How Science Can Lead the Way
By LISA RANDALL Monday, Oct. 03, 2011 (being published)
Today's politicians seem more comfortable invoking God and religion than they do presenting facts or numbers. Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs. But when science and reason get shortchanged, so does America's future. With science, we put together observations with explanatory frameworks whose predictions can be tested and ultimately agreed on. Empirically based logic and the revelatory nature of faith are very different methods for seeking answers, and only logic can be systematically improved and applied. As we head toward the next election, it's important to keep an eye on how our political leaders view science and its advances, because their attitudes frequently mirror their approaches toward rational decisionmaking itself.
When Rick Perry, who defends teaching creationism in school, says evolution is merely "a theory that's out there, it's got some gaps in it," he's demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific theory. And when he chooses to pray for the end of a drought rather than critically evaluate climate science, he is displaying the danger of replacing rational approaches with religion in matters of public policy. Logic tries to resolve paradoxes, whereas much of religious thought thrives on them.
Adherents who want to accept both religious influences on the world and scientific explanations for its workings are obliged to confront the chasm between tangible effects and unseen, imperceptible influences that is unbridgeable by logical thought. They have no choice but to admit the inconsistency--or simply overlook the contradiction.
What we are seeing in the current presidential race is not so much a clash between religion and science as a fundamental disregard for rational and scientific thinking. All but two of the Republican front runners won't even consider that man-made global warming might be causing climate change, despite a great deal of evidence that it is. We know CO2 warms the planet through the greenhouse effect, and we know humans have created a huge increase in CO2 in the atmosphere by burning coal and oil. That man-made climate change is not proved with 100% certainty does not justify its dismissal.
In fact, an important part of science is understanding uncertainty. When scientists say we know something, we mean we have tested our ideas with a degree of accuracy over a range of scales. Scientists also address the limitations of their theories and define and try to extend the range of applicability. When the method is applied properly, the right results emerge over time.
Public policy is more complicated than clean and controlled experiments, but considering the large and serious issues we face--in the economy, in the environment, in our health and well-being--it's our responsibility to push reason as far as we can. Far from being isolating, a rational, scientific way of thinking could be unifying. Evaluating alternative strategies; reading data, when available, either in the U.S. or other countries, about the relative effectiveness of various policies; and understanding uncertainties--all features of the scientific method--can help us find the right way forward.
In 2009 I testified at a congressional hearing about the importance of basic science--something the Obama Administration made a focal point after years of unscientific and sometimes antiscientific policies by the Bush Administration. The hearing was in a room dedicated to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in the Rayburn House Office Building. As I looked over the heads of the seated Representatives, I saw a plaque that read, WHERE THERE IS NO VISION, THE PEOPLE PERISH. It is a noble and accurate sentiment to display, and its origin is Proverbs 29: 18.
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2094384,00.html#ixzz1ZSilO3rC