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August 03, 2011

The Price of Scientific Ignorance and Denial

Even though our modern world is becoming more dependent on science and scientific technology with each passing day, modern humans continue to exhibit an amazing degree of scientific ignorance. For example, a Gallup poll conducted in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth in 2009 revealed that only 40% of Americans believe in Evolution, the scientific theory that has arguably been the most useful at integrating what we now know about the inorganic universe we exist in and the still-mysterious life process we are so clearly a part of. Beyond those basic considerations, Darwin’s intuition was independently verified by the work of Alfred Russel Wallace, another British naturalist working in South America who had arrived at nearly identical conclusions. Finally, it has been abundantly supported by the work of multiple others. For example, Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk whose work provided a remarkable prescient theoretical structure for modern Genetics, and Albert Wegener whose intuition about continental drift was scoffed at by contemporaries, but ultimately became the basis of Plate tectonics theory which is now the cornerstone of modern Earth Sciences.

At the center of any discussion of science is the role of “theory” in arriving at “truth.” Briefly stated, a theory can be thought of as a coherent explanation linking a series of observations to each other and also fitting in with the concept of uniformitarianism as originally expressed by James Hutton, widely acknowledged to be the father of modern Geology.

If one looks at the array of sciences and scientists mentioned above, one must be struck by their temporal relationships to each other; all were born within the short span of a few hundred years; some knew each other personally, several others corresponded, and all except Darwin and Mendel left behind references to each others' work. In other words, we have abundant evidence of their mutual influence. Thus many of our most important scientific theories took root during a relatively brief interval in European history between the early Eighteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

If we compare the collegial atmosphere that existed then to the one that exists today, we are struck by their differences; we are now literally swimming in a sea of scientific and technical information that grows larger and deeper by the minute. Without modern electronic communication devices and search engines, sorting it out would be nearly impossible; so much so that without access to the fastest devices for searching and gathering current knowledge in a plethora of technical fields, one would risk missing key insights while simultaneously being exposed to numerous false trails running a gamut from honest mistakes to deliberate hoaxes.

If we turn to government for help, we find that it has long since fallen prey to the blandishments of wealth and power American Democracy was once once intended to save us from. Ironically, that process began as we were becoming independent of Britain, the Industrial Revolution was just getting underway, and the Enlightenment was flourishing; especially in England.

Equally ironically, that was also when an Anglican churchman named Thomas Malthus was publishing a series of papers that would make him famous.

Although based more on intuition than on careful observation and not amenable to experimentation, Malthus' concern has proven both durable and influential. One of the more disquieting aspects of modern thought is that despite the historic Twentieth Century explosion in human population, there is so little modern discussion of our numbers or Malthusian theory.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at August 3, 2011 04:46 PM