Friday, August 14, 2009
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum with the provocative title, "Must science declare a holy war on religion?" They contrast the "in your face"
style of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, to the strategy of the National Center for Science Education, which simply focuses on getting the facts right in
public science education. I love them both. Mooney and Kirschenbaum,
have just published, "Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future," (Basic Books). They take C.P. Snow's admonition that "we require a common culture in which science is an
essential component," one step further. "Science itself," they conclude, "must become the common culture." Good idea, how do we get there?
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) gave us a demonstration in Kitzmiller v. the Dover Area School District, December 20, 2005. Scientists tend to be leery of courts; they don't think the way we
do. But beneath the wigs and doctoral hoods, we have some important things in common: we both seek the truth, and we both believe the truth can only be determined from the evidence. In Kitzmiller, science
was pitted against revelation.
It was a mismatch. There are countless examples of the public being
defrauded by pseudoscience. We should view these cases as an opportunity.
It would help the public to understand the value of science in their lives, even if we suffer an occasional bruise in the process. In the book,
Superstition: Belief In the Age of Science, I concluded that, "science is the only way of knowing." The reviewer for Publisher's Weekly found that offensive.
The courts are not interested in intervening in disputes between scientists, for which we should be profoundly grateful. When there is such a dispute, as in global warming, it should be a clear message to
both sides that better evidence is needed. Without it, the debate tends to become somewhat religious. Meanwhile, some precautionary measures are in order.
In my item about the Kepler telescope last week, I said "we will never
travel to another star." Several readers protested. As one said, "never
is a long time." It's also a long trip. I invite those who thought my comment should have been qualified to carry out a calculation my class of freshman physics majors does every year. Choose the nearest
star; decide how long you're willing to travel, how fast you will need to go to get there in that time, what you will have to take with you, and how many should be in the crew. Make it a one-way suicide
mission if you wish. As a final step, calculate the kinetic energy that must be imparted to the spaceship to get you there in that time (one half the mass times the velocity squared.) I suggest you stay
away from the relativistic limit; it complicates the calculation and won't help you anyway. The good news is that you will then sleep secure in the knowledge that UFOs from elsewhere in the galaxy are not
subjecting humans to hideous experiments.