Saturday, 18 January 2014

Unweaving the Rainbow Again

What to write about... I think this time I'll go with something that I started composing on my phone while re-reading Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. This whole spiel has to do with something dear to me - SCIENCE! But as you may have guessed, this will have more to do with our appreciation of science and the poetry behind it.

At this point I'm halfway through re-reading this book, and it occurs to me once more that I really do live in a bubble. None of my friends would be the sort who would be ignorant of basic scientific concepts, and they know how science has transformed our society. And yet, it seems that in a lot of places people really do not understand or fully appreciate what it does for us, which is quite alarming. This was a concern expressed by Richard Dawkins in the late 90s when Unweaving the Rainbow was first published. I'm almost certain it hasn't improved by much since then.

The effects of our numbness to science is quite pronounced. The recent resurgence in the anti-vax movement would not even be newsworthy if it wasn't for the existence of a large number of people who are shockingly ignorant of basic biology and chemistry. You would be forgiven for thinking these people were just too lazy to research the matter more thoroughly. Along with the persistence of nonsense like astrology and homeopathy, I believe this is a clear sign that there is a disturbingly large amount of people that don't really give a damn.

Humans instinctively look for a sense of order and beauty, and pseudoscience has it in spades, which is probably why so many flock to it. Of course, it's also cheated it's way into accessibility and popularity by way of being so (suspiciously) simple and devoid of things that make you think too hard. It provides alluring concepts, presented as being easy to understand (unlike all of that confusing science stuff) and capable of simplifying your life. I totally understand that feeling and empathise with it. Who doesn't want to do away with some of the uncertainities we deal with every day? We want answers, and we want them right now.

The other driving force behind the tendency to be apathetic or hostile to science is that some people think it removes the mystery and beauty in the world. Centuries ago, scientists and poets whined about how Newton took away the wonder of the rainbow by explaining where the colours come from. I personally believe that to be a rather silly stance to take on the issue. Newton took away the mystery and replaced it with answers that provide a greater understanding of our world, and a sense of the complexity and majesty of our world which opens up avenues to even greater mysteries! I think this comic below explains it quite well:

Cectic #36

The lady is just a tad condescending to the man, but it illustrates my point well enough :P

We should never be content with a pretty display of magic and trickery. With the greater mental faculties that we have been blessed with, we should be striving for answers to the workings of these phenomena. I dare say it would be easy to tire of magic shows or rainbows if you were to view them often enough, but I think it would be highly unlikely for anyone to tire of the fruits of the scientific process and the way it allows you to explain these phenomena and gaze into the very heart of the universe. In this way, we can have our cake and eat it, because we gain an enhanced comprehension and awe in the world along with valuable knowledge to benefit our species.

Do we really need to cling to the poor facsimile of magic perpetrated by liars and charlatans when the world can offer the real deal? I wonder how many people would perhaps manage to turn away from astrology, ghosts and psychics if they opened their eyes to reality and just sought to understand a tiny fraction of it. Perhaps they would immediately understand how large the world is... It is so much bigger than what we can see or imagine. They would realise that their vices/fads are so provincial and much too constrained to explain reality.

Here's an example of the poetry that some of us see in the world:

The universe is in us.

Now, there are two main reasons that I can think of right now for this sorry state we are in:

Firstly, the strange attitude people have toward the sciences. At times, it is one of fear or confusion, and rare are the attempts to understand how it all works. Yes, at times it does seem very ivory-tower and esoteric, but it's all built upon relatively simple concepts, and those are based on even simpler theories. It is quite a deep pool of knowledge, but it is also logical and (hopefully) intuitive. The illusion of obscurity is struck down very easily once a bit of effort is taken to understand the basics. You don't have to be a scientist - you just need to be willing to learn something and find the joy and beauty in that knowledge. This world is all the poorer for the lack of reverence in our understanding of the universe.

Secondly, our education system isn't geared towards instilling a love of science. And our educators aren't always brilliant either. If you weren't blessed with parents who exposed you to the awesomeness of science from a young age, you would likely be turned off by the seeming stuffiness of the whole thing in high school.  This is especially the case if, as I like to put it, your future is being held hostage by standardised tests and report cards. It does have a tendency to put all the fun of learning in second place for all parties involved. It would take an amazingly dedicated teacher to make both happen at once, and do it successfully. There has to be a way to instil this wonder in all of us, whether we remove this barrier or not. As a passionate support of science and an amateur (but equally passionate) educator I really hope we find it ASAP.

Or perhaps our discoveries make people feel small and powerless. We know with almost full certainty that the world wasn't created for us, and that we are not being given special attention by a greater being. It's certainly a failing of the mind to think that we are unique/special, and one that frequently plagues us on a daily basis. It definitely served us well thus far, but now it is insufficient. In light of all of this information we can adjust our perspective and accept and appreciate that we are a part of something so much larger than anything we can imagine. Is that not akin to, if not greater than, the idea of god? It certainly moves in mysterious ways... :P

If we cultivated a healthy and encouraging attitude toward science among all people, we could be enjoying a greater bounty of knowledge and innovation just by giving our support. It's that simple. Not everyone has to be a scientist for humanity's greatest project to succeed and continue bearing fruit. There have been some notable periods of heightened scientific advancement in our history, driven by the proper approach to mystery and a desire for answers. Sadly, it would seem that we are currently in the midst of a very deep complacency, where we are all too ready to rest on our laurels. It will be the end of us if we continue on this path.

If Newton was swayed by his misguided critics, we might never have come this far. I might not have been able to write this wall of text here and put it out on the internet to share my thoughts. Sure, in practice no one really reads my stuff, but I'm sure you can appreciate its true impact in other contexts. I fear that so much potential, far greater than what Newton discovered, is still possibly being held back by that very sentiment today.

Today the largest source of this sentiment does not come from fellow scientists or poets, as it was in the past, but from the public (though I could be wrong). I'm talking about people who know just enough to dismiss ideas that will possibly prove invaluable decades from now, but not enough to fully comprehend the potential attached to these seemingly irrelevant mysteries. And these are people who vote for our representatives in government. These are people who (in some countries) are mostly enthralled by the provincial and antiquated magicks of religion, blind to the majesty of reality and science. Some endlessly yearn for the end times to come, and most are beholden to selfish impulses and lack a long-term perspective on everything.

The effects are now plain to see in America as their dominance in the sciences (and therefore everything else) begins to wane, and now more recently in Australia as our country and laws are strongly affected by a Catholic PM and a cabinet of highly religious MPs. History repeats itself over and over again in so many ways.

I suppose we can pray for "third time lucky". Maybe everyone will wake up and see what's happened to the US and Australia and renew the fight for science funding. It's a long shot, but I'll raise my glass to that...

So yeah... Wow that was a lot of writing there. That's a load off my mind! It's okay if you chose to digest that in chunks. I know I'd have some difficulty in reading all of that at once. But I hope that was an enjoyable read, at least.


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