Posted by: Green Knight | October 26, 2012

Science as an Evolutionary Process

Sitting here past midnight, thinking about my teaching days, and about all these idiots that have been saying for decades now that we shouldn’t do anything about climate change until every scientist on the planet agrees on it, I came up with a lesson. Science is an asymptotic process, as I’ve said before; there is never any “certainty,” there are just better answers all the time.

So, picture me at the head of a crowded classroom. I ask for a victim (sorry, volunteer). I was never in the military, but I understand that they get volunteers by everybody else taking one step back when asked, and the lone dumbass who didn’t know to do so gets to be the lovely assistant in the experiment. At any rate, I get that person to come up front, and ask the usual questions. “Are you brave?” I probably get a nod on that one, since it’s a hazmat class, and everybody wants to look tough. “Do you have health insurance?”  (I stole that one from Dan Keenan, a great trainer in Oakland, but that’s when they start getting nervous.)

I say, “all you have to do is hold your hand out at arm’s length, palm down, until I say not to.” Well, that sounds easy, so the volunteer does so. I first say, “focus on what you feel with your hand, with all your senses. What do you feel?” Normally they won’t feel anything. In the Scouts, if you wanted to feel which way the wind was blowing, if it was barely active, you sucked your little finger and stuck it in the air to see which side felt colder…very important in a hazmat situation when you don’t want toxins blowing in your direction. But it’s a nice comfy classroom, so the student feels nothing. I ask if he or she feels the force of gravity trying to tug the hand down. “Oh, uh, yeah,” would be the response. People forget to pay attention to phenomena.

Then I dig in the pocket of my lab coat and pull out a cigarette lighter, fire it up, and hold it under the volunteer’s hand. What do you think the reaction would be? Is any rational being going to leave that hand in place, despite my instructions? Of course not! That’s when I tell the class, “see, you just saw some science.” That person removed the hand from something already known to cause burns. So I get my pen ready for the marking board, and ask, HOW did that volunteer know to get away from that lighter? What are the characteristics of it that would make someone snatch their hand away? I’ll bet ya 9 times out of 10 that people will say “LIGHT” before they say “heat,” because they see the one before they feel the other. (Now I’m wondering if any of this is due to my verbal exchange with G. Gordon Liddy in 1987…)

Now, though, for the second part of the experiment. If the volunteer ran away, I get another victim. I say, “imagine you’re a caveman and you’ve never seen fire before, until I just cooked your hand. That’s all you know about it so far.” Then I reach into another voluminous pocket and extract one of those hippie glow-sticks that light up in green when you crack them, and hold it up to the caveman. The caveman shrinks back in terror, because all he knows SO FAR is that bright lights cause pain. But I kindly demonstrate that it isn’t hazardous by holding it, sticking it in my ear, whatever. Caveman is confused but amazed and interested at this point, if I’m being a decent instructor.

That’s the evolutionary aspect of science, folks. Not all forms of light are hazardous. At this point, if I were in a classroom, I’d turn off the lights and ask the class if they felt any better. Then turn ’em back on and ask if anyone was in pain. The caveman’s science wasn’t WRONG, it was just INCOMPLETE. Science will NEVER be complete, because we’re always learning new things. Are bright lights always going to burn you? No, but they could fry your retinae. Are we better off NOT investigating stuff? I imagine you can guess MY answer. Are we better off ignoring the human impact on the environment because not every single scientist on the planet agrees on everything, only like 99% of them? Go figure, I’ll leave that to you. Oh, by the way, please VOTE.

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