Yesterday I took my son to a science fair here in our small city of Washington, PA called STEMfest. It was the first time that such an event has occurred in the city, and after talking with one of the organizers I was pretty excited that this was something I could take my 5 year old. It was your typical science fair for the most part with local tech companies, universities and private high schools doing science demos and activities for kids. For some reason the Salvation Army was there, but they seemed to be just there out of the goodness of their hearts. They had little plastic cups where they helped the kids make slime. Kids love making slime and then put it in a little ziploc bag. I noticed that they also had slightly bigger Salvation Army plastic bags which I thought was just an extra safeguard in case the slime leaked out and didn’t get the other take home stuff from the event wet with slime. However, something else was lurking in the bag.
Fast forward to this morning and my son is taking out stickers in this:
Notice the cover indicates is meant to lure kids into believing this contains scientific information. A bible resides on the science lab desk and somehow a cross appears in the atom symbol.
The pages inside don’t get any better by making their religious nonsense appear to be part of things for which we have scientific evidence.
At least they are promoting women in science right? You can see the attempt to legitimize bible verses and religious rhetoric as scientific. They have the gall to call this a Time Traveler Guide, but Day 1-5 is Creation, Old Testament, Visitation, Preparation, and Celebration. Inside is also a plastic transparency like thing where you are supposed to use a flashlight to find various scientific items, bible verses and symbols in a science lab. A page of stickers, and then finally this exercise which asks the kid to “Complete the timeline with correct daily drawing sticker”
My son was playing with stickers in the book before I saw what this was. Fortunately he can’t read yet and constructed this according to his own logic, which I think you’ll like. He says to me that “fire creates trees and then new leaves, leaves cause clouds and then rain, rain causes evil kings, and evil kinds lead to death.” We watch a lot of nature shows so he know forest fires lead to new growth and he knows trees give off a lot of moisture and creates clouds and rain in rain forests. The evil king thing though remains a mystery. 🙂 Anyway, I told his explanation makes more sense than what this is actually trying to tell you. This booklet is made by “Answers in Genesis”. Which, as many know, is a particular dishonest Christian fundamentalist organization trying to push the Bible as being literally true (except for the parts that make no sense).
I am definitely going to complain to the organizers. Despite this being a conservative county, I don’t expect they knew this was going on. Given the one organizer I had talked to prior to the event, I don’t think the organizers intended for any booth to hand out religious literature. The fact that such anti-science creationist nonsense was being snuck to kids, I’m sure (I hope) will come as a surprise.
My dad always had a soft spot for the Salvation Army as when my parents were starting out life together and didn’t have much money. Salvation Army was helpful to them and was willing to marry them, as many other Christian pastors wouldn’t as they rejected a mixed marriage. As a result I will still thrown in some money when they are asking for donations around Christmas time. No longer. The disturbing part here is how deviously the Salvation Army hid what they were handed out while sucking kids in with a fun activity, and how the booklet itself misrepresents religious claims as scientific with images meant to trick and indoctrinate children. It’s simply appalling. So be aware parents when taking your kids to a science event, you may find a wolf in a scientist’s clothing.
Currently I am in Austin, TX attending the national American Meteorological Society meeting. The conference continues to grow in size as the field becomes more interdisciplinary and attracts professionals from both the private and government sectors. You meet researchers, educators, broadcasters. Of course one of the big topics here remains climate change. You won’t see many speakers spending time proving that it’s happening. There are a few, but a bulk of the people will be talking about how to we get more people on board to take action? How do we get government to listen? How do we communicate more effectively to the public? What are the kinds of policies we need to mollify people who are worried about jobs and livelihood as we switch to more and more renewable energy? But climate change itself isn’t what I wanted to talk about although it is part of the inspiration for this post. That and a podcast I listened to with Tom Nichols who wrote a book called The Death of Expertise.
As someone who writes a blog, uses social media, and is a professor, I am fairly outspoken about climate change and have had my expertise challenged many times. I consider myself an expert of sorts, but as I sit here surrounded by greats in our field and even lesser known ones, I also know that I am a light expert when it comes to climate change. And I know a lot. But there are people who know more. There are people who have a great depth of expertise. I spent 11 years in university becoming what I am. There are people who have spent the same amount of time and then on top of that spend year after year researching problems and testing hypotheses and collecting and analyzing data. Why do they do such things? We live in a time where much information is available instantly. Have people like myself and others here simply wasted all our time and just should have waited for the internet to be in its current state so that we could gain the same level of expertise through a few days (hours?) of googling?
I have tried different methods of engaging people on the subject of climate change publicly (some I’ll admit I knew weren’t helpful to anybody but myself), but nothing really seems to make much of a difference. In the end, someone who might be a line chef at a restaurant will adamantly disagree with you. And of course I have had far more educated people disagree with me as well, but they have not been educated in meteorology or a related field. And it shows. I’ll be honest if you want to be critical of climate change with me, I can tell the moment you start speaking, how much you actually know about the science. Now that’s not to say that you couldn’t have a lively debate should you talk about policy, law, or the pros and cons of renewable energy. These are all things I am not an expert at, and don’t pretend to be. So why do so many people pretend they can be an expert on the topic of climate change?
You might say that skepticism is healthy, and this is true. But that skepticism needs to also come from other experts. Within the scientific community disagreement and skepticism are everywhere, and scientists within a discipline are constantly challenging each other to do better. Yes there are times when science fails, but more often than not the expertise of people makes a positive difference. It seems that it’s our penchant for noticing the failures that perhaps skews our perceptions. But the amount of expertise it takes just for a plane to successfully take off and land is immense, and there are over 100,000 commercial flights per day. Many people of course falsely see planes as unsafe modes of travel, but most of us know there is no safer way to travel. Assuming people in aviation don’t know what they are doing because of the rare plane crash would be an obviously false perception. For people who deny the validity of climate science I often ask them why the scientific findings are inherently different than the science that was used to make the computer they are using to argue with me? One of the more intelligent people (non-expert however) I’ve argued with about climate change plainly stated that he trusted a prediction 2 years out of an asteroid collision with Earth, but still maintained that any climate model that tried to predict climate was no better than flipping a coin.
It’s clear that climate science is much more about politics than the science, but since the truth of the results lies outside of the purview of political leanings, the science gets attacked, weakly but loudly. What other choice is there for such people? With instant access to information, the perception that one can be knowledgeable enough over a number of hours to speak authoritatively on issues gives them the confidence to do so. This simply isn’t true. This post might seem boastful to some or elitist. In some ways I suppose the latter is true. I do feel that I represent a very small portion of the population that understands the atmosphere well. But as I’ve said I’m also smart enough to know how much more there is to know. And while I am generally smart enough to slog my way through scholarly articles in most field, never would I assume that this makes me an expert. Put me in the presence of an expert and you’ll find me asking more questions than being argumentative. And there is expertise to be found in many walks of life. I don’t go in telling mechanics what their job is about, or spend a lot of time second guessing how accountants do their job, or tell a carpenter he’s hammering a nail all wrong. I feel I am humble enough about the things for which I know little, but appropriately confident about the things in which I have expertise. Too often that expertise is challenged by people with none and too often I feel like I should almost apologize for knowing a lot about something. Personally, I am glad there are experts out there. I am glad there are people who devote their lives to the understanding something well, to perform tasks everyday knowledgeably and skillfully. And I am also glad that there are enough experts to challenge other people with similar expertise, who are there to spot mistakes and make improvements over each other’s works.
It seems that we have drifted in this country away from the appreciation of expertise. And I don’t think one side of the political spectrum is immune to it. As I watch the numerous cheers for Oprah Winfrey to be our next president, I get deeply concern that the value we place on expertise has waned to dangerous levels. It is a great age, because there are so many places where we need people with expertise. Everybody has the ability to be an expert in something. But this takes time, study, and experience, and this fact should never be forgotten. Take some time to think about how your day is made better by the experts in your world.
After my previous post about faith, which led to a fruitful discussion, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of faith to humans and how it might be framed in a more useful way. A couple summers ago I presented a series of posts about 8 virtues or qualities that make a good human, and faith was the last one I discussed. I think that if I were to do that series again today I might change the word faith to “prediction”.
In the discussion we had on my most recent post about faith, we talked about the difference between religious faith, and the sort of everyday way we might use the word faith. One of the things that I talked about as a difference between how a scientist might use faith, and what a religious person might call faith are two different things. The most important difference being that a scientist would be willing to change what he has faith in, based on evidence. I have always argue that while faith is important we should be willing to change what we have faith as we learn. The other thing that I argued was that faith is built on evidence and there is a very big difference in having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, and faith that there is a supernatural divine being. The difference there being the weight of evidence, and the quality of evidence used in building those two types of“faith”.
But I started to think about it at a deeper level and it seems to me that at the heart of faith is really something else when I started to ask, “Why do we have faith at all?” Faith is a representation of our desire to predict an uncertain future. When I had my son, I wrote a post called Love and the Future, about how when we love we start painting pictures of the future in our mind. It happens in romantic relationships too. According to a friend of mine who is a counselor, one of the hardest parts of counseling someone after a difficult breakup is for them to let go of those “future plans”. I have also written a post before about “expectations”. In the post, I talked about the benefits of expectations in that we rise to meet them. By having a future goal in mind, we make better progress than none at all. Of course, there are many who would say you shouldn’t have expectations, because they will only lead to disappointment, but I am not sure it’s possible to live a life without any expectations. It’s natural that we’d have some, but I think that it’s true we might have limits into how many failed expectations we can shoulder. Either way it seems to me that expectations are also a type of “faith”. A desire to place some certainty in the future based on our desires and wants. It is something we expect to come true, even if it doesn’t.
For the past few months I have been practicing mindfulness meditation, and it has been an enjoyable experience. I’ve been using an app called Headspace. It avoids a lot of the new age type stuff and really focuses on the philosophy of meditation and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in getting into it. The goal is to be more focused on the present, to be mindful of what we are doing in the moment. A thought struck me yesterday when I was practicing it, as that one of the things they tell you in the guided meditation is that you want to think about “what are your goals with the meditation” and after it’s over they suggest you think about what is going to the very next thing you do. So even in something that is supposed to be about the present, we cannot help but look forward at least a little bit in our thinking.
I have come to the conclusion that it is natural in humans to be forward thinkers. I have had the thought before that one of the things that makes humans more intelligent is our ability to project further into the future than other species. Now one could argue that we are also still pretty awful at it, but the fact that we try is actually impressive. We look for patterns in the universe and we try to project those patterns into the future so that we can be less uncertain and fearful about it. While Farmer’s almanacs would like us to believe that squirrels can predict months in advance about the severity of the winter, it is clear in an evolutionary sense life on average are poor forward thinkers. If they were good at it, I’m not sure extinctions would happen as often as they do. For instance, an animal can only assume a winter will lie between certain climatic norms. Some portion of the population will develop mutations better equipped for let’s say surviving a larger range of conditions, but when change becomes to extreme large proportions of a population if not all, cannot adapt and die out. Humans are better at it, unfortunately we are also deeply conceited and that leads to problems. So given this human propensity to want to predict, the best thing we can do is to build value systems that allow us to be successful more often.
When we say we have faith in our partner, our ourselves, we are making a statement that there is an expectation that based on existing evidence that we will continue to handle some future situation in the same way we have before. Making a statement like, “I have faith I will do well on my exams”. Presumably you have taken enough exams to presume a similar outcome. More than that, to make sure it isn’t blind faith, you have examined the patterns to your success through various study methods, getting a certain amount sleep, etc to make sure your faith is not misplaced. Your faith is a type of prediction. A value system that aids in this faith is your ability to be introspective and also perhaps learn from others as to how they study and learn what are good and bad practices.
So where does religious faith fit into all of this? Hopefully by now it is pretty clear, but let’s look a little closer. I have read several atheist and agnostic scholars speak about religion as a type of model. This is how religion has always made the most sense to me. What is the purpose of models? In science models are things that model scientific processes that give us more predictive capabilities. The better we understand a process, on average, the more predictive we will be. This is why a scientist’s ‘faith’ might be quite different than a religious person’s faith because the success of a scientific theory is its predictive capability. The poorer it is at prediction the less certain we are about our understanding. In my field of meteorology one of the main reasons we try to model atmospheric processes is to become better at prediction. It is helpful to be more aware of what weather and climatic patterns are coming in the future.
Religious faith, at its root, is a kind model. One constructed a long time ago, built largely on false patternicity errors, but given how little we understood about the universe its weak predictive capabilities (in line with empirical evidence) is hardly surprising. Nevertheless it is an attempt to know the future. It’s full of prophet predictions, it speaks of what happens to you when you die, how the world will end, what consequences your actions might have. People pray or plead for diving intervention for their future endeavors. ‘Please get me this job, please make it rain so our crops come in, please don’t let my mother die of cancer.’ These are all attempts to give us certainty in an ever changing universe in which are predictive capabilities, especially at an individual level, are extremely limited. The statement “God has a plan for you” is a prime example of how religion has the course of your life worked out already. There is no need to worry about it. Just have faith. People find it soothing to pray, people find it peaceful to know the purpose of the universe, to know what will happen to them when they die. In fact, on the whole, religion gives far more certainty than science, which is why I expect it is much more popular. Science rarely claims 100% predictive capability, but religion does, and to this end religion can be easily used to exploit people. It is a panacea to all the uncertainty in the world. Religion pushes people to have more and more faith in times of doubt and confusion. What they are really saying is “Be more and more certain that (religious claim x) is the truth.” And if you’re successful, not surprisingly, you feel better. With mental effort we can convince ourselves to be more certain of things whose outcome is uncertain. Human history is rife with such examples. There is no doubt in my mind that we have better models for how humans can live their lives now. Nevertheless, we have maintained these old models, trying to ignore the worst bits of them, and developed an entire field of apologetics whose main purpose is to try to convince people that these old models still not only have value, but that they are actually superior to other models out there.
Now just because prediction is something humans do, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a virtue. I guess I see it as a raw instinct that needs to be tamed, which is how I have approached all beneficial human qualities. I think it’s clear that while much happiness can be found in getting lost in the moment, we need some sort of value system that gives us a direction. We might get there and find we have to go somewhere else, but it seems beneficial to always have some sort of idea of where we might go next. In my life it seems that the people I have admired most are the ones who can take pleasure in the moment, but also keep their eyes ahead of them as well. It’s dangerous to get lost in times that have not occurred, just as it is unhealthy to dwell in the past. So if I were to choose this 8th value that makes a good human, perhaps the word “prediction” doesn’t quite do it justice, but until I come up with a better word it will have to do. There is, however, no question in my mind that a defining quality for our species is our ability think about the future. It encapsulates our dreams for a better future and if there is any escape from the fate of extinction that most life on this planet has faced, it will be through our ability to predict, if we can remember to be humble enough to remember we aren’t perfect.
Recently in a debate with Scientific Christian over on Nan’s blog he presented a clip that I don’t know was supposed to represent game, set, and match about something, but I’m not sure what yet. It seems that he was claiming that we all use faith and so any form of faith is just as valuable as the next. In the clip, you see Dawkins debating with Dr. John Lennox. Lennox is big into using this argument against people he debates with so let’s investigate this a bit more carefully.
I have argued before that I think faith is an important part of who we are as humans, and an important one at that. I have not changed my view as faith being a fundamental human quality. But so is curiosity and so is reason. If faith alone were the only way determine reality it simply would be insufficient.
First things first, let’s assume that Lennox’s argument is a good one. Even if that were true, and he caught Dawkins, it still isn’t proof of God. It is only proof that faith sometimes works or that we all utilize faith to some degree. It certainly doesn’t always work.
Now Dr. Lennox himself warns against the dangers of blind faith. He would argue that no Christian (and I am sure follower of any religion) would say that they don’t have blind faith in their religion. There is at least some evidence. But if we, just for arguments sake, take blind faith as the extreme at one end (and I would say people who think God is just going to heal their child and they don’t give them medicine is close to that end) and that something like having faith that the sun will come up tomorrow is being at the other extreme, we can easily see that there is a world of difference between those two extremes. So, at the outset, it is intellectually dishonest for anybody to make claims that just because you use faith and I use faith makes what we have faith in as equally valid. As Dawkins points out in the clip and addresses in more detail in the full debate, is that the key is in the evidence.
So why do the two points of view not work out to be equivalent? As I have argued before (here and here) and will not go into detail here, it’s because of what we consider valid evidence. If parents who let their children die on the hopes that prayer would save them were using the same evidence as Dawkins’ uses in having faith that his wife still loves him, then both would have equal predictive capability. And this is an important point that Dawkins tries to make is that even if we are all using faith to some extent the degree to which the work model we have of how any phenomena works must be predictive. Given our model of the solar system, each time the sun does come up it is further reassurance that are model, which would predict the sun would come up (really the sun doesn’t come up of course we rotate on our axis), is in fact verified. So while one could argue that it is a matter of faith that I think the sun would come up tomorrow, the evidence to which I have built that faith, is far different than those who would use faith that God will intervene on their behalf through prayer.
Of course, one might ask, “Why do people think prayer works at all?” If that evidence is so untenable why build any faith on such things? The answer to that questions requires a greater delving into human cognitive biases but largely it is due to our propensity to make Type I errors (false patternicity) and our cognitive bias to remember ‘hits’ and disregard misses. And this speaks to why the scientific method is so important because it requires careful methodology, it requires replication, it requires that we be able to build off of older principles to new ones reliably.
One then often argues, well clearly you have faith in the scientific method. And I do, but this again is because the scientific method works. If were to use the scientific method to uncover some knowledge of the world and at every turn I was not getting reliable results, then this would be cause for me to question the very way I was trying to discover how things work. We’ve seen the scientific method be effective so many times, that we can therefore have faith that it will be reliable again. Once again we see how being predictive plays a role in how faith in the scientific method is different than a faith in a personal God.
Finally for as important as I think faith is to our lives, we also must be willing to change the things we have faith about. If I do have faith that my wife loves me based on a certain set of evidence. Even if I’m convinced that evidence is good, should that evidence change, or it’s pointed out to me that I’m not using reliable markers of one person showing love to me, then there is no reason for me to continue to have faith along that avenue. What we have faith in, is not set in stone. What an unsuccessful species we would be if that were the case.
It has been discussed by many that our brains are wired on an evolutionary scale, and that the rapid change of society through technological advances has outpaced us, leaving us with many disconnects between what we see every day and what we can actually handle. In many ways, we might be happier if we lived in small tribes and were closely surrounded by wilderness, instead of surrounded by brick and cement, drive vehicles and get visual stimuli from computer or television screens. One aspect of this disconnect, that I find quite intriguing, and I think is central to our ability to understand the world we find ourselves in, is what I call and order of magnitude problem.
Think about early man in those hunter gatherer days. Counting is a base cognitive skill, important for our survival. But what is that we might count? You might count the amount of fruit gathered on any particular day, the number of children, or people. Such numbers might get you into the 100s. You might count seasonal cycles. If you were lucky maybe you had 80 of those to count. You might count lunar cycles. Getting you to about 1040. Even this would require some note making, because this is counting over time, and surely you would not sit there and count something that high. Such cycles of time were the only things worth keeping track of. We had no need to measure time beyond that. No need for small units of time such as a second. It might make sense to come up with some unit of measurement for distance. Something comparable to arm lengths or hand widths…something we might use to size an animal, measure height of people or spears. When it came to traveling, you might then simply use something like phases of the moon, or number of diurnal cycles. Once again such counting would leave numbers small. Occasionally you might find yourself thinking about numbers in terms of fractions. Maybe something like half a day, or a quarter of an armlength. For things very small, you probably would no longer use armlength as your standard, but perhaps finger width. Such techniques are ones that we still use today.
The reality is that if you think about numbers, you probably won’t get very far. Now do a little exercise for me. If you think of the number 1000. How do you think about it, to picture a 1000 of something? You might think what a $1000 can buy, but money is a fiction that represents a quantity of stuff you can buy which varies depending on what stuff your buying. If you wanted to actually count, what would you think about. Maybe 1000 people in a room. You might have a sense for how big a group that is. Chances are you won’t get it exactly. Go down to a 100 and your chances of picturing 100 things gets better. Now do 10 of something. Pretty easy. Now do 1. Even easier. Let’s go down another order of magnitude. Try to think of something that is 0.1. Here as we move down an order of magnitude we can no longer count whole things. So think of 1/10th of a person probably gets a bit graphic, so what are you thinking of to imagine 0.1? For that you now have to think of some standard. Maybe a mile, an inch, a meter? Depending on what you choose, you can do okay. Now try 1/100th. Again with the right starting point you might do okay, but even dividing by 100 can be hard for someone without a formal education and once we get to 1/1000th our ability to guess at the meaning of that fraction is severely reduced regardless of our starting point. So if you are keeping track this puts the human mind, on a good day our brains are capable of somewhat accurately sorting out 5 orders of magnitude (10-2 – 103). However, if we look at the scale of the universe in size we span 52 orders of magnitude from the plank length to the size of the observable universe (please see this very cool interactive graphic that allows you to explore the different spatial scales of the universe). In terms of time, our quantum clocks can measure up to 1 ten billionth of a second (10-10) . Meanwhile we know the universe has been around for about 14 billion years (1015 seconds). If you don’t have trouble digesting such numbers you are a super genius, because everybody should. Those are just the extremes, but unless you are within that 5 orders of magnitude range I discussed earlier, it makes little difference. And this is also important because it means that a million miles, might as well be a billion miles in our head. However, the difference between those two numbers is meaningful. In science, to consider two numbers like that the same would be to make a grievous error on the order of 100,000%.
Scientists, through years of working with the numbers that shape our world are often better at dealing with these things, but even scientists tend to use conventions to make numbers easier to manage. There is a reason why you don’t measure the distance from New York City to Boston in inches. We have developed different units of measurement for distance. In the old English system we have inches, feet, yards and miles. In metric, we have prefixes that span numerous orders of magnitude so that we don’t have to always report distance in meters. For objects in space in our solar system we might use astronomical units to keep those distances in more manageable numbers. For things outside our solar system, light years.
Whatever we measure in science can change over large ranges and change at massively different rates. Change is rarely linear, but very often exponential. As a result, we might find ourselves dealing with quantities which very over several orders of magnitude. In my field a good example for this is radar reflectivity. You may not be familiar with it, but you’ve certainly seen radar images if you’ve paid attention to the weather. Higher reflectivities indicate bigger drops and faster rain rates. Lower reflectivities represent light rain or drizzle. The difference in size between a drizzle drop and a basic rain drops is no more than a factor of 10, but the reflectivities span over 10- 1,000,000. Thus, meteorologists convert those reflectivity values using decibels. The decibel system was initially used for sound given the large range of frequency for sound waves, but now is a common tool for expressing values that vary over several orders of magnitude by taking the logarithm (base 10) of the value. This reduces the number to its order of magnitude. For example, instead of 106 if I take the logarithm with base 10 of that number I get 6. And 6 is much easier to wrap our heads around than 1,000,000. I know I’ve gotten kind of technical here with this example, but the point is that nature, as we’re discovering, does not conform to the numbers our brains had to deal with when we evolved. And most scientists, while they might have some understanding of the microscopic or macroscopic numbers and the wide ranges of values science employs, to objectively analyze and come to some meaningful conclusions we very often have to be able to visually see those numbers between about 0.01 and 1000.
You might say that such numbers make little difference to most of us unless we are in science, but let’s talk about where our everyday lives might be impacted. First let’s start with the population of the world. There are 7 billion people. Try to wrap your head around that number. Is your soul mate really just one in a billion? Could such a large group of people create an environmental disaster? How many bodies could certain countries throw at you in a war? About 700 million, globally, live in abject poverty. Do the numbers seem so voluminous that it’s easier to ignore human suffering, or make you feel defeated before you try?
What about some of the more important educational and scientific controversies that still exist today? Evolution has been happening for several billion years, but many would like to believe that we’ve been around for only 6000 years. Religious dogma aside, isn’t it possible that part of the reason that some people resist what science clearly demonstrates is because we are talking about a length of time that few can relate to? The vastness of time threatens to humble us all as blips in a universe far older than we can fathom. And its size and origin similarly attacks our human conceit at being the grandest and cleverest design in a creator’s eye.
Vast amounts of people also create vast sums of money. Billionaires have almost unimaginable wealth that people still commonly believe that can obtain too. Politicians and media constantly throw large dollar values in our faces to intimidate us. When one wants to high light wasteful spending we can put point to something costing 100’s of millions of dollars and we shudder at such an amount being wasted. Forgetting that with 100 million taxpayers, something in the 100’s of millions is costing us a handful of dollars a year. I have seen the tactic used frequently. Once again we might on some level realizes that a 100 million, 10 billion, and a trillion dollars are different, but they are all unimaginably large sums of money that in the battle for what’s important and what’s not, they can all be seen as being on equal footing. The idea that public television and radio need to be cut for austerity is quite simply a joke when compared to a 10% increase in defense spending if anybody thinks that’s going to balance the budget.
One might argue that the microscopic matters very little (no pun intended), but I do think an appreciation for that scale is valuable, if for no other reason helping us appreciation the vast variation of scales that make up our known universe. Scientists often take very small numbers that might exist for pollutants or toxicity in foods or water, and change the unites of those numbers so that they are bigger. I understand why, because of course we don’t want to underwhelm in those situations, but maybe it’s also a problem that we continue to cater to this limited range of numbers that our minds most easily manage. It’s probably best to start incrementally, and perhaps a good example of how we can begin is with time. John Zande over at his blog, The Superstitious Naked Ape, offers up a good first step towards our lack of comfortability with numbers outside of our “sweet spot”. The start of our counting of years begins with the birth of Christ, but this is a religious and faith based reason to start the counting of the years. Why not use Thai’s bone which is our earliest evidence of careful astronomical observations of the sun and moon over a 3 ½ year period. Instead of the year 2017, it would instead be 15,017.
It might seem like an arbitrary difference, but I think it would give us a better feel for the vastness of time, and a better appreciation for the numbers that shape the universe we’ve come to know. Since there seems to be little stopping the advance of science in technology, perhaps we better find more ways to help these brains, made for a different time, catch up.
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.
I know that darkness won’t endure,
But sometimes it’s hard to see in the dark,
But I will not lose my reason,
My desire to understand the seasons,
Turning leaves reveal the truth,
Known to every pimpled youth,
There is no escaping that things change,
And so you can hold on
And squeeze the moment,
But it will eventually slip like sand,
And with time abrading your open fingers,
To make sure you learn lessons well,
To remind you, you’re avoiding the inevitable.
You can wallow in the quagmire of your beliefs,
You can even inspire with a clever tongue,
You can wipe clean all that science has found,
And it will come back and haunt you,
But humanity is no ghost,
It is curious and is happiest when it discovers,
Even though it risks its happiness,
Because somewhere in the maze of consciousness,
We know that without the risk there is no joy,
No success, no growth
We are not content to look through a pinhole,
While one eye looks at the dark, and the rest
Of our senses atrophy into putrid decay.
Each time that you hate and dehumanize,
You become less than you think you are,
Your victims more than you think they are.
And I will oppose you with heart, with teeth,
And you will fight on the battleground of reason,
Or risk endless cycles violence,
Ripping parents from children,
Casting yourself into an oblivion,
That you believe to be paradise,
All because you never knew,
How great a human you could become,
How so many pieces of existence,
Were waiting for you to know them.
And you will pay dearly for unwise choices,
And you will be forgiven,
Because the world has loss and pain,
But nobody really wants to destroy you but time,
And none of us have any say over that,
Make your meaning out of the indifferent universe,
And treat existence like a gift.
Because it is.