idea of a flat earth or non-spinning earth theory is gaining traction is amazing, but I guess those that would be sucked in by it were so ignorant of science that they likely already had some strange beliefs to begin with.

      It’s weird though, because this isn’t a science issue that scientists felt we needed to advocate for, because it’s so well proven. It’s sad to think that any scientific fact is up for grabs in today’s culture of misinformation.

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  2. Well said. Beautifully said.

    I think we mischaracterize some of these anti-science folks. They, like we, are a varied lot. Some oppose “science” not because they think the results are wrong, but the believe the results are right and that will affect them economically in a negative way. Climate change deniers, I believe, are in this camp. They have no basis for their “anti” position, other than make believe. (Right, a conspiracy amongst thousands and thousands of climate scientists, that will be the day.)

    Another category is the ones who cannot believe the results of science because it conflicts with their worldview. If fundamentalist Christians embrace evolution, there goes Creation and what does that leave them? These are a lot like young children who close their eyes and think that you can’t see them.

    There is the third category and that is those who realize there is money to be made in denying science. I am sure there are even more categories.

    In virtually none of these cases have I found somebody who honestly has evaluated the evidence and come to a vastly different conclusion. (How could they.) We have reached a point that science has “gotten in the way” and “Yo, science, that;s a nice pair of kneecaps there, you wanna keep ’em?” It is not a judgment on the merits of the arguments, these are judgments of science on the results, which they do not like.

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    1. Thank you Steve for your kind words and excellent points here. Sorry it has taken some time to respond, but wanted to have some time to respond thoughtfully. I agree that those opposed to scientific consensus and facts do so, at the core, for a variety of reasons. And you are right that one’s position of climate change has much more to do with identity politics than an understanding of the science. That is true on both positions on the issue. This is partly why so many liberals make such poor advocates for climate change because they don’t really understand it themselves. I think “not liking the results” whatever the motivation is the common thread, but it doesn’t change the fact that it leads to a bad case of reverse engineering. “I don’t like these results, so I’m going to say the results are different, and now I must build a case for it.” This is where the logical fallacies and pseudoscience comes in. Does it matter that science is perverted because of a rooted emotion that conflicts with facts, or whether science is perverted out of malice? Perhaps there is, but I think that the result is the same. Misinformation spreads. And given that formal science is hard, it’s easier to exploit the process to appeal to emotion.

      Perhaps on a broader scale science simply represents uncertainty for people since it is always changing what we think we know about the world. That uncertainty makes people want to reject it more than try to understand it.

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  3. I used to think that it was sad that I could not learn everything there was to know.

    I know that feeling! Great post, Swarn. I hope the march is a great success. Now you and I have come to some fundamentally different conclusions about life (and I forgive you for being wrong) but I fully agree with your sentiment that science is under attack, tantamount to an attack on truth as far as I’m concerned.

    I think it was a year or two ago, I listened to a programme on the radio discussing the lack of representation for science and engineering in Parliament. At that time, there were only two MPs with a PhD in science (out of 338), one of which was not re-running in the upcoming election. The overall conclusion was that more scientists should enter politics, which is the exact opposite of what scientists want to do. So, here we are.

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    1. I think overall the day was a success. There were marches in some many cities around the world, so that was heartening.

      I think this last election has inspired more scientists to run. However I doubt we’ll see enough run to get to where we need to be. Dawkins argued, I think correctly, that scientists are best suited for politics for the purposes of being able to analyze evidence and draw conclusions. This is true. What Dawkins ignores is that scientists are generally not the type who want to be administrators or managers. The same argument applies to a university. Often the best teachers don’t become administrators. They like to teach. Arguably more great teachers would be valuable as administrators from the perspective of having a good understanding of what goes on in the classroom.

      Scientists usually became scientists because they really find their field interesting and want to continue in it. Scientists also don’t like to talk in “certainty”. We are cautious about making truth claims in general and I think that this is why we’ll always lose out to the politician talking out of his/her ass but sounds sure of themselves. It would seem that people are more comfortable believing in somebody who sounds certain, than listening to the person who says “while most evidence supports this being correct and that we should do this about the problem, but there is about a 10% chance it won’t work out.” Which is really unfortunate because ultimately that uncertainty is always there anyway, but people don’t want to know about it. Scientists, in general, want to be honest.

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      1. There’s no doubt that any scientist running for office would be taking one for the team, but there’s such a lack of evidence based thinking in politics, it’s desperately needed. But, alas, it may be, as you suspect, that no one would vote for someone who speaks in terms of probability. I know Christine (my wife, for your avid readers) doesn’t like it when I say things like, “That seems very unlikely.”

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  4. You could have penned my name to that childhood memory. I loved the outdoors and everything in it. I too collected bugs in jars and watched the lightning streak across the sky. Still do as a matter of fact. Well I don’t catch a lot of bugs a lot these days, but still do when I spy something I am not familiar with. I have to examine it and look it up on the net to understand it better. But the allure of the strom is still strong. As long as I don’t have to be out in it anyway.

    And I am always looking up. There is a ton of stuff to see up there. A universe to explore, night or day.

    Your final paragraph is excellence. But it was all good 🙂

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    1. My bug catching days are behind me as well. I would certainly encourage also a more “life friendly” way for my son to observe bugs. Despite punching holes in jars, the insects would usually die in the jar eventually. Now it so easy to look up what insects eat and perhaps create an environment that might keep them alive a little longer.

      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the post!

      Like

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