Eight. Photo by Lukasd2009.
I found an interesting article on the BBC Magazine yesterday: Believe it or not: The battle over certainty. It’s the first in a series A Point of View broadcasting on Radio 4. The whole thing is worth reading but there were a couple of standout points.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky as a historian, you find a bit of evidence which illuminates a big idea. That happened to me this week in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.
The thought uppermost in my mind was how odd it is that non-scientists think of science as being about certainties and absolute truth. Whereas scientists are actually quite tentative — they simply try to arrive at the best fit between the experimental findings so far and a general principle.
…there’s a lot of fascinating stuff about Huygens and his clocks then…
The most today’s Royal Society is prepared to say is that a belief that all species on earth have always existed in their present form, and that the earth is “not consistent with the evidence from geology, astronomy and physics”. And that is probably not enough to satisfy ordinary thoughtful citizens without a scientific training.
I wonder about this. I think people do think about life in terms of probabilities. In court cases decisions are made based on probability. The state doesn’t have to definitively prove its case — merely that it should be proved beyond reasonable doubt. That might seem a woolly criterion, but that’s the gaps where the lawyers make their money.
A court case is rarely decided by re-running the crime to see what happened. Often there isn’t a continous narrative and the jury has to decide how to put together the disparate pieces of evidence. There’s uncertainty and you build from what you know and try and work out how the pieces fit together.
Science is a process where you try and answer that problem by re-running events until you think you’ve eliminated all variants apart from the ones you want to study. When this happens a scientist has an advantage a juror lacks. Unfortunately some problems are simply untestable as they stand. Global Warming, which Lisa Jardine refers to would be a cinch to solve if you had a few thousand identical Earths. Having only the one we have to test individual manageable problems and then argue how we put them together.
Events like Global Warming affect us all and so we should all have some input into how we tackle the problem. Warming is happening, the data are explicit. Is it all part of a natural cycle as fewer and fewer scientists think or are there actions we could take to protect our society? Which factors would make a genuine difference and which would simply be window-dressing? This is why the last sentence is so interesting.
A public understanding of science has never been more important.
If your neighbours have the vote, then they have a say on issues that will impact on your family’s future. So will your neighbour’s children. Are they getting the science education they need to decide on a important issues like Carbon Emissions, GM Crops or Cloning that will directly affect you and your family?
It seems in the USA people are by and large very happy as Coturnix reports. Pharyngula also has a post highlighting something I liked in the recent Royal Society statement which gets lost sometimes in the Creationism debate. Children are entitled to an education.