Welcome to the world in 2017: for many, scientific facts and measurements and their consequences seem remote. Some consider them complicated and boring, best left to others to worry about. Or so large-scale and terrifying that we’re paralysed, seeking solace in distraction. Perhaps progress has rendered scientific processes and complexity invisible, hidden behind a shiny user interface and working like magic.
For others, science and its predictions may be viewed as inconvenient with respect to a specific belief or agenda. In such cases, science must be doubted, repudiated, and undermined by any means possible.
But do you know what? Science doesn’t care. It really doesn’t.
The laws of physics are going to continue heating up the planet in response to increased levels of carbon dioxide whether we’d like them to or not. Whether we deny them or not.
Left to their own devices in a world of growing fossil fuel consumption, ice shelves will melt and glaciers will run into the oceans at increasing rates. Sea levels will rise, cities will flood, weather will become increasingly unstable, and crops will fail. Millions will struggle for resources, leading to mass migration and war.
None of that will be nice, but science doesn’t care much about “nice” either.
Whether we like them or not, whether they fit our agendas or not, science, facts, measurements, and rational thinking lie at the very core of the modern world. They keep our energy, fresh water and sewage systems running; they keep our aircraft flying; and they help us to keep mutating bacteria and disease at bay. With a sense of cruel irony, they even provide us with the tools of mass distraction, including our 4K TVs, smartphones, and Clash of Clans.
To some extent, ignoring these realities is manageable, as long as some benign Wizard of Oz keeps things running behind the curtain for us. But clearly there’s a limit to this and we’re edging ever closer to it. In today’s complex world, people need to be more aware of how all of this works, not less – to have some understanding of the possible consequences of inaction.
Humans are smart, with demonstrated ability to take on big challenges. Thanks in part to science and technology, the world’s population continues to rise, along with living standards, leading to increased pressures on essential resources such as food, water, housing, and energy. There are ways of addressing such concerns.
But many of the key issues facing us today, not least climate change, are no respecters of lines drawn on maps or other artefacts of human history. To solve them, we need more international cooperation and integration, for the good of humankind and our communal natural environment as a whole. We need to build a more educated, rational society where evidence-based policy is developed, understood, and embraced by citizens and their governments, even when complex.
It would be naive to suggest that this is simple, but it seems immoral to suggest that we shouldn’t even try. As our world grows evermore complex, it asks a lot of our governments, institutions, and the public as well, and inevitably things will creak and groan as the pressures continue to increase. But again, we must try: the alternatives are unacceptable.
Denying the facts won’t change the facts. Doing so can, however, make it much more difficult for society to deal with the consequences of those facts, and in areas such as climate change, we only have a narrow window in which to make critical decisions and act on them before it’s too late.
We need to embrace science and the information and insight it offers us. There are many examples, for instance space and satellites, where science is critical to the wellbeing of humankind.
Beyond Earth itself, space exploration provides a clear demonstration of the power of international collaboration in coming together to meet extraordinary challenges, whether it’s astronauts working together on the International Space Station or robotic missions such as Rosetta’s landing on a comet.
These great adventures can also inspire children and bring them into STEM subjects. There they learn the tools needed to make sense of our complex world and to help provide solutions to its many problems. It will also, we hope, ensure that they will bring a rational, deliberative approach to their role as citizens.
McCaughrean, Mark. Embracing climate change. The News, February 6, 2017.