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Science, the 99 percent and the world of tomorrow

Dr. Paul da Silva ’75

Science and Our Future

Three hundred years ago, it may have made little difference whether the average person had a very good understanding of science. However, in our modern world, lack of a basic understanding of science may well prove fatal.

If we look carefully at what was going on in the early 1700s, we can see the beginnings of accelerating change in human society that ultimately produced the world we recognize today. On the individual level, especially in parts of Europe, improved nutrition and the most basic public health measures were beginning to reduce disease and increase life expectancy.

In the world as a whole, the human population was starting to increase exponentially. The Industrial Revolution was beginning its radical transformation of manufacturing, transportation and agriculture. The effects of large-scale European colonization were producing the first truly globalized human society. Apparently limitless resources of coal, timber, fishes, whales and many other types were starting to be exploited on a scale never seen before. However, compared to the world of today, society was still changing relatively slowly, and our total human impact on the planet was far smaller.

It is obvious that change in our modern world is accelerating much faster than it was in the Eighteenth Century. Everybody agrees with this. Now if we were all in a car, train, boat or plane, and everybody agreed that we were beginning to go faster and faster, we would expect at least someone to ask, “Where are we going?”

We are in fact in something much bigger than a car, a boat, a train or a plane. We are all living on Planet Earth, and humankind is not ready to abandon it any time soon. But what will it be like in 50, 100 or 200 years? What kind of a world are we going to live in? What kind of a world are we going to leave to our children, our grandchildren and succeeding generations?

What does this have to do with science? After several decades of teaching science to undergraduate college students, I have come up with a definition of science that shows the connection: Science is the process of producing successively more reliable predictions of the future.

This definition of science is not totally new. It in fact grew out of much of what traditionally has been taught about science. All scientific predictions ultimately rest on our understanding of the past and present states of the world, as expressed by major scientific theories, which themselves are the result of repeated cycles of formulations of hypotheses and tests of hypotheses. However, this definition conveys well the elegant simplicity of science and the urgent necessity of widespread understanding of its goals and methods.

Science is the best tool we have for answering that all-important question, “Where are we going?” Science provides us the best techniques we have for predicting the future.

Unfortunately, this trusty tool is giving us strong warning signals in many areas. In the area of health of individual humans, it is warning us that factors such as childhood obesity, increased salt and fat intake and greater exposure to carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, and radiation will probably make many of us sick with diseases unknown to our grandparents. Recent studies indicate that in many communities, average life expectancy may go down.

Because our total human impact on the environment is much greater than it was three hundred years ago, and because it is increasing so rapidly, science is also warning us that the health of the whole world may be on the downslide. This could lead to breakdown of our planetary life support systems, elimination of entire cities and countries, and increased hunger and starvation. The Pentagon is even investigating whether this breakdown will trigger massive global warfare.

In other words, the answer to the question, “Where are we going?” may be, “Not where we should be or want to be going.” So what should you do? What should I do? What should we all do?

When an oil tanker rammed into the Bay Bridge a number of years ago, the results were bad. There was a damaged ship. There was a damaged bridge. And there was an oil spill that damaged the Bay. One of the most important questions was, “Who was responsible?”

Most of us understand the need to take some responsibility for our future individual health. Most also recognize some responsibility for the health of our families or loved ones. More and more are understanding that each of us has some responsibility for the health of humankind and the world we live in. At all levels, science has been used to make many predictions of future health and has revealed severe health risks. It follows that each person alive today has a serious responsibility to understand scientific predictions and use them skillfully, as we make choices about the future, individually and collectively.

Key Obstacles

Although many people may want to understand science and scientific predictions better, they may also be confused or intimidated by some of its concepts. I have found that the most difficult concepts in my definition of science are those it highlights: prediction and reliability. Prediction is simply our best estimate of future conditions, based on our knowledge of the processes operating in the present and expected to continue into the future. Reliability is our confidence in a prediction as a guide for our actions. It is based on past experience and some knowledge of the variability of the information about the processes that was the basis for our prediction.

All of us base everyday actions on our ability to predict the future. Thinking about the predictions we make every day can illuminate our understanding of scientific predictions. To illustrate this, I like to use the two common examples of getting to school and crossing the street.

In order to get to school on time, each person must make a prediction of how much time the journey will take. If a person’s experience includes many previous trips based on many previous predictions, a new prediction by this person will probably have greater reliability than a prediction made by a person undertaking the journey for the first time. However, no prediction is likely to match exactly the time actually taken (especially if the prediction be made to nanoseconds and the measurement of the elapsed time done with an atomic clock!) And although even rough predictions can be very off the mark in the event of unforeseen events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, or power failures (or the legendary streetcars with flat tires!), it would decrease the reliability of one’s prediction to incorporate these infrequent events into planning for each trip. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of every student to make the best prediction possible and get to school on time. Perhaps Brother Draper was really trying to teach us science when he emphasized this to generations of SI students!

Once one has arrived from home in the general vicinity of SI, there may still be the need to safely cross Sunset Boulevard. Here personal safety rather than fear of detention may the prime concern. As most people know, more than nine times out of ten, it has been shown safer to cross the street on a green light than on a red one. However, the extremely careful do well to point out that this is not a guarantee of safety because it is not 100 percent reliable. In a famous case I remember from my time at SI, many people patiently waiting for a green light on a traffic island on Market Street were killed or injured by an out-of-control vehicle. What is the “scientific” reaction to this additional data? Does it now make more sense to cross on the red light? No, since the reliability of crossing safely on the green light is still greater than the reliability of crossing more safely on the red light. If 90 percent reliability is not good enough, then it could be increased by waiting for the green light and then also looking both ways before crossing.

Science and the 99 Percent

If a coin is tossed, we expect that half the time it will come up heads and half the time it will come up tails. We also know that there is some variability in the tossing process. Therefore, if we toss the coin ten times and it comes up heads six times, we are not likely to doubt the fairness of the coin. However, if it comes up heads nine times, most people would conclude that the coin is biased, even through there is still a very small probability that it is really a fair coin and that we just achieved a very unusual and improbable result. So, Six times, seven times, nine times … where do we draw the line? We could increase the number of tosses, but even here we have to stop somewhere.

In scientific work, it is always admitted that any result could have been obtained by chance. This is a logical result of the impossibility of measuring everything in the whole world, just as it is impossible to toss a coin an infinite number of times. The more reasonable alternative is to choose representative samples, but then there is always a chance that the sample will be a misleading one.

The way science deals with this is threefold. First, much care is used to avoid biasing samples. In other words, generalizations about the all humans in the world are not based on samples of SI students. Second, the variation in the samples is carefully measured. The most famous examples come from medical or agricultural studies in which the reactions of two groups are compared. The response of each individual is measured, and the differences in response between the two groups of individuals (usually a treatment group and a control group) are compared to the variation within the groups. Lastly, statistical models (based on previous trials similar to coin-tossing) are used to compute the probability that the observed result could have been due to chance alone. If this probability is less than 5%, then the results are judged “significant” (or reliable). If this probability is less than 1%, then the results are considered “highly significant” (or very reliable). It may also be said that if the probability of the observed result occurring by chance is 1%, then the probability that the result was due to the hypothesized cause is 99%.

The World of the Future

Science has made most of its predictions about the future in a very simple way. It has simply documented existing trends and then extrapolated them into the future, assuming that the current trends will remain unchanged. A few examples can clarify this.

Our solar system will remain about the same for all human purposes. The Earth will continue to rotate, but will continue to slow slightly due to friction, perhaps necessitating more leap days. The Earth will continue to revolve around the Sun in much the same orbit, unless a meteorite or piece of another planet slams into it with unusual force. The Sun will continue to emit the same amount of light, consuming its nuclear fuel at the same rate until it is nearly exhausted, at which time it will go through the phases of a dying star – about 10 billion years from now.

The environment of the Earth itself may change radically. The mean temperature of the Earth will continue to increase at an increasing rate, due to current greenhouse gas emissions and changes in reflectivity caused by decreased amounts of ice and snow. Sea levels will rise. Low-lying cities, regions and countries will be flooded. Variability in weather and intensity of storms will continue to increase.

Human population will continue to increase, but at a decreasing rate. Total numbers may peak at 10 billion people. India will pass China as the world’s most populous country. There will continue to be big differences among continents.

Total amount of fish will decrease. Total cultivated land will decrease. Total grain production may level off. Total food production may level off and perhaps decrease. Strong regional differences in hunger and starvation will continue.

Many of the predictions about humans and our environment here on Earth can be found in published resources such as the UN’s Millennium Assessments, the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World reports, and the periodic updates of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The best of these predictions contain detailed estimates of reliability. In general, the reliability is highest for the simplest systems and predictions, such as the rotation of the Earth, and lowest for the most complex systems and predictions, such as human hunger and starvation.

It should not be any surprise that none of these are 100%, but just as in the cases of crossing the street or getting to school on time, that certainly does not mean that these predictions are unimportant. They are certainly better than nothing! Also, the predictions are constantly being revised as new data become available.

So far, most revised predictions have not included reversals of the direction of trends, but rather have modified the rate at which the changes will occur. In the case of human population, it is still predicted to increase in the future, but at a slower rate than once projected. In the case of mean global temperature, it is still projected to increase, but at a faster rate that once predicted.

Significantly, because the our environment is now so greatly influenced by human activity, humans have great potential to change future trends for better or for worse. The question is how they will use this power. Optimists point out that the human capacity to reason and learn is a source of great hope. Pessimists who view humans as essentially greedy, self-centered and short-sighted see only despair. This brings us to an interesting convergence of scientific, economic and political thought.

Environmental, Political and Economic Connections

By the latter part of 2011, the term “99%” was no longer being used only to describe the reliability of scientific conclusions. The Occupy Wall Street Movement began to use it to describe the proportion of the population in the United States that had little control of the economy. Increased concentration of wealth and power in the United States was another trend many had been documenting for decades, and it had been paralleled by increasing inequality in health, education, and many other areas. This trend was not restricted to the United States; in fact, it had been preceded by upheavals in many other countries that were together characterized as the “Arab Spring.”

What does this have to do with the world environment? Plenty, indeed. In Cancun in 2010 and in Qatar in 2012, consecutive U.N. Climate Conferences failed to reach agreement on any program to deal effectively with global climate change, despite widespread interest by a majority of the world’s governments that this was essential to our future well-being. A few governments, especially those of the United States and China, effectively blocked any progress. Although the total populations of these nations may be more than 1% of the population of the world, many observers have suggested that those who hold power in their governments definitely are not. Interestingly, although these governments had very different beginnings, current trends show them converging on a similar type, the plutocracy, in which a few wealthy people (including “corporate persons”), control all decisions.

Decisions on climate change are only one example. Others are control of land, water, seeds and people. Here also, a small number of people are determining the future of humankind and the Earth. So it may well be true that less than 1% of the world’s population effectively controls the future of all of us. If this is the case, changing current trends will either require changing the way the 1% think and act or empowering more of the 99% who are currently voiceless and powerless.

Spiritual and Religious Connections

One key problem is that the 1% behind many of the many current destructive processes profit greatly from them. Many people and governments cannot see an action as bad if its balance sheet is positive. However, current defective accounting processes tend to hide global destruction from public view, at least in the short term.

The discipline of environmental economics seeks to incorporate “externalities” such as deteriorating conditions of air, water and other natural resources into the global balance sheet so that economic analysis will come closer to reflecting the impact of actions on our society, our environment and our long-term future. However, it can only go so far.

Jesus Christ recognized long ago that not everything has a price. In his famous response to a question about taxes, he suggested that his listeners should “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Mark 12:17). The 2011 award-winning documentary Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, in a most beautiful and gripping portrayal, expressed the wisdom of ancient Mayan spiritual traditions in essentially the same way, ending with the hope that not everything in the world, certainly not human life, health and our shared natural environment, be destined for global commodification and destruction.

In the end, the Spirit tells us we must open our hearts to the inequality that exists in the world, while Science tells us we must also open our eyes and ears. In 1968, Jesuit Superior Pedro Arrupe exhorted his colleagues in Latin America to exercise

a “preferential option for the poor.” He clearly was motivated by ideals of justice and compassion. However, ecology and economics both converge on the same recommendation in pointing out the material value of diversity and distribution of resources as opposed to their concentration. Diverse ecological communities tend to be more efficient in processing energy and nutrients and show greater resilience in response to disturbance. Diverse economic systems with a variety of different business enterprises tend to promote greater prosperity and be more successful in weathering difficult times such as recessions and depressions.

Should this convergence be surprising? Albert Einstein, perhaps the most famous scientist of the Twentieth Century, thought it perfectly natural. He said that he believed in a “God of Harmony,” implying that both seekers of spiritual insight and pioneers of scientific progress were moving toward a common goal-- deeper understanding of the world -- and that both were motivated by a common interest -- concern for its well-being.

What Can We Do?

We may look to Jesus Christ, Pedro Arrupe and Albert Einstein for examples of how they met important challenges in their lives. However, in many ways our times are different from theirs. How do we even start to define our challenges? We can take our cue from the first step in the “classical scientific method” -- observation. Although in common parlance, observation refers only to information we take in through our eyes, scientists understand it to include all information about our external environment that we take in through any of our senses.

The best science begins with the best information available. The best information comes from a wide variety of observations from many different sources. It makes sense that we will also be able to make the best decisions about our future when we have the best information available to us.

Unfortunately, the information most available to most people is a very biased sample of what is really out there, and it is not always evaluated critically. Increasing concentration of wealth and power in the United States and the world has led to increasing control of the mass media by the very few. This has led to suppression of results of scientific research and at times even the research itself. It has led to silencing both of small numbers of whistleblowers among the powerful as well as of far greater numbers of ordinary people well removed from them, people who make up the majority of the inhabitants of Planet Earth and who may have just as much valuable information to share.

Fortunately, for those who are willing to dig a little, more information can be found. One of the great advantages of the diverse population of San Francisco is the possibility of talking to many people of different ages and origins to get their life stories and views of the world. Traveling further afield to lesser-known localities can provide still further opportunities. Even in our modern age, there is still no substitute for human conversation!

Radio and television can also yield important information. Some college and universities, as well as some cities and towns, host genuinely local stations, and there are several independent community stations here in the Bay Area. These include KALW, KPFA, KPOO, KWMR and KZSU.

Internet sources, if they are carefully evaluated as to their reliability, may also be very useful in the modern world. Right here in the Bay Area, we have the long-running Project Censored (www.projectcensored.org) to inform us of the major stories suppressed by the mass media. On a national level, we have organizations such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (fair.org), which reports directly on the media giants, and Free and Equal (freeandequal.org), which is dedicated to democratizing elections. On an international level the World Press Review (worldpress.org) provides access to news from virtually all countries in the world.

Reports from local delegates to international conferences can provide unique insights. Many of these delegates post their reactions on line for those not able to speak with them personally. Certainly international scientific meetings are important, but so are others such as the annual G-20 Economic Summit and the World Social Forum.

Doing Our Duty

What do we hope that future generations will say about us as they look back to this critical period in our history? I known what I hope they will say.

They will express their relief that that we who lived at such a critical time for humankind did not stand idly by and pretend that we could do nothing. They will applaud us for having made a strong effort to get all of the information we could, to hear all of the voices, from Tuvalu and Maldives and Bangladesh and Comoros, as well as from China and Britain and France and the United States, from the poor and oppressed as much as from the rich and powerful, from the 99% as well as the 1%. They will admire us for having put into action our unique human ability to reason, including our understanding of science. They will give thanks that, stimulated by innate ideas of justice and compassion and aided by a divine spirit of harmony, we did our best to choose, from all of the various possible paths, those most likely to produce a better future for all.

They probably will not remember whether we got to school on time…..

Paul da Silva ’75 was a member of Ambient, the student environmental club, while at SI. He later studied ecology and resource management at U.C. Berkeley and has worked on different ecological projects in both North and South America. He currently hold a doctorate in entomology and teaches biology, natural history and environmental science at the College of Marin.

Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Monday January, 27, 2014

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