Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Perils of the Lack of Humility in Science

foto credit: NASA

Global warming, geoengineering, transgenic food and synthetic life: what do these subjects have in common? Well, they are all controversial and overwhelmingly complex subjects that may substantially change the way we live in years to come. And that is why we should try to be well-informed about them. Nevertheless, due to their already mentioned complexity, that is anything but easy. As laymen, the most prudent thing to do should be relying on the prevailing scientific views. However, the lack of consensus as well as the obvious political and economic interests involved make the task even harder. Impartiality is an extremely rare commodity (if possible at all).

But what does it all have to do with the lack humility in science? Well, it is there that the biggest problem probably resides. If we look back in history, one of the important lessons we learn is that scientific arrogance may be dangerous. Very dangerous indeed, if we consider the magnitude of the possible consequences. When it comes to climate and ecology, for instance, even the slightest interventions may cause very significant impacts. Let's consider some examples.

In 1935, thousands of Hawaiian toads were released in Australian sugarcane plantations to get rid of the beetles that were devouring the crops (the toads were their natural predators). The toads, however, not only failed to kill the beetles, but also became a nightmare to the local environment. They spread over a third of the continent, devouring local plant varieties, causing injury to humans with their venom, outcompeting Australian less aggressive toad species and ravaging beehives. It is worth mentioning that the plan was recommended by “specialists”.

Decades later, a Russian named Petr Mikhailovich Borisov had a brilliant idea. He proposed building a dam across the Bering Strait to divert cold Artic water to the Pacific, pulling warmer water from the Atlantic into the Artic basin on the other side. The project was intended to warm northern Asia by more than 30 °C, melting the permafrost, and transforming the tundra in a paradise for agriculture and cattle. According to Borisov, the temperature of the planet would then become more uniform, it would “improve our planet and make it more suitable for life”. In this case, it is very important to take the historical context into consideration. On those days the USSR, as well as the USA, were seriously thinking about taking action to alter the climate. Now, just try to imagine what would have happened if something like that had been done. The results would probably have been no less than apocalyptic.

One might argue that we now know much more about what we are doing. But let's not forget, for example, that many of the scientists that are so confident when talking about global warming (both skeptics and supporters) are the same that are unable to provide a reliable weather forecast for the next week!

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