Jet Trails over Canberra-1

And yet, planes fly.

This is a phrase that often comes to mind when people question the value and utility of science, or diminish its importance in the world today.

It cuts through the objections: that science can be biased, or imperfect, or financially driven, or chaotic, or fraudulent, or philosophically unsound, or just one idea among many.

Sometimes, these criticisms are valid. There are many instances where science has been hampered by fraudulent and unethical behaviour, where scientists have taken appalling short cutsĀ and or adjusted data because it didn’t fit preconceived notions, where bullying and a dogmatic over-reliance on unsound theories has hampered progress. You could write a book on it.

And yet, planes fly.

Big ones too. Gigantic 300 tonne planes, travelling at 900 kilometres per hour, at 40,000 feet above the ground. Right now, a few of them are routinely ploughing their way through the stratosphere en route to various destinations across the planet.

All this would not have been possible if it were not for the efforts of generations of scientists and engineers. These people sought to understand and exploit the physical properties of this world, using rational thought, experimentation and argument to allow us to leave the ground and do something that would have been unimaginable to countless generations.

When I say “yet planes fly”, I am only tipping a snowflake on the tip of an enormous iceberg. And yet, computers work. Washing machines work. Mobile phones work. We’ve put men on the Moon. Cured and treated cancers. Eradicated ancient diseases. Increased food supply. People now live longer. Babies are born that otherwise wouldn’t be. Most children survive to adulthood. Mothers can better plan their families and their futures. We can peer back to the beginnings of time and examine the most fundamental components of the Universe. All this, and much more, because of science. All this, despite the problems inherent within the scientific process.

It may seem trivial to point to aeroplanes and these other examples and point them out as astonishing products of the scientific process. Even the most ardent pseudoscience devotee is likely to accept that science has yielded huge discoveries and benefits. The point, however, is that, faults and all, it remains the most successful mode of understanding the world and dealing with problems that humans have ever concocted. It has succeeded where mysticism, homeopathy, religion and new age doctrines have not. Indeed, they seem to occupy the ever-decreasing areas where significant progress is still limited.

Such an outlook could be dismissed as scientism: a view that science, on its own, can explain anything and solve any problem. This may not be true, or even possible; but science still remains the most powerful intellectual tool in our arsenal. When it comes to the pressing issues of the day, from global warming and climate change, disease management and genetic disorders, sanitation and overpopulation, I would prefer to have a bunch of scientists and engineers looking at these challenges than anyone else.

So when I see airplanes in the sky, it shows that, limited and all though are species are, and no matter how faulty our processes of discovery, we have nevertheless learned a lot about how the universe works and how we bring those insights to bear on real-life challenges. The problems of the coming century will be very different to those of the last one. They are likely to need the efforts of our best technical brains to tackle and solve. It’s time more people started to wake up to this.

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