Monday, November 13, 2006

It's the end of the world as we know it

Not really, but this article from Catholic News Service provides a little bit of correction to those people that are always preaching the latest earth-death scenario: In scientific predictions, the only certainty is nothing is certain

Sometimes the great fun of science is knowing how small we are as human beings and how much bumbling around it takes to get to good, solid information. Think of the roller coaster ride that science has taken through the ages, all the theories that at one time were accepted by the world's scientists that ended up being at best in need of modification and at worst flat wrong. Usually they were the product of decent reasoning with a limited amount of knowledge or data. It makes religious look pretty even keel and sensible by comparison!

But, as the wise philosopher knows, its a good thing to know how little you know. We don't know the answers to many of life's scientific questions, and what we do know is subject to future revision. Still, the apple is tempting, and all too many politicians or scientists or other folks want to make absolute surety where there is none. From the article:

In an effort to remind science of the impact its predictions have on the public, the Vatican hosted a meeting on the limits and accuracy of predictability in science.

Dozens of scientists and several theologians from all over the world gathered for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Nov. 3-6 plenary assembly to discuss how far the eye of science can see into the future and when calculations might be considered certain, probable or highly unlikely.

On the one hand, most scientists want to give as much early warning as possible about impending dangers such as earthquakes or climate changes.

On the other hand, they know the earlier the forecast, the more likely the prediction can be wrong, and being wrong makes scientists run the risk of losing the public's trust.

I've always sort of wondered why environmentalists in particular seem tempted to this sin against science. In the past few decades we've see the infamous failures of the theories of global cooling or catastrophic overpopulation (and we've also seen the ill effects of pollution and reckless consumerism), both accepted by many of the world's scientists. And now it is global warming, and the suspicious claim that not only can we tell the world's future with certainly, but that we can narrow it down to precise years.

The scientists in the story talk about the conflict between making bad predictions and living with not making predictions at all. As for me, I don't know why it isn't enough to say, for instance, "the earth is warming, and there is a decent chance that we have something to do with it and that it's going to cause us some harm. We ought to begin to practice good stewardship and care for the earth the way God intended." It's always that there has to be a disaster looming, and not just any disaster, but the possible destruction of all human life...and soon!!! Maybe its our sinfulness or (particularly Western) sloth that causes the movers and shakers and thinkers to keep insisting that the next disaster is around the corner. That kind of thinking -- and those kind of stakes -- make for bad predictions.

That's why I generally avoid those charged conversations with others about how we suddenly know all there is to know about the gay gene or global warming or why (INSERT FOOD HERE) is bad/good or the surety of embryonic stem cell research. My favorite is astronomy. It's got all the grand theories and predictions -- and yes, the changes and discoveries of bad theory -- on a time scale that prevents apocalypse now and on a level that keeps the politicians and lobbyists uninterested.

So go read the story
-- it's a good balancing factor for us living at the end of the world as we know it.

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