Ponderings on SCIENCE

There are a lot of things going into this blog post, I’m afraid. I have a very simple point, but the set up is long, so to avoid tripping myself  up and getting us all confused, I’m going to put them down in list format. Without further adieu, this is a list of Things I Am Pondering:

1. A few auguster personages than I (Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, for one) have responded to  a fairly ugly article written in The Week entitled Where are the honest atheists? I know – cue the groaning. The relevant bit I am pondering is this:

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

If I were to respond to this utterly banal strawman of my atheistic views what I might say is this:

If atheism is true, than we are part of the universe rather than separated from it, no one pulls and pushes us like puppets, the fact that we exist is amazing and improbable, we are part of an amazingly complex tapestry of life that streches back over billions of years, we live on in all the things we have done while we lived, our lives and our loves have exactly as much meaning as we choose, and creating a better society that promotes happiness and health and prevents suffering is up to us.

2. Our meeting topic this week is “Controversial Science”. In our poll we gave two good examples of what we mean by “controversial”; stem cell research and cloning. But I’m pondering the difference between controversy in society and controversy in science, and how often those two are conflated. And every time I hear someone call something like Evolution “controversial” I want to pull an Inigo Montoya and tell them that I don’t think that word means what they think it means.

3. I’m taking a lot of courses on evolution (evolutionary ecology, bioinformatics, etc) and it’s all a) harder than I expected it to be and b) extremely interesting. It’s amazing how much proof we can find for evolution – how quickly traits change, how easily small genetic changes can lead to speciation, and how rich the tapestry of evidence we’ve built is. But at the same time – this is so grand, so broad, so much time. It’s amazing how far we’ve come, but there are so many things we just can’t know for sure – information that is lost to time – and it’s frustrating because we will never be able to say “Aha! Now we have all the answers!” And that seems to be the bar of evidence that is accepted – creationists point to this fossil gap and that mystery and claim they’ve disproved evolution.

4. I was talking the other day about my attitudes towards science and math in high school, and how negative they were. And the more I think about it the more I want a time machine so I can go back in time and shake myself. Science is boring and math is pointless?? Are you insane? Are you high? Can’t you see how interesting and amazing and important this is?

5. I’ve been randomly reading up on various topics relating to women’s suffrage and I wikiwandered my way onto a page that absolutely horrified me. I shit you not: The Alberta Eugenics Board, which served an act that was repealed in 1972. This, my friends, is what we might call A Very Grievous Misuse of Science for Horrific and Immoral Purposes. Let me be clear though; this is not good science put to bad purposes, this is bad science, put to worse purpose.

6. For motivation purposes I have broken out the Symphony of Science playlist. This song perfectly encapsulates my current feelings about science, and my general wonder at the universe:

The list of things turned out rather long and complex. I hope you’re not more confused than I am, but here’s the point of this post;

Science is hard to do, and complex to understand, and it involves uncertainty, and never, ever, ever coddles you and tells you only what you want to hear (if you think that it does, you might want to consider that you’re Doing It Wrong). It’s a process, a tool, a story, and a work of art, and it is my firm belief that the progression of our knowledge of the universe around us is one of the most fundamentally important endeavors of humanity. And it drives me up a tree when it is dismissed, and belittled, and its terms and language are co-opted and misused to justify immoral actions and close minds.

I’m not sure what I can do to stop the world from regularly driving me mental, but I want to believe that if we can only help people to understand what they miss out on when they close their minds they might make me mental less often. And it might make articles as dumb as the one I mentioned up top less annoyingly frequent. So, my secular people, I ask you; let’s not talk just about about the controversy. Let’s ask the fundamental question; how can the secular community help society to stop, take a deep breath, and think?


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