Australia’s outgoing Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, recently gave some parting advice to the scientific community:
“We know there are those who want only to be told what they want to hear. When they aren’t, they simply denigrate and disparage and dream up conspiracies. I can only say to scientists: don’t flinch. Do your work; do it according to the trusted methods of ethical science and talk regularly to the public … their support, and the weight and quality of evidence, must always trump make-believe.”
Sadly, history tells us that science will, in fact, not always trump make-believe. After a visit to the Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam the Geek in Sydney family has become mildly obsessed with understanding how a culture so rich in scientific advances, and in fact responsible for many innovations the West would later claim as its own, could so completely lose its way.
Fundamentally, it comes down to a triumph of religious thinking over scientific thought. It was thinking which led, first, to belief being put on a par with scientific thought and then being elevated above it. That’s a process which it is possible to see frightening echoes of today in the process of ‘debate’ on climate change where conspiracy theories are given equal credence to the weight of actual scientific evidence.
The decline of scientific thinking in Central Asia is mapped out clearly in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, by S Frederick Starr. This review from Actuarial Eye nicely sums up the issue as it relates to today:
While today’s society certainly seems far more open to scientific inquiry than that more closed, mystic approach to life that Ghazali advocated, we can learn from the Central Asian experience nonetheless. For five centuries, the Central Asian region was the most sophisticated scientific and intellectual region in the world. After five centuries, the locals could probably be forgiven for thinking that that was the natural order of things. But gradually, scientists became less important than artists and mystics; society stopped seeing the value of the pursuit of new knowledge and scientific enquiry. And interpretations of the predominant religion became more important than conclusions arising from scientific method.
I’d love to believe that Professor Chubb is correct and that the trusted methods of ethical science will always trump make-believe. But that in itself would be putting belief on a par with the evidence: History clearly tells us that this isn’t so.
People do want to be told what they want to hear, they want simplistic answers to complex problems, they want to be reassured rather than challenged. For all those reasons, and because we can see what has happened in the past, it is essential that scientists do more than simply present the facts – it’s crucial that society at large, and the younger generation in particular, are educated and reminded about what the scientific process really means and how it works. We must fight the idea that any belief, whether religious or otherwise, is on a par with scientific thinking. You don’t get a much better depiction of the consequences of failure than to look at Central Asia today.