Science & Tech

Little Questions, Big Issues

A “self-portrait” composite image of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2013. (NASA)
The scientific method is a brilliant tool that is not fitted to all tasks.

These are challenging times for climate scientists. There is widespread disagreement about the cause and meaning — and extent — of global warming: They thought the polar icecaps were melting, but now it seems that this may be within the bounds of normal variation. There is unexplained methane in the atmosphere, and no one is sure where it comes from — except that they are nearly certain that human industrial and agricultural activities are not the source. The changes may not be global at all but merely regional.

The above questions are all the more difficult to answer satisfactorily because of our limited ability to engage in direct observation and the relative scarcity of the relevant instrumentation . . . on Mars.

That there has been some global warming on Mars is a fact attested to by NASA, among others, though there remain many questions about it. Climate-change skeptics have pointed to the Martian phenomenon to argue that global warming observed here on Earth is not the product of human action but instead has some other cause, probably solar. Skeptics of the skeptics argue that if the sun were the relevant variable, then all of the planets would be warming, rather than just Mars and — perhaps unexpectedly — cold remote little Pluto. Skeptics of the skeptics of the skeptics have other views — and skeptics of their own.

The scientific method, and science more broadly, is the single most effective intellectual tool of our time. Its tremendous and well-deserved prestige makes it irresistible as a political and social cudgel, and it is consequently pressed into service to answer questions to which it is not fitted. For example, there is a reasonably widespread scientific consensus about the basic facts of global warming here on Earth, but even if that consensus were universal, it would not be sufficient to tell us which political and economic tradeoffs are suitable or desirable to pursue in response, because those are political and economic questions rather than scientific ones. The price you set on the convenience of the polar bear may not be the same as mine — and very likely will vary considerably based on whom you expect to be paying.

But of course almost everyone wants to be on the side of “science,” even — especially — when it comes to questions for which science has no answers and scant guidance. Global warming — a phenomenon that is, famously, global — is extraordinary complex, and the questions presented by it touch on the most fundamental aspects of human material life in every community on this planet. The dominant mode of discourse on this — to put a bunch of political preferences into a slop bucket labeled “Science Says” — is stupid and counterproductive.

It is also revealing: Many of the same people who believe that there are simple straightforward scientific answers to these complex questions retreat into an eccentric and daft metaphysics when presented with a relatively straightforward question such as, “Who Counts as a Woman?” What is put to death in an abortion is by any straightforward definition a living human organism — living tissue, not dead tissue; human tissue, not coconut tissue; an organism, not a tumor — and, presented with those facts, the partisans of “science” will retreat into a metaphysical discussion (“personhood” is the great cowardly intellectual dodge of our time) worthy of the medieval schoolmen.

The rhetorical stakes of science are high — higher than they need to be, in fact. Those Christians who have since the time of Charles Darwin treated the science of evolution as though it were a threat to the truth of their religion are fallen into an obvious and avoidable error (if God is the Author of all reality but not bound by the facts of the natural world, then accurate observations about that world and its processes can do no violence to religious truth, to the modest extent that they intersect with the issue at all) as indeed have the evangelical atheists who believe that their discomfiture of certain Christians is of anything more than purely rhetorical consequence. The end result of that has been an almost uniquely unenlightening discourse in which a selection of lawyers and dentists rallying under the banner of “intelligent design” have it out with retired children’s-television hosts and other equally impressive scientific figures — for the benefit of an audience of journalists, activists, and ax-grinders with no intellectual preparation for judging the issues in question.

The recent discovery of methane emissions on Mars is a fascinating development, not least because of the possibility that the methane could — here Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will wish to avert her eyes — be of biological origin. But of course no self-respecting scientist is ready to make broad and definitive pronunciations on that question, much less on tangential issues falling under the general heading of “What It All Means.” That would be foolish.

And — more relevant than mere foolishness — there is no political or social juice to be had from doing so. To Representative Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk we are indebted for their tireless repeated demonstrations of the fact that global warming is not mainly a scientific question at all, but an issue that is bound up in ideology and sentimentality, in attitudes toward everything from capitalism to meat-eating to the aesthetics of the Chevrolet Suburban.

From time to time, I read academic articles on evolution. I cannot recall any of them ever having addressed the existence of God. They are mostly focused on considerably smaller and more discrete questions, such as the expression of this-or-that gene in this-or-that variety of cricket. The interesting stuff — and most of the worthwhile stuff — is almost always like that: specific, detailed, particular. Gregor Mendel, who laid the foundations for modern genetics while studying the peas in his garden, was also an Augustinian abbot, presumably concerned with some of life’s other very large (and eternal) questions. He derived something profound from his peas because he took the thing itself, individually, and asked: “How does this work?” Not the universe, not the final truth of all human affairs, the fate of Western civilization, the means of production as such, but this thing.

One kind of wisdom consists in being able to distinguish between the very different categories of inquiry represented there, in the pea patch, or on Mars.

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