Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Do We Expect Too Much From Science?

A traumatic even occurred in Milwaukee in the mid-90s. People started to get sick, with some of them dying. Before it was over, about 400,000 people took ill, with about a hundred of them dying. The dead were inevitably people with compromised immune systems. With such a widespread problem, many suspected the water supply. Because Milwaukee’s water supply is used to make a good portion of the beer produced in the United States, something had to be done fast to prevent this sickness from spreading beyond Milwaukee.
I like these medical detective stories because they show science at its best, with its nose to the grindstone dealing with real facts in the real world. The root of the word science is reality, and science should first, deal with reality, and second, leave questions that don’t have anything to do with reality alone. However, we tend to think that because science deals with reality, it should be able to solve all the problem of realty, and in the Milwaukee case, even solve them before they arise.
The first thing scientists did in the Milwaukee case was to plot the locations where people became ill. It turned out that the vast majority of victims was clustered around an area served by one water processing plant. The water was immediately tested for any impurities, and found to meet the EPA’s clean water guidelines. I should point out that having a national standard setting for safety levels is important. Some of the standard setters are associations of scientists, others government scientists such as those employed by EPA. It’s only by having one location where all the technical information can be funneled, evaluated and promulgated that we can expect the process of science, which is to gather and compare observations, to be accomplished.
The next step was to start to examine the material from the patients' intestines. Again, nothing showed up on the slides. The scientists were almost certain by this time that they were dealing with a parasite because of the nature of people’s illnesses, but parasites from sick patients normally show up as active on slides. After a period of frustration, one scientist remembered an axiom she had learned in school, that it wasn’t always what was obvious that was important, but sometimes what wasn’t obvious. She began to study the slices carefully, looking for something that might seem normal background, but which, if contained in all the slides, would be a clue.
She finally found some inert dots that fit this bill and she went about seeing if she could activate them. This part of science I find the most fascinating. I don’t remember much of my high school chemistry, in which I got a perfect grade, but my, at least until this month, high school grandson can reel off bases and alkaline and acidic, what activates what, all the tools of a good chemist (which might be because his father is a chemist). Knowing what reacts with what and then being able to use the knowledge creatively to get real results in the real world is a trait I most admire about the practice of science.
After a number of failed attempts, she was finally able to activate (I’m not sure that’s the right word, might be identify) the parasite and it turned out to be called cryptosporidium or crypto for short because it was so rare and illusive. At the time, its only presence was known to occur as a result of runoff on cattle grazing land. Scientists reasoned that the heavy rains that had occurred around Milwaukee the prior spring had caused the runoff to be washed away in the tributary creeks of Lake Michigan where the intakes of the water purification plant were placed. The Milwaukee mayor had ordered water boiling early in the game, before this was all discovered, and has now undertaken a modernization of the Milwaukee water system that will kill the crypto. But the scientists hadn’t finished with their process yet. Something about the crypto mystified them because it didn’t seem to behave like any crypto that was on record so far. After doing extensive tests, they determined that the crypto wasn’t from animal feces, but rather from human feces, and they began to explore the sources of the intakes of the water purification plant. They found that a waste disposal plant had been located about two miles from the water purification plant. The waste disposal plant was dumping processed refuse into Lake Michigan just two miles away from the water plant’s intakes. Testing the refuse from the waste treatment plant disclosed the source of the crypto.
At that point, someone started in with, well, science should have known better!
Now this probably belongs under the heading, no good deed goes unpunished, but for the fact that here the good deed, finding out what was causing the sickness, was the job of the scientists doing the digging. However, there’s a difference between good science and sloppy science, and this definitely wasn’t sloppy science. Why would an attitude that science should have known in advance and prevented the sickness arise in the first place?
To answer that question, we have to focus on another area of science, probably the area that gets the most press, the area that deals with the things we can never know. When we get into areas concerning light, gravity, subatomic particles and the like, we have nothing that we can put under glass in the local museum to display. Everything we think we know about the subjects we can only know about indirectly is hypothetical, theory, made-up stuff if you will.
When a rational approach to the physical universe began to emerge from the dark ages, people wanted to experiment directly with reality in order to learn what that reality was. All the myths, primarily created by church authorities over the centuries, about how the way things were, were in the process of being challenged. Even Aristotle, whose worldview had been pretty much incorporated into church thinking, came under fire. Everything old was up for questioning, anything new and novel up for discussion.
The people doing the discussing at this time came from many areas of life. The only qualification to participate in the discussion was an active mind, the willingness to accept what was found in reality, and pretty much, a disdain for the unexamined thoughts that had been around for centuries. There were not many people that fit into this select group, and the educational backgrounds were many and diverse. William Smith, the man who mapped the stratiography of England and is therefore indirectly responsible for much of modern day geological thinking, was a surveyor. Others were explorers, or wealthy hobbyists who amassed large collections of artifacts and fossils. The atmosphere was open and honest.
Francis Bacon was the first to set out what should be the scientific method. He was the first to observe that there were physical phenomena that our senses did not have direct access to. His most famous quest was for the hidden source of the force that caused movement, objects to fall, planets to orbit and rotate. While he realized that the cause of some physical phenomena are not accessible to our senses, he said there is a way that we can reveal them. He said the more facts we had about a phenomenon, the more accurate our hypothesis of the phenomenon’s cause would be. Sooner or later, he ventured, we would collect enough facts to get a clear picture of the hidden cause.
The most important feature of Bacon’s process was that any picture we proposed from the facts be just that, a proposal, a theory, a hypothesis. He stressed that no theory, no hypothesis, no proposal to explain a set of fact surrounding a phenomena could itself be taken as fact. We always had to ensure that our theories remained theories and never became facts because if our theories became facts, then subsequent explanations for phenomena would incorporate among the facts things that weren’t a fact, things we actually made up.
Bacon was taken very seriously and in the early 1760s, when The Royal Society was formed in England to organize the exploration into reality, it’s motto, translated into English, was (and is) “nothing in word.” This underscored the thinking at the time that scientific exploration must be based on physical results and facts rather than theory. Theories were just words. Facts were facts. Facts should always trump theory.
The Royal Society was founded on royal patronage, and when, over the years, this dried up, it attempted to limp along on its inventions to no avail. In the meantime, the great battle between secular scientific thought and age old religious conclusions was starting to heat up, with the vast wealth of the pie that fed those that controlled society’s worldview, controlled by the church, starting to be nibbled at by science. Practically all of the questions addressed by religion had nothing to do with science. Even church authorities agreed that it didn’t make much difference whether the sun went around the Earth or the Earth around the sun when it came to religious questions, yet to call into question this belief was to call into question the faith. To call into question the age of the Earth as dictated by begats, the flood, or any aspect of the bible, was to call into question the faith, and this the church could not continence.
Secular science was given a great gift at the beginning of the battle for control of society’s worldview. Newton had delivered his reflecting telescope to The Society in the 1760s to deserved acclaim. When he honored the society with his Theory of Colors a few years later, it was pretty much considered nothing but words and ignored, much to Newton’s lifelong anger. He attempted to set up a parallel society, but that crashed. Over the next twenty years, he built a core of powerful political allies and when he published his theory of gravity in an incomprehensible format using a form of math he invented, the description of what he had done, rather than the method that he used, was what sold the theory. After all, he was claiming that he described how the planets moved and how objects fell. Of course, at the base of his entire house of cards was a simple fact: God was what caused objects to fall and the planets to move. However, God was so far removed from his theory, that His presence in the theory didn’t have to be addressed until later in the next century, when Laplace replaced Him with the rotating mass of gas and theorists finished the job by pointing out that Newton’s math didn’t work anywhere in the solar system so, instead of using the math to have the “mass” of the planets predict motion, which was the only way Newton could give color of proof to mass gravity, his math could be used to predict “mass” from the motion of the planets.
In short, Newton’s proof was wrong, his conclusion correct!
At the beginning of the 18th century, Newton used his political connections to take over The Royal Society and for the next three decades used it to promulgate his view that theories could be demonstrated to be fact, turning Bacon and the society’s founding principle on its ear. It also allowed secular science to make pronouncements about all sorts of things that have no basis in reality, leading to today’s all seeing eye that can tell us when and how the universe began, how big it is, how long it will last and when it will end. Its latest fad is to come up with the TOE, the theory of everything, all of existence contained in a simple equation.
Because when it comes to this type of science, science that is not based in reality, science knows so little and is, in fact, totally ignorant, after all, it admits it doesn’t know what gravity is, and even goes so far as to put it low on its list of priorities, it has to constantly present a picture of itself knowing everything, one fact away from the TOE, the epiphany where we’ll all know everything in a flash and the world will become paradise on, well, this and other planets that happen to benefit from our knowledge.
Theoretical science with its quantum musings, its string theory, its dark matter and black holes, has been driven to present itself to the public as all powerful, all seeing, the Wizard of Oz.
Thus, when the poor scientists working on the ground dealing with actual reality uncover the cause for massive sickness and save countless lives, they’re accused of not knowing something in advance, something they, of course, couldn’t have known because there was as yet no science dealing with the illness.
But, hey, to the theoretical fantasists, that’s bull. Science is all-powerful, all seeing, all knowing, it can tell us everything there is to know about the universe.
Seems to me the millions of practicing scientists would want to get serious about doing some house clearing.

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