MANY say that we live in the era of post-truth politics, the era when political discussions are largely about appeals to emotion rather than to accurate facts. In post-truth politics, facts are seen as “dry.” Statistics are “boring.” Accuracy does not go viral. In fact, the opposite of accuracy is what goes viral.
In this era, we need science more than ever.
As a species, we’ve always needed science. While other animals have talons or fangs, we had our big brains to help us make weapons. While other animals can fly or swim, we made things that flew for us and floating things we can ride on. While other animals had senses that helped them navigate, we used oursmarts and the stars to find our way.
But our understanding of the world was, for tens of thousands of years, primitive. It was still mixed with myth, and the inborn flaws in our ways of thinking still dominated how we understood the world.
That’s why the rise of modern science was a revolution. In fact, the word ‘revolution’ gained its meaning as an “overthrow in the established system” only then. Before, it simply meant ‘turning around,’ as in the revolution of the planets around the Sun. The discovery that our Earth is not the center of the universe overthrew the established system. The discovery was revolutionary.
The revolution was not just about our place in the universe, either. It was also about how we know what’s true. Before then our greatest philosophers just thought about reality. They used their intelligence to reason, and they reasoned really well.
However, during the scientific revolution, Galileo, Kepler, and others discovered that simply thinking well was far from enough. In order to really understand how the world works, and in order to beat the defects of our thinking, we need to test our ideas against the results of observations and experiments. Themethods of science entered their maturity.
Ever since then ideas, no matter how beautiful or whoever said them, had to pass the strict tests of science. And they had to pass it over and over again. Even if they passed it for hundreds of years, as the ideas of Newton had, they still had to be tested to their limits. In their limits, we see that they break and had to be replaced. Einstein had to replace Newton in the area of the very large. Quantum mechanics did the same in the area of the very small.
In science, there is no authority. There are experts, scientists who dedicate their lives to understanding one aspect of the world. But even the experts are not exempt from the tests of science. No matter who you are, your ideas never become immune from the same tests, even from harsh criticism.
The scientific revolution and its twin, the Enlightenment, ushered in a culture where even the most powerful people had to answer to the truth just like everybody else. It didn’t matter if you were king or the pope or an influential imam. Your ideas were never immune from scrutiny and criticism.
Politicians have always lied. But before the scientific revolution, the ruler’s word was taken as fact, as law, as unquestionable. The Enlightenment introduced the idea of holding politicians to the truth. If caught lying, that could spell the end of their political career. All of a sudden, it pays to be truthful and to have a command of the facts in the political arena.
This should still be the case. If it’s not, we must make it so. Now more than ever, the survival of the human race depends on our accurate understand of how the world works.
This understanding is our only answer to the challenges of climate change, a fast-growing population, the threat of pandemics, resources that are running out, and other problems associated with living together in a connected world.
More importantly, science now arms us with the tools to understand the flaws in our thinking. Through science, we begin to see why we tend to be susceptible to the preaching of demagogues and why emotions hold so much sway on even the smartest of us. We also understand how our bad tendencies such as racism, fundamentalism, greed, or apathy can be replaced by our good tendencies such as empathy, critical thinking, and altruism.
They say we have entered an era of politics when emotional impact rather than truth is what counts. In the end, however, reality kicks in. It always does. Unless we are prepared for its challenges, we are doomed. The politicians who act as if facts and truth do no matter will eventually have to face the music. If we can make them face the music sooner, maybe we can yet save the human race from self-destruction.
Decierdo is resident astronomer and physicist for The Mind Museum.