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The problem with science is…

…that we’re all human, and as such, we all have a split personality. On the one hand we are more or less hard wired for rational thought [work with me here please!], but at the same time we have the capacity to live quite happily with paradox. For example, I consider myself to be a very logical person, so I refuse to accept the idea of pre-destination, yet when things go my way I get this warm feeling that ‘fate’ is being kind to me. If a paradox becomes too painful I  do something about it, eventually, but most of the time I just live with it.

“Get to the point!” I hear you say.

“Yes, Master,” I reply as I tug my forelock.

So the fact that we can live with paradox tends to explain things like the rise of creationism. After all, you don’t see creationists giving up their cars, dishwashers, huge tv’s and all the other creature comforts that rely on the science they deny, do you? No, of course not. If asked they will say that they only deny evolution, which would be fine if evolution relied only on Darwin’s observations. The truth though, is that evolution is backed up by all sorts of other scientific disciplines, including the discipline of geology which gives us the petroleum that fuels our technology.

And therein lies another human fact : we are ignorant. We know how to use a light switch or an iPad but 99.999999% of us have no idea how either one works, or is produced. The same ignorance extends to the sciences. Notice that plural? It’s important because until fairly recently there were two types of science – pure and applied.

Back in the day, Universities used to be funded by governments and philanthropists so scientists could be free to explore new ideas just for the hell of it. From this ‘pure’ research, other scientists would come up with clever ways to put the discoveries to use. This was the ‘applied’ part of the equation. Industries then turned these discoveries into manufactured goods and services for consumers, i.e. us.

If we fast forward to the present day, however, we find that a third branch of science has been added to the family. I call this one ‘commercial’ science. Large companies with lots of money fund research and development directly. The scientists who work for these companies are paid well to do the kind of research that will benefit the company. Successes are turned into patented, goldmines. Clinical trials that fail are quietly swept under the carpet. This is not how pure and applied science is meant to work but hey, who wants to lose their job, get blacklisted and face possible litigation as a whistle-blower?

So from the heyday of the first man on the moon, we [the general public] have gradually moved to an era in which we no longer trust science quite the way we used to. We still cling to the technology, but we’re starting to feel uneasy about the juggernaut that’s bearing down on us.

The two great controversies of the present era – genetically modified food and climate change – are prime examples of our love-hate relationship with science. We don’t know who to trust any more because we don’t understand how the system works. And so we allow creationism equal time with evolution. And because we don’t understand how the politics of science work, we end up distrusting both the science that gave us genetically modified food, and the science that’s telling us our lives depend on doing something about climate change before it’s too late. As with government politics, scientific issues are now surrounded by so much spin and counter spin that no-one knows which way is up.

My compass in these murky waters is the old saying ‘follow the money’. On that basis I reject genetically modified food because it benefits huge multinational companies like Monsanto, and I accept the science of climate change because it definitely does not benefit huge, multinational corporations who might have to clean up their act.

I know this is a very unscientific way of making choices, but it works for me. Do you agree? Disagree vehemently? Have a completely different take altogether? You know I love a good debate and the weekend is looming, so let’s get this discussion started!

cheers

Meeks


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