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When The State Sinks, Science Is The Anchor

Oct 26, 2017

As Europe was being torn apart in the early 17th century by conflicts between Catholics and Protestants — that would lead to the devastating Thirty Years War in 1618 — the German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote:

"When the storm rages and the shipwreck of the state threatens, we can do nothing more worthy than to sink the anchor of our peaceful studies into the ground of eternity."

The state was crumbling under the chaotic leadership of the mad Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, while different religious factions vied for power. There was no trust, institutions were failing.

In Italy, the Church was tightening its grip on free thinking, as it fought the Reformation. In 1616, Galileo was admonished by Cardinal Bellarmine, Master of Controversial Questions of the Roman College, who challenged him to either furnish real proof that the Earth revolved around the sun or to stay silent.

Kepler and Galileo feared for their lives, but wouldn't renounce their freedom to ponder the workings of nature. Each pushed his research program forward, culminating in the complete upheaval of the Aristotelian worldview later in the same century. Their heroic deeds opened the doors to the modern world.

Religious repression and wars pass, but scientific knowledge remains.

We don't live in the 17th century, but we would be naïve to think that science and its credibility isn't under attack. We witness it every day, as many politicians and non-experts challenge the careful findings of hundreds of scientists in topics ranging from the worth of vaccination to climate change.

It is paradoxical that this is happening here in America, a country that defined itself, at least until recently, by its scientific and technological prowess: the telephone; the light bulb; mechanized agriculture; machine automation in factories; atomic bombs and nuclear energy; the laser; people on the moon; personal computers; economic giants Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Tesla, SpaceX; more Nobel prizes than any other country by far (353 versus 125 from the UK, with the second most), the list goes on and on.

How could this be?

This is a crucial question, one that we should all be thinking about. Many political leaders don't know science, and don't seem to take an interest in it. There is only one Congressman with a science Ph.D., Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois.

Having taught science and non-science majors in an elite university for 26 years, I see a clear divide between students that like and don't like math and the sciences, in general. There are, of course, exceptions, and this is only anecdotal evidence but, excepting students interested in patent and environmental law, most who decide to go to law school are not the ones with strong affections for the STEMS disciplines. It would be interesting to have a quantitative study on how this affects their late careers and positions on scientific issues, especially those who end up in politics.

Under pressure from lobbying interests, the results of careful scientific research become politicized and "open for public debate." Suddenly, even if you know nothing of the careful scientific methodology used to obtain a result or to reach a certain conclusion, you become entitled to a contrarian opinion based on — based on what, exactly? On hearsay and propaganda from interest groups that manipulate public opinion to serve their own purposes — usually to safeguard the bottom line for their stockholders.

The result is that scientific research and its outcomes — carefully crafted by thousands of experts across the world who spent years, decades, in training — become open for public debate as if we were talking about football, movies, or fashion. It is as if the surgeon became the judge and the judge became the engineer.

People confuse the process of doing science — self-correcting, always improving — with imprecision and uncertainty. That's a serious mistake. Science does advance in stages, as we strive to understand the workings of nature and to adapt this knowledge to the development of technologies that will improve our quality of life.

But it does advance — and we see the results of this advance everywhere. Just think of what you would find 10 years ago in a store like Best Buy and what you find there now. OLED TVs? Smart phones? Ultra-accurate GPS? Where do these come from? Who makes them? Not the politicians or others who distrust science, that's for sure. They just use these devices, taking the amazing science behind them for granted.

Kepler witnessed the state collapsing around him, and felt helpless. He couldn't pick up a sword to fight, for he was a hero of ideas and not of bloody battles. Instead, he looked up. And so did Galileo. And what they saw, and their diligence in pursuing the truth, changed the world forever.

How many potential Keplers and Galileos are out there today in grade school, growing up confused about the value of a scientific education?

There are wonderful schools and teachers doing a first-rate job, and families that take an interest in the key scientific issues of our time and share them with their children. But there is also much obscurantism, and distrust of science. I fear for our children's safety, mine included, in a world run by adults that don't understand what they are doing to it.

At least, as history has shown, political and ideological repression passes, but scientific knowledge remains. Let us work to ensure that the damage is not irreversible.


Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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