Friday, June 24, 2011

The power and deficiencies of science and numbers

While I want to continue to motivate environmentally-related action as individuals and a collective, I want to spend a post or two laying out some of my values explicitly. Hopefully this will allow you to get a sense of where I am coming from, and where I stand. Where I stand is of course subject to change (I hope) as I try to be as open to ideas as I can be. I want to write a little bit about science and numbers today.

I am an engineer. I am an experimentalist studying combustion chemistry and air pollutant formation. I deal with physical chemistry on a regular basis, and am enamoured with physics. I believe in the power of science and numbers. Data are powerful, and a set of experiments well done, or measurements well made, considering assumptions and control parameters, can inform us greatly of physical processes; there is no doubt about that. Yet, I believe in the power of experience as much as science.

Science and technology have allowed for the betterment of some people's lives in various ways - many are now able to fly across the world to see glaciers and cultural artifacts of beauty. We are able to develop relationships with people we've never seen, and we can satisfy our urge to eat the exotic whenever we want to. Yet, I cannot deny, we cannot deny, that science and its application to technology has been used forcefully and violently against nature and the people that reside on this planet. We cannot deny that the power of science and technology has caused destruction on massive scales, has blocked rivers and submerged entire ecosystems, and has unleashed the power of the atom on the world, so much so we live in the fear of it "getting into the wrong hands" continually. Of course, once we have the power of science and technology, we are compelled to use it.

One of the necessary features of science and technology is to be able to measure things, whether it is magnetic fields, chemical concentrations, the flow of electrons. Therefore, if we are able to produce it, we are likely able to measure it, for measurement is a key component of production. But we can only measure to an extent. We cannot and will not be able to ever measure the entire impacts of our actions once the science and technology are let lose on the world. What do we do then? What is the power of science when our brains are so small, yet our collective actions are so vast, tremendous, and destructive?

In a comment on yesterday's post, it was argued that science is about "getting it right." However, with something like the climate change, for example, we're never going to "get it right," because it is impossible. But what science affords us is the ability of judgement, of experience. Many times, we are able to predict to a good degree of accuracy the impacts of something might be on the environment. I value numbers and data preciously, but getting them "right" is very rarely necessary; fairly accurate numbers are good enough for most legitimate purposes. The power of science then lies in allowing us an intuition from retrospective study that is forward-looking. Anyone can look at some data and see that something is wrong (or well, most people - again, climate change). But what science allows us to do is make judgements. This is more than the precautionary principle. It is experience. This experience is invaluable. We cannot allow ourselves to get bogged down into trying to get a number right on. We don't have the time for that.

And so my environmentalism is science-based. But as, if not more, importantly, it is experience-based. 

What role do science and numbers play in your life?

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