This is the fourth in a series of essays concerning our collective future. The goal is to bring forth some of the main issues humanity faces today, as we move forward to uncertain times. In an effort to be as thorough as possible, we will consider two kinds of threats: those due to natural disasters and those that are man-made. The idea is to expose some of the dangers and possible mechanisms that have been proposed to deal with these issues. My intention is not to offer a detailed analysis for each threat — but to invite reflection and, hopefully, action.
The title pitches science versus religion, reflecting the widespread notion that the two are at war.
Although levels of this perception vary widely according to how extreme views are on both ends, to most people devoted to a religious creed, science plays a paradoxical role: On the one hand, technological advances such as in digital gadgets and medical cures are welcomed and eagerly awaited; on the other, explanations of the natural world based on rational, God-free, arguments are frowned upon or simply rejected upfront as untenable.
There is deep disconnect between how science pictures reality and how this picture is translated into the technological applications that frame modern life. People love their awesome GPS and car computers, but most don't care to know that they work with high precision because they rely upon the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics — the same theories that say the universe emerged 13.8 billion years ago in the so-called Big Bang event, and that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old and not a mere few thousands.
Even if the number of Young-Earth creationists in the U.S. is not large, and even if people don't really need to know how technological gadgets work to use and enjoy them, the disconnect itself is dangerous and has serious social and political repercussions. In particular, it is this same disconnect that frames people's position with respect to scientific issues of our times, from energy and water use to climate change. This disconnect is easily manipulated by interest groups to dismiss scientific results with the same assuredness that extreme religious views dismiss them. (Note that poll results are sensitive to how the questions are asked. A fair analysis puts the number of Young-Earth believers in the U.S. at around 11 percent, plus another quarter favoring creationism but not necessarily a young Earth.) As 13.8 co-blogger Adam Frank put it: "People who benefit from science everyday somehow manage to find a place in their heads to simultaneously reject it. Whether its climate or vaccines, the same contradiction between words and action arises."
At some point in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton smiled and said, "I believe in science." The issue is at the heart of this year's campaign. The divide between the two parties on this issue has never been this wide, as Coral Davenport reported in The New York Times on Monday. While Clinton makes clear the need to face the issue head-on, Donald Trump, Davenport writes, "has gone further than any other Republican presidential nominee in opposing climate change policy. He often mocks the established science of human-caused climate change and dismisses it as a hoax. The Republican platform calls climate change policy 'the triumph of extremism over common sense.'" Hoax? Why?
The alarming point here is that science has taken us to where we are in 400 years precisely because common sense can be deeply misleading. For example, for over 2,500 years, people were convinced that the Earth was the center of the cosmos and that everything rotated around it. Isn't this the "obvious" way to describe what we see happening? Doesn't it look like the Earth stands still and the sun goes around it? That's the common sense description of the cosmos, a description that is completely wrong. Science has shown over and over again that we should not base decisions about the natural world on "common sense."
Likewise, people that criticize climate change based on common sense would argue that they don't really see it happening. The naïve expectation is searing heat waves, sinking coast towns, catastrophic winter storms, apocalyptic tornadoes and hurricanes — a doomsday scenario that would justify a global call for action. Melting glaciers, oceans gently rising, a slight increase in the global temperature and somewhat erratic weather all seem unimportant in comparison. Unfortunately, when it comes to convincing, mostly people require dramatic evidence. Gradual, data-based arguments are harder to swallow, especially if they require inconvenient sacrifices and changes. And can affect the corporate bottom line.
Science is not infallible. It is a narrative built upon what we can observe and test of the natural world. However, its great strength is that it is self-correcting: Science changes and improves all the time due to the concerted effort of thousands of scientists working to shake off common-sense notions that often obstruct what's at the heart of the matter. When it comes to climate change, the overwhelming consensus among scientists that it is happening and that it is caused mostly by human action is the product of decades of increased-accuracy results and data analyses that are the trademark of science.
To deny climate change is to deny science altogether. Might as well dispose of your GPS and car computer and stop using radiation therapy or MRIs. Whomever follows this path is choosing to live in the same anti-science world of extreme religious groups, a worldview that has a complete disregard for facts and for the environment we all depend on.
It frankly puzzles me that some millennials — the age group that will mostly deal with the consequences of climate change in two or three decades — could embrace such views. When science gets pitched against religion, everyone loses. Science is not out there to kill people's faiths, even if some prominent scientists make such pronouncements from time to time. Science is out there to make sense of the world we live in. This it does better than any other human endeavor. To close your eyes and cover your ears in denial of what scientists are saying, to base scientific opinions on common sense, only leads to error. And, unfortunately, often to disaster.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the 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