Should we believe science? Lessons from primary school

Science-FactSo should we believe science when it says there’s a link between global warming and the likelihood of bush fires? Our Prime Minister says ‘no’; our Environment Minister  says ‘no’; the kids in my primary school Ethics class say ‘yes’.

For the last few weeks my Ethics group has been discussing why we should trust science. Here, with some brutal paraphrasing, is the logic: Do your beliefs make a difference? [Yes they do.] Why should we trust science to resolve between differing beliefs and opinions? [Science is an objective approach which changes in response to observed facts and is tested against the available information.]

The thing about science is that it is not an end in itself. It is a process. A process of looking at facts, coming up with theories that fit the facts, and then testing those theories. It’s that last part in particular that makes the scientific process trustworthy and which makes the quality of ‘debate’ between politics and science both frustrating and depressing. Put simply you can trust scientific theories because they are tested to fit the available evidence; politicians’ opinions do not have to go through the same process.

The alternative to trusting science is simply to stick blindly to a belief; and that, almost by extension, leaves you only one option in a debate: Start attacking anyone who doesn’t believe the same way as you. We’ve seen it so often over the centuries and millennia – if those pesky facts get in the way of your beliefs, burn the person presenting the facts, sack her, or attack his legitimacy. These are the tactics of fear, not the tactics of a thinking, rational, scientific approach (although scientists have been known to go down this road too).

One of the hardest concepts to get across in a primary school context, and apparently in an adult political context, is that putting an opinion up against a scientific theory does not make a debate. You can put up an alternate theory based on the same evidence and create a debate. But just saying “It’s obvious to me that…” or “Everyone believes…” does not make a debate. The problem with debates that involve politicians and scientists is that the politicians seem to think that their opinion can be given the same weight as the scientists’ theory. It’s like putting a golfer on one side of a football field and a footy team on the other side and saying ‘look we have a football match’.

Where the politician’s opinion counts for more is in deciding how to respond to the facts. How do we spend our money. How do we prioritise our resources. Those are purely political decisions – and while it would be nice if they were based on fact, they don’t have to be. ‘Debating’ the science by ignoring the facts, attacking the person presenting it, or more adeptly playing the media is simply burying our collective heads in the sand by ignoring reality.

My primary school group gets all this (without, I should point out, the pointed political rant you, dear reader, are providing me with an audience for). But then primary school kids these days get a lot of things that this generation of politicians were never exposed to in school. Here’s another that’s particularly pertinent to today’s news: don’t ever quote Wikipedia as a reliable source when answering a question.

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