Thursday, September 27, 2012

I'm a scientist by profession.  I make hypotheses and we prove or disprove them as best we can with experiments and with other forms of empirical testing.  The essential action is to give reality a fair shot at proving you wrong.  And to accept being proven wrong, with grace and curiosity and without denial and defensiveness.  It's one of humankind's ancient and great inventions.  But it is one that sometimes goes into eclipse.  Because we have an equally ancient and great invention, which is to create our own fantasy worlds that resist any disprovement that reality can throw at them.

Generally our empiricism and our delusions coexist in a typically human muddle.  Sometimes they inflate all out of proportion and collide with public violence -- as when Galileo and other observers challenged the delusions of the Catholic Church, or when the fantasies of the Soviet state became too embarrassingly unreal even for Russians.

I suspect that we're approaching such a collision in the US.  Over the course of the last 40 years trust in science has plummeted in our society -- but only for that third of the population that identifies itself as conservative.  Much of this would be familiar to Galileo, not so much for the religious contrariness (though that is there, of course), but because of the way that temporal powers choose to perpetuate the convenient fantasies that support them, even if it means denying the realities that science is exposing and the authority it is building, and even if it means walling oneself off from reality-testing in self-defeating ways.  In 17th century Europe the antagonist was the Church hierarchy, in 20th century America, this was a business class hostile to the growing power of science to regulate private enterprise and influence policy formation.  

In the 1970's, trust in science wasn't particularly politicized.  But 40 years of hostility from conservative leaders and an increasingly vast and sophisticated media empire has changed that.   There are multiple avenues for this: political attacks on science-based institutions like the EPA; the effort to bring scientific research back under the control of private enterprise by de-funding universities and other forms of publicly supported science in favor of privatized, industry-funded research (and then hindering scientific exchange with patents and gag restrictions); support for pseudoscience like "creation science" and the concoction of conspiracy theories like "climategate" and "liberal media bias" in order to undermine any reality-based consensus.

But mass willful delusion in the service of the status quo is something that this country won't be able to afford for long.  3 problems are converging on us at the same time -- global climate instability; the declining accessibility of cheap oil; and the fragility of our unsustainable food systems.  These challenges might be addressed, even solved, but without science and a clear-headed, reality-based understanding of things, we are looking like nothing more than the apocryphal lemmings scampering toward the cliff.