Oh, bother ... where to start?
Let us begin at a root, since for once one is exposed! (Too often, everyone is in a froth and lather about the symptoms of an issue, and too much energy is expended on 'band-aid' deployment instead of digging into the situation to locate root cause. Like a weed, if one wishes to eliminate or resolve it, one must locate the ROOT and apply exertion there.) So to begin, with something positive: I love me some Neil deGrasse Tyson, and today's title is an excerpt from something Neil famously said to Bill Maher:
"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
I feel a frisson of joy every time I read that statement. It is delicious -- because science has a process that works pretty damn well at uncovering root causes: the scientific method. Certainly the scientific method has done far better than things like intuition, mere empirical observation without confirmational testing to provide repeatable results (that bit in italics is wildly important), or the reading of tea leaves, etc. etc. So (1) science lures me because it is deeply effective at problem revelation and the follow-on effort of problem resolution. It is delish because it doesn't require human minds to enable it with "faith" or belief in order to reveal itself or be effective. So (2) science wins my support because it creates observable, testable outcomes that are reliable and real and re-testable -- it does not generate only calcified, static, silent, absolute, unquestioned or unquestionable outcomes. It offers findings that are often flexible and mutable and adaptable, with understanding and perspectives that flesh out as more facts are revealed. Things remain theories almost in perpetuity, because science is always open to revision and improvement of understanding. And understanding is built on and from facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws — it is all up for revision, as the tools get better, the vision gets clearer, as understanding grows.
Human animals like certainty, though, and I am no different from unwashed humanity in this longing for KNOWN vs UNKNOWN. You would think that this "need to know" would make all humans big fans of science, but because we are illogical, irrational beings who act mostly out of motivation toward comfort, we reject science a lot and select instead the stories and "beliefs" that make us feel better or stronger than the stark relief of reality. I channel the great astronomer and author (and cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist), Carl Sagan, in the face of that discombobulating scientific embrace. Sagan preferred reality to delusion, and I share that. Science makes sense to me in clear, repeatable ways, and I need my world built on that, not supposition, conjecture, and nice-to-haves.
However, I'm no scientist. I am barely tall enough to ride the science discussions that often swirl around me, be it in media from Bill Nye and Neil and Sam Harris and Jennifer Doudna and Stephen Hawking (now deceased) and Sara Seager and Brian Greene and Sean Carroll and and AND! so, SO many other brilliant minds who are doing what might have formerly been colloquially called "the lord's work" -- because it is work considered to be extremely important and praise-worthy due to its presumed benefit to most of us on this planet. Even my spouse offers amazing commentary and insight on matters ranging from evolution and sexual dimorphism to confirmation biases, and I often listen, rapt and curious.
I was predisposed to this kind of science crush, though. I have been admiring and reverent about scientists my entire life, and I root all this back to an early fascination with Vulcans and Spock in "Star Trek." I might have wanted to marry Captain Kirk when I grew up, but who I wanted to be was Spock, and my best, longest friend was very Spock-like: dispassionate, cerebral, brilliant. All those things became mashed up together for me in my preadolescent brain, and now it's like catnip to me. Now I'd marry Spock.
Of late, one of our friends seems highly motivated to try to distance us from what she views as an enamorment of science. She's an old-school type, very drawn to "old ways" and "ancient wisdom" and seems aggravated when science pronounces something real, after she felt it was true all along. [ And thus somehow she also "knew?" As if FEELING something is the equivalent of KNOWING it? No, no, no! We find ourselves in the very fucked up world we are living in now -- with its fabrications of "alternative facts" and "fake news"(THESE ARE NOT REAL THINGS!) -- because people confabulate FEELINGS with FACTS, and they are SO NOT THE SAME THING! ]
My friend is a very smart lady, but she seems oblivious to the deep danger in her approach, how horrific the world would be and has been when the best humanity could do was merely "follow our guts" and blindly believe something to be efficacious or reliable. I think the fallacy she rides most is the naturalistic one, in which anything that is natural is inherently good or (shudder) that just by being natural something is somehow best. By that rationale or logic, nearsightedness is preferred (hey, it's natural) and thus should not be corrected? Yet she wears glasses. And things like vaccinations are bad because they are not natural. So the illnesses they seek to cure or prevent are ... good? Because if the person gets that disease and survives, that might confer "natural immunity," and natural immunity is better than synthetic immunity. What?! Um, well, IF GETTING THE DISEASE DOES NOT CRIPPLE OR KILL YOU, sure? The logic just won't hold.
From a philosophical perspective, it's Hume's "is/ought" -- we must not make what something IS into what it OUGHT to be. That is a massive gap between facts and values, and it is where magical thinking finds a home (this is a quick, clear summary video from the BBC: Is/Ought Defined). It seems to me that in minds where fallacious thinking thrives, so does a tendency toward unsustainable, untestable, immature approaches to the world and its problems. And we have so very problems that are now proliferating exponentially.
I package all this kind of problematic thinking along with things that might seem innocuous, but in actuality are insidious. Like people praying to solve a problem or "likes" on a social or environmental cause's page, as if by LIKING something on Facebook we actually DO something. It's not even making a donation to help a movement grow! It is mere confirmation that advertising worked. It's not actually taking action. It is not picking up trash on a beach or actively choosing not buy anything plastic anymore. It is empty, lazy posturing. The world does not need this.
Sigh. I have digressed.
My friend's reverence for Native American explanations of consciousness that turned out to be occasionally right is in line with her preference for the natural over the not, and she is vexed that I am impressed that science has confirmed it. She says, "It was right all along, why do I only now believe it?" Because we did not know it was right, and even now, we only know it is right to the limits of what we can know today. Tomorrow we may know more and it may be something different! As with most guesswork and supposition, her position is stuck firmly with the proverbial blind squirrels that occasionally find nuts and get it right -- or at least mostly right. But I would rather go with the seeing squirrel who uses science to explain the world around them and build solutions to problems, the one with a plan and a method, and not just the warm-fuzzies, 'feels-right,' and a "oh, we'll find a nut eventually" approach.
That my friend is so smart and yet so blind about this kind of thing is another crunching, crushing contradiction that leaves me gobsmacked and reeling, and it is emblematic of why I have quit social media in a pointed, intentional way. I really was happier when I did not know this much about the craters in her thinking about the world. If she is afflicted in this way, despite her education and MBA and often rational approach to other things, what does it say about the huge population of those who have not learned as much as she has about the world, via her traveling and working and education? How can I sustain any hope that the world will get better in the face of this willful ignorance and cherry picking? I was happier when I did not know who among my friends merely prays for problems to solve or who they catastrophically voted for. Such topics were better discussed face-to-face, when people would be far less likely to don the arrogance of anonymity and distance and fling poo at each other online as a a pastime or entertainment. I could not take seeing that unspooling and coagulating disdain; far too many are still spittle-flying online, though, and it has infected the press and higher education and most politicians and seems part of the qualifications required for Talking Head: labeling everything and leaping to conclusions and not really listening to each other or trying to dissect the WHY of things. We trip up immediately on the WHO and the WHAT without the WHY. It is dooming us. I want no further part of that.
And here's where my sighing and frustration really get out of control, and I become hopeless in the face of it all: I recognize in myself this same sad, tragic, dysfunctional trend to circle my wagons and shut down contact with The Others. The disease is spreading; I have it now, too. I just would Rather Not Know. I know too much already, and it is overwhelming and enraging and there isn't enough time in the day or energy in my heart to tackle all of this. Instead I stay home a lot more. I have retreated to my books and my tea and my fireplace (and occasionally my bottles of whiskey and gin), where there is a far higher guarantee that I will not be spilling my precious, limited patience and energy on intractable chasms in understanding that prevent sleep, where I lay abed with stewing guts and frying brain, tearing hair from my head in frustration. I have now defaulted on my obligations as a citizen and gone to ground, laying quietly silent in my own fallow dark field.
What would Spock* do? #whatwouldSpockdo He would try to resuscitate me. He would test things scientifically and form cogent, plausible hypotheses and then test them again. He would tirelessly challenge flawed thinking and bring others along on his own quest to understand more, learn more. He would want us to live long and prosper.
I do not worship science. I do not worship Spock or Sagan. But their approaches make sense to me and benefit the most people, via dispassionate, evolving quests for better understanding. I think the world needs much more of that than the alternatives.
*Both characterizations of Spock, by Nimoy and Quinto, are deeply endearing to me in their own ways. What it says about me, to now be compelled by an alien, dispassionate energy that is exactly opposite of me (I have much more in common with James T. Kirk) is probably a wee bit pathological. I cannot BE a Vulcan or Vulcan-like; I'm just not wired that way. Maybe I just suppose that having that in proximity would carry with it the calm and tranquility that I crave.
"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” ~ Carl Sagan, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark"