There’s no scientific consensus that humanity is doomed

I am a big, big fan of science.

I am grateful for the scientific method. I am an admirer of scientific geniuses. I support the work of scientists past and present, and I hope more scientists will do more excellent work across an ever-widening range of discovery in the future. I value pure science, and I value applied science. I don’t find scientific breakthroughs threatening; quite the contrary. I enjoy the feeling of assimilating new knowledge into my existing store.

Very pro-science am I.

One of the most important things I understand about science is this: Scientists know a lot less than we ordinary folks sometimes like to believe. I doubt there is a single scientific discipline in which humans know even half of all there is to know. (I would love to hear from experts in a field nearing the totality of knowledge — that would be a fascinating discovery in itself.) In many fields, I suspect humans know only one-tenth, or one-hundredth, or one-thousandth of all there is to know.

The vastness of undiscovered knowledge gives each generation fresh delight at the ignorance of their elders. How dumb they were to measure skulls as a way of predicting character. How primitive they were, believing that ulcers were caused by stress. How could they not see that dinosaurs were distant cousins of chickens? That same vastness will, undoubtedly, make this age look foolish to a more enlightened generation someday.

I blame journalists such as myself for making science seem omnipotent. Learning is incremental, but incremental journalism is dull, dull, dull. So we package every scientific discovery as a breakthrough, or the brink of a breakthrough, or (at worst) one step closer to a breakthrough. “Mysteries” are always being “unlocked” in the imagery of science journalism. The mystery of the Big Bang, of artificial intelligence, of cancer and so on.

Yet every unlocked door reveals more doors with more locks containing more mysteries.

This is wonderful if you love science. So much to learn! The depth and complexity of the unknown is marvelous but only to the sort of person who delights in reading thrillers one page at a time. For those who prefer jumping ahead to the last paragraphs to see how the story comes out, the unknown can be painful.

More than any other spoiler, people through the ages have yearned to know how the human story ends. Our epic from Australopithecus to apocalypse is a book, after all, that no one can read all the way through. Each one of us is destined to leave mid-drama as everyone before us has done, our departures lightly dog-eared somewhere between the covers.

For generations, religion and mythology painted the invisible end times. With the rise of science, though, people have stretched its incremental powers to glimpse the ultimate. They’ve applied partial knowledge to the vast unknowing. We scoff at the ignorance of our elders who searched comets for portents of The End. But how different are we? Isn’t it possible that our era will prove to have been too charmed by worst-case, end-of-the-world climate change predictions?

Here is a classic case of partial science feeding apocalyptic visions. Science has explained the problem: Certain gases in the atmosphere trap heat at the Earth’s surface. More of those gases in the atmosphere will trap more heat, unleashing a cascade of unpredictable effects. As always with science, the unlocked knowledge reveals more mysteries to be plumbed. How will Earth’s complex climate react, and how quickly? And how will Earth’s most creative and adaptable species, human beings, react to shape the outcome?

The challenge of climate change demands an urgent response but not an apocalyptic one. For example: It has become common in certain circles for people to say they won’t have children because of the impending hellscape of drought, fire, flood and tempest that will ruin future lives. How common? A celebrity member of Congress gave an endorsement. “Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). She added: “And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

This is not the language of science. That gloomy “consensus” has no scientific claim. Instead, with so much still to be learned and such a powerful tool in science, optimism is the attitude worthy of the work ahead.

That work will be a thrilling drama, though none of us alive today will likely see the end. This will be a chapter somewhere between the covers of a vast book and nowhere near the last chapter, either. Science can be counted on to unlock more mysteries, to frame the right questions and to lengthen the tale.

This article appeared on the Washington Post website at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/theres-no-scientific-consensus-that-humanity-is-doomed/2019/06/25/5daec93a-9759-11e9-916d-9c61607d8190_story.html?utm_term=.5b822d152090]]>

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