A Cultural Backlash

There seems to be a cultural backlash against science. Some of my liberal friends blame science for the evils of neonicotinoids, GMOs, and vaccines. They are wrong, of course. My conservative friends decry science for promoting Darwinism, the Earth’s real age, and critical reasoning. They are wrong, too. So often, it seems, rational thought is trashed in favour of emotion, tradition, or politically motivated goals.

However, it also seems that science is slowly winning the war. Today, there are very few troglodytes advocating for a flat Earth occupying the centre of the universe, even though that had been the religious status quo for over a thousand years. (Although they still exist, as attested in the painful video to your left.) Hard to believe, but as recently as the 1800s, an Irish intellectual named Richard Kirwan believed that all matter consists of just the basic Aristotelian elements.  Fire, said Kirwan, is an element liberated from matter when it’s burnt. He spent years trying to prove the idea, but died as the last scientific phlogistonian on Earth. Aristotle’s basic elements of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water were replaced by about 100 elemental elements. Sometimes our brains stubbornly resist the wooing of science, but critical examination of nature relentlessly chips away at the thinning veneer of traditional thought.

Science is not always “right”. But that’s the wonderful thing about it, isn’t it? Put a new idea out on the block (along with your neck) and you have the chance to have it cut off or a chance to fly into Oslo to give an acceptance speech. Science is not static. It is alive and constantly changing. Yesterday’s truth about stationary continents became today’s truth about plate tectonics. And one day something new may replace the way that we imagine tectonics works.

Although there is a cultural backlash against science, it might not be so different from the general tendency to resist change of any sort. A staid vested interest group sees little advantage in rejecting the world they built and maintained, even if they see the walls of their towers crumbling. It takes a brave and bright soul to rebel against the frozen inherited truths of former generations.

One scientist who understands this very well is Jason Morgan. It was Morgan who first explained the rigid plates of plate tectonics and described them mathematically by drawing upon Euler’s theorem of rotation of surface fragments upon a sphere. In the 1960s, when his papers were being hailed as the harbinger of the new paradigm, Morgan became world-renowned for his mathematical description of plate motion. A colleague once asked Morgan what he could possibly do about plate tectonics to make an even greater name for himself. “I don’t know. Prove it wrong, I guess.”

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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