Common Sense Canadian
 

The Importance of Scientific Freedom

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Posted February 15, 2012 by Ray Grigg in Uncategorized
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Because science illuminates almost every environmental issue on our planet, it is crucial that this discipline of exploration and understanding be permitted the freedom to follow its enlightening course, unfettered by interference from politics, government, ideology or vested interests. Indeed, as Timothy Ferris explains in his book, The Science of Liberty, this freedom is more than just an environmental matter (New Scientist, Feb. 6/10).

Ferris’s premise is that our modern liberal democracies were largely created by the freedom of scientific inquiry, a process which began hesitantly in the Renaissance and then exploded during the 17th and 18th centuries. To achieve these gains, science has always struggled against the belief and dogma of its time – recall the overt persecution to suppress the theories of Copernicus, Galileo and others as the empirical evidence they gathered collided with religious culture of the day. As science grew in credibility and influence, the liberties earned by its unfettered pursuit of knowledge raised respect for individual rights, free speech and personal autonomy.

Science and society are now so inextricably linked that government policies must be founded on substantial and relevant evidence if they are to be both credible and legitimate. Without the rational weight and authority of science, laws and regulations revert to the medieval frailties of belief and dogma.

History once allowed for mistakes. Foolish and large as they were, their consequences were relatively localized to tribes, villages and valleys, or later, in the age of colonization, to continents such as Europe or the Americas. But a global world amplifies the impact of mistakes. The changes we now introduce with our behaviour are planetary. The process we now use for making decisions, therefore, must be more comprehensive and detailed, disciplined and thoughtful, rigorous and rational. Governing without due regard to science and its conclusions is no longer an option.

Science denied or science muzzled is a threat to entire political and economic systems, even to the viability of whole societies. Policies that don’t respect scientific processes and the weight of its information revert to a primitivism that is guided by the forces of impulse, power, personality and superstition. They have no substantial credibility.

In today’s world, people and governments that do not give high regard to the scientific method, together with the objective thinking that arises from it, risk degeneration and collapse. Scientific reason doesn’t guarantee intelligent decisions and policy, but it is a far better option than the alternative – note North Korea, most Arab countries, and the United States with its rise of religious conservatives. “Whenever the people are well-informed,” observed Thomas Jefferson in 1789, “they can be trusted with their own government.” Knowledge, therefore, is power. Opinion that is unfounded in evidence is dangerous and hostile to civilizations, not to mention the serious environmental challenges facing our planet.

We live in curious times. We wouldn’t fly in an plane that was designed without the strict laws of aerodynamic science, nor would we take medicine that pharmacological science had not deemed to be safe and effective. Yet, when environmental science measures mounting levels of globally destructive greenhouse gas emissions, acidifying oceans, unprecedented species loss and a plethora of other unfolding threats, these pronouncements are mostly met with shrugs of collective incredibility, as if the science were vapid speculation. This response is curious given that we live in a world saturated with countless demonstrations of science’s validity.

Nature responds to the same physical realities measured and described by science. Indeed, science is the mirror of nature, and the discipline of theorizing and experimenting is the process of polishing and examining that mirror. Nature is not influenced by hoping or wanting. It is unmoved by opinion. It doesn’t care about our economic or cultural aspirations. If we make mistakes or miscalculate, it responds with an impersonal indifference that will offend those who think it is a caring friend.

Science is our connection to nature’s character. We either use our reasoned intelligence to utilize its potential or we fall victim to its impassive power. The equation is that simple. The rules are clear and the effect can be liberating if we measure and act carefully. If we do not, we will meet confusion, disorder and trauma.

In our short history as humans, we have now reached a crossroads where we must choose science over superstition, concern over indifference, volition over passivity, and compliance over wilfulness. As we initiate unprecedented structural environmental changes in the world around us, waffling and procrastinating are fatal mistakes. For those who doubt, just listen to the storms rage, watch the waters rise, feel the heat intensify, notice ecologies alter and species disappear into extinction. These changes are not imagined; science confirms this trend as solid evidence. This is not nature’s vengeance; it is what we have incited nature to do.

If we don’t want nature’s abuse, then we must learn its language, study its ways, and comply with its character. And we can do this best by freeing science from political ideology, personal prejudices, power struggles, religious beliefs and economic aspirations. Science has brought us immeasurable benefits since its inception just a few brief centuries ago. If we can free it to find a harmonious balance with natures’s imperatives, it can carry us forward to wonderful possibilities.


About the Author

Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on commonsensecanadian.ca as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

5 Comments


  1.  
    lynnescape

    Wouldn’t it be great if the scientists could find an M-class planet that we could send all of the people who don’t give a rat’s ass about the environment to? Imagine the planet without them.




  2.  
    Carl Hunt

    I agree that “Science denied or science muzzled is a threat” but the greatest threat is science distorted. Government and industry use sophiscated public relations tools developed by science to warp the integrity and message of traditional scientific methods. In addition to limiting the rights of ‘corporate persons’, our society needs to demand integrity from public relations and economists that preach consumerism, perpetual growth and ignore environmental costs.




  3.  
    KWD

    Scientific reason is a tool; it’s incapable of guaranteeing decisions, intelligent or otherwise. It’s a tool that has brought many benefits but it has also brought just as many dangers. It’s a double-edged sword; think Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Chernobyl, thalidomide, the internal combustion engine.

    Humanities’ problems are not the result of a failure to heed science and the scientific method, far from it.

    There are many reasons and factors that have brought us to the verge global collapse but there are a few that are glaringly obvious. The one that towers above the rest is the concept of corporate personhood. As long as individual well-being is subservient to corporate well-being, the freedom of scientific enquiry and liberal democracies will be the stuff of wishful thinking.




  4.  
    ron wilton

    This brings to mind the story of the Chinese peasant who built a hot air balloon and rose high above the walls of the city.

    He quickly came back down and rushed to the Emperor to tell him of the wonderful expanse and beauty far beyond the city walls.

    The Emperor asked if he had told anyone else of these wonderments.

    The peasant said he did not as he wanted to tell the Emperor first.

    Whereupon the Emperor then drew his sword and slew the peasant.




  5.  
    Gloria

    Scientists in Canada are not permitted to publish their papers, everything has to go through Harper first. Environment Canada has had, their budget slashed to the bare bones. There are not, any adverse scientific papers on the tar sands allowed.

    It is in Harper’s best interests, to keep the citizens in the dark, to keep us uninformed. I think this is why, Harper wants to control the internet. He hates his dastardly deeds, being exposed to the public. Being that, Harper already controls the media, to be his propaganda machine. When he controls the internet. He then controls all means of information, flowing to the public. Harper may have got rid of our Canadian scientists. However, there are scientists in other country’s, that keep us informed. There too, is the net we can surf for information.

    Damned right, Harper wants to control the inter-net. He absolutely hates bloggers, who tell the people the truth.





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