Sunday, October 16, 2011

Just a Theory

This was going to be a letter to the editor back in late August, when Gov. Rick Perry was the new hotness in the GOP presidential field, and had just concluded his first sweep through the Granite State. I set it aside for later editing and polishing (and cutting down to 300 words or less), and BAM! six weeks pass. Rick Perry is down, Herman Cain is up, ever-flexible Romney just keeps chugging along. For the purposes of this letter it doesn't matter much: the entire Republican field, more or less, has demonstrated great disdain and naivete about science.

According to Rick Perry, global warming is an unproven theory created by scientists to secure grants, and evolution is "just a theory that is out there" with a bunch of gaps. In these statements, Rick Perry has shown not only a profound ignorance about science, but also his disqualifications to be President.

To say that a scientific theory is "just a theory" is as understated and naive as saying that the Presidency is “just a job”; as though such labels carry no weight. For a theory to be labeled as such, it needs to withstand considerable and continuous rigor. A theory is a comprehensive body of work. It is a self-consistent explanation of observed phenomena that allows us to both understand and predict how the world works. This is an important distinction from the oft-conflated term hypothesis, which is a tentative explanation that has yet to be thoroughly tested and verified. Theories are never fully proven: they become established over time by consistently standing up to evidence. The more places you can find that evidence, and the more places you can apply the theory, the better. Theories can be modified and extended without forfeiting their essentials. Theories needn't be gap-free to be accurate statements. Newton's Theory of Gravity, for instance, is not a wholly accurate theory for black holes, nor did he posit a mechanism for action at a distance. Nevertheless, Newton's gravity is excellent for predicting the motions of the planets or landing on the Mars.

If Governor Perry thinks that General Relativity is just a theory, I ask him to hand over his GPS. Try explaining to an earthquake victim, or the entire oil and gas industry for that matter, that Plate Tectonics is just a theory. If Quantum Mechanics is just a theory, well, please give up all your electronics. If evolution is of no use, please sit by the bedside of someone dying of MRSA.

Theories can be falsified: we have formulated, accepted, disproven, and discarded more theories than we have kept. But neither evolution nor global warming have been broadly disproven. That is not just my belief: that is what the overwhelming weight of the evidence and majority of the global scientific community says.

Much of our present strength rests on science. Our future as a nation and global society will be determined, in no small part, on science and technology. You don't get to pick and choose what science to believe, and what science to casually reject. Nor do you get to enjoy the benefits of past science while blithely ignoring the consequences of present science. If Governor Perry thinks so little about science, then he is simply not qualified to be President.

Anyone else wish we could see a science debate in 2012? I won't hold my breath.

No comments: