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By Jack Ganssle

Science Under Attack

Summary: The sun goes around the Earth. Or so some still believe.

According to http://www.gallup.com/poll/3742/new-poll-gauges-americans-general-knowledge-levels.aspx 18% of Americans think the sun revolves around the Earth. One doesn't have to spend much time reading the news to realize that a lot of other outlandish beliefs, often at odds will long-accepted and well-established science, run rampant in our society.

It's not just science: conspiracy theories abound. The government does this, and it's behind that! JFK was an alien and Castro partnered with the CIA to take him out! A handful of financiers rule the world from a special cabal convened on the space station!

I don't believe in conspiracies, particularly those involving the government. They give that organization far too much credibility, when it's really a bumbling entity that rarely manages to get anything done. The thought of the Feds keeping some outrageous secret secret for many decades is risible as it assumes they have a special kind of competence that we've never seen demonstrated before.

But attacks on science I find galling. The scientific method - admittedly grounded in only experiential success - has brought us so much for so long that I shudder when it's challenged.

Turns out that the cranks are convening a conference to, once again, convict Galileo: http://www.galileowaswrong.com/galileowaswrong/. Strangely, the site makes two claims: That Galileo was wrong (i.e., the that Sun goes around the Earth) and that the Earth is the center of the universe. What does "center" mean when the universe is a four dimensional object which best maps to the skin of a possibly-expanding balloon in 3-D?

We are engineers, not scientists, a distinction that's hardly subtle, yet one that the public generally doesn't understand. But our work is firmly grounded in the sciences, so we all undertook a rigorous study of physics, chemistry and more in college. I take affront when the sciences are under attack, when demagogues try to twist half a millennia of progress into something it's not.

Is the world going nuts? Is a groundswell of moronic mobs pushing back the Enlightenment?

I have doubts. If 18% don't understand heliocentrism, well, the good news is that 82% do, up from what was probably 0% in 1600. 50% of the population has an IQ under 100; some, like one close relative, scores much, much lower. If asked, she would give an answer to the pollsters, but that response would likely change from day to day.

Then there are the ringers, those who delight in alarming the pollsters. I remember a high school survey of teenaged sex practices, back when sex was a subject never addressed in school. We delighted in admitting to practices that would make Larry Flint pale. One must always be suspect of surveys. In many cases, including some I have seen on this site, I think the results are more of an impressionistic painting that gives only a generic sense of the data.

Of course there will always be people who passionately belief something that defies belief, science and experiment. In some cases this is the basis for great new ideas (for instance, those of Copernicus). Sometimes it's not. The media and Internet gives wide exposure to these mutterings of the wildest crank (one preacher whose image has dominated that new cycle lately comes to mind). It's easy to despair about these beliefs, but one doesn't have to look further than the keyboard to see how the fruits of a disciplined use of science has benefited us. Read history, and you'll see how in the recent past society's wholesale embrace of science has pushed out the demons of disease and so much that ails the human condition. For tens of millennia we've scratched out meager, short lives. Only recently has that changed, thanks to the explosion of understanding and knowledge.

And that is a very hopeful sign for the future.

Published September 13, 2010