This I Believe

Lyle - Houston, Texas
Entered on November 3, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: science

I believe in science; I know that this has become passé, but I believe, because a knowledge of science and how scientists work makes me a better World Citizen, a better American, a better husband, and a better father. In America today, we have come to believe that scientists are somehow… disconnected. The notion that scientists are out of touch is commonly expressed by placing them in an ivory tower. Purportedly, scientists are ensconced in their academic institutions and have no concept of what occurs in the real world. The reality is that it the rest of us, along with our political, social, and religious leaders who are ensconced in our ivory towers, missing the truth of the real world.

When I consider the concept of the ivory tower, I somewhat humorously think of Galileo, and speculate that those who sat in judgment of him created the idea. Galileo had the tumidity to support the Copernican Theories, that the earth circled the sun and not vice versa. I envision that the religious and political leaders who sanctioned, and ultimately banished Galileo, saw him as arrogant, in his tower above them, and foolishly deluded. Hence they acted without remorse, sure of their own interpretation of the world. Today we know just how wrong those leaders were, and just who resided in the ivory tower.

The reality is that scientists reside anywhere but in an ivory tower; their job is quite the opposite. They reside in the muck and the mud of the every-day world. That is because their job is to determine how the real world works, to observe, measure and then hypothesize about what they’ve seen. It is not their job to desire an outcome, but rather to report what is. The unfortunate side of the job is that all too often what they find is inconsistent with what the rest of us want to believe. It is at that time that we, and our political, social, and religious leaders place ourselves in an ivory tower, right along with Galileo’s critics.

How then does a belief in science help me to be a better person? Understanding how science works allows me to make better decisions in how I behave as a citizen, and in my interactions with my family. Let me give a concrete example. Recently in the news a scientific study was conducted in Iraq that concluded that somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 civilians had died. The General in charge of Iraq stated that this was an exaggeration, as did our President. It didn’t take much searching on the internet to find that the sampling method used in the study was called clustering and that it is widely accepted as highly accurate and has been used in many wars with great success. In other words, it is likely that the sampling was a true reflection of what is occurring.

Why then would a General and our President state so un-categorically that the numbers were incorrect? Well, another quick search shows that governments typically underestimate the number of civilian dead in wars by about ten fold. Since the number of dead given by the President and the General in charge of Iraq were between 30,000 and 50,000 then we can expect the real number of dead to be closer to 400,000, consistent with the scientific study.

What good is this information to me? I do not believe our President was lying, rather that Presidents, like the rest of us, tend to ignore science when it contradicts what they want or need to believe. Knowing this makes me look much more carefully at what politicians tell me, even when they tell me things I want to accept as true. Even more so, it makes me look carefully at things that I don’t want to trust; they just might be true.

Judging science, like all things, takes a heavy dose of common sense. It’s the smell test all over. Take tobacco; historically, there were two groups of scientists telling us very different things about tobacco. Nonetheless, the answer was clear. One group was hired by the tobacco industry, all the rest worked independently and came to the same conclusion, tobacco was addictive and dangerous.

Despite our current perceptions, science and scientists are not out to get us; they are a resource, that when combined with common sense, can help us make informed decisions; decisions that make us better human beings; a goal I think we can all agree with.