The Importance of Scientific Freedom
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.