I grew up in the era of the Apollo moon launches. One of my earliest memories is traveling to Cape Canaveral and watching from the beach as one of the missions was launched towards the moon. It was pretty incredible.
Despite frequent moves and attending six schools between elementary school and college, science was in the air. I got a firm grounding in how to think critically, how to use data, and how to observe the physical world around me in pursuit of Doing Great Things. Whether my school was in a failing Pennsylvania steel town or in a full-on major city, science was present.
Science has given us great things. And therein lies the problem.
We’ve had it so good that we’ve been able to forget how we got here to begin with. In the convenience of indoor plumbing, central heating, and home-delivered groceries, we’ve managed to convince ourselves that the world naturally exists to make our lives easy, and it must be our inherent worthiness—not the hard work of millions of scientists, engineers, manufacturers, distributors—that has given us our standard of living.
In business, we have created a huge industry for business intelligence based on data. Hard data is used by successful businesses the world around to design, produce, and market products. That’s one of the cool things about business: when profits are down, people are sometimes willing to look at data to figure out what to do. Amazing how putting people’s year-end-bonus in jeopardy can bring them to appreciate the outside world, rather than the fantasy world they’ve made up.
(Equally puzzling are the many companies who collect data that could point the way and then never look at it or discard it when it doesn’t fit the CEO’s pre-determined course of action.)
In daily life, however, data, science, math, and engineer have become almost the subjects of contempt. It may be hip to be an engineer, but only if it’s going to lead you to a billion-dollar payday (look at the numbers: despite the hype, most entrepreneurs never make more than a modest living. It’s precisely because it’s a near-miracle that we hear about billion-dollar Facebook boy or the Google geeks). It’s the money we’ve come to admire, not the achievements, thinking, and science that got us there.
So now, we’re seeing that in America, almost half of our populous doesn’t believe in evolution, and half of those who do, don’t believe in natural selection, despite it being one of the most solid theories in science. Of course, most don’t know the difference between a scientific theory and an opinion (yes, Virginia, there is a difference), so even having the discussion is a losing battle.
Honestly, I couldn’t care less whether people believe in evolution, so-called “intelligent design,” or the flying spaghetti monster. But I care a great deal whether people know how to look at the physical world, monitor data, and—most importantly!—change their beliefs when the data shows they’re wrong. And even then, who cares if people live in fantasy land, except for matters of collective life and death.
For example: war. Peak oil and resource usage. Agribusiness and food production. Pollution. Nuclear energy. Global warming.
I’ve been feeling apocalyptic today and reading up on many of those issue. Amazingly, the American media has proven worthless in exploring any of those topics. Journalists no longer seem to research issues, but rather just present people of differing opinions and let them slug it out. Journalists overlook the fact that one person might be a recognized leader in their field with two hundred peer-reviewed papers, and the other a lobbyist for a special-interest group with a vested interest in suppressing the science. It’s bizarre(*).
Michael Crichton, the fiction writer (that means, ladies and gentlemen, that he writes lies. That’s what fiction is: lies designed to tell a dramatic story) seems to be carrying as much weight in climate debate as scores of scientists. He wrote a fiction book, State of Fear, whose untrue-but-engaging lie states that climate change isn’t happening. What’s amazing is that people hold him up as an important player in the non-existent-in-the-scientific-community “debate” about global warming, even while the very people he quotes in his book, have publicly said he distorted and cherry-picked his data to reach the conclusion he wanted. Yet people consider him more credible than the intergovernmental panel on climate change.
It’s weird. We have a huge problem imagining things we’ve never gone through before. So the idea that some of our big problems could destroy our way of life permanently (and if not within our own lifetimes, within our children’s) is literally inconceivable. But the numbers point that way more and more. Hubbard’s Peak, the prediction of the end of cheap oil, has been written about for years both oil geologists and investment bankers who have made billions understanding the science and numbers behind oil. Yet other than a rise in per-gallon gas prices, the general populace seems unconcerned. (The fact that our crop productivity relies on petroleum-based fertilizers seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Oil declines, and food might, too. Isn’t that a fun thought?)
So for whatever it’s worth, if you want to have a planet to live on in your old age, and if you want your children to have lives that aren’t spent dealing with crisis, look at data. Demand research. Learn to separate fact from fiction and wishful thinking. Understand the difference between expert opinion and shrill emotional manipulation.
And please, indulge in flights of fancy, wishful thinking, and imagination for creating your dreams and aspirations(2), but ground yourself firmly in fact when deciding how to get there.
(1) As Pat M points out below, I make a huge sweeping generalization without support, here. Pat is right, I was wrong. See my reply to Pat below, which gives links to some actual follow-up that’s much more accurate than my opinion. back
(2) Recommended aspirations: enough food for everyone, a stable climate, preventative actions taken to mitigate long-term problems in energy supply and global warming, and just maybe, a halt to nuclear proliferation.