Why 'anti-science' idiocy may have far-reaching consequences for us all

Issues such as climate change are beyond dispute, yet some people still have a dangerous fondness for irrational nonsense

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 3:51am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 3:51am

For this week's science column, I was all set to write of new discoveries about the amazing eyes of the mantis shrimp (yes, really), but was instead asked for something "more provocative".

Well, scientists aren't really known for being provocative, which is hardly surprising given Wikipedia defines science as "a systematic enterprise that builds and organises knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe". Yet friends have remarked that I'm prone to voicing opinions about various issues, so here goes.

I've long been fascinated by science; a childhood interest in rocks, wildlife, news about the universe and beyond led to a PhD in physical chemistry. While studying, I realised I did not want a career that might involve seeking car fuel that creates less soot, but became highly concerned about major environmental issues.

I thought that if you tell people that bad things happen as a result of polluting the air, destroying rainforests, overharvesting fish, there will be pause for thought, leading to action to halt and reverse the damage. How wrong I was.

Instead of pausing for thought, we humans have continued and accelerated our environmental rampage. Science may be yelling "Nooohhh! Stop it!" about a whole range of damaging actions, yet science is held in low regard unless it can be co-opted to help extract even more from the earth - as in the madness of fracking for oil.

Perhaps there's something about the word "science" that's off-putting, like connotations of baffling quantum physics or bizarre bits of information that nobody needs to know (you would find those mantis shrimp eyes intriguing, though, if I told you about them). But it seems science is pigeonholed into school subjects and television channels for nerds, a weekly page in a newspaper - which we're lucky to have here - and is too cut off from daily life.

There's surely broad awareness of the immense importance of science in our lives. We expect to live far longer than our early ancestors, thanks to vaccines, medicines, farming and other, now commonplace aspects of modern life. We have global communications, including the internet.

Yet while the internet is a towering technological achievement, it is no panacea for ignorance and stupidity. Through it, we can monitor moon and Mars rovers, access vast banks of knowledge, help search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and instantly share inane selfies, boring photos, urban myths and bigotry. Long before the term "science" was coined, humans would have grasped some of its fundamentals, and knowledge we might call scientific became intermingled with superstition and religion.

For instance, fung shui's advice for locating houses at the foot of hills near winding rivers could help people find good areas for rice farming.

But we humans also have a great fondness for irrational codswallop. Just last week, I read an article on fung shui which included a recommendation for consulting a book before choosing when to go for a haircut, and mentioned a charge of HK$6,000 for picking an auspicious wedding date.

On what basis are such choices made? There's no way of knowing if they're right or wrong, as each "experiment" can be run only once.

Online, I readily find Christians offering to pray for money. Well, what does science tell us? An experiment into supposed prayer power was held in Harvard University, US, involving cardiac bypass patients. The result: "Not only did prayer not help the patients, those that were told they were being prayed for experienced more complications."

With the UK having experienced its rainiest January on record, The Sun newspaper announced a campaign to pray for sunshine. No sooner had it done so than lashing winds and rainstorms arrived, and more storms were queuing up to pummel the UK.

In the US earlier this month, there was a creationism debate between Bill Nye "the Science Guy" and Ken Ham, founder of Kentucky's Creation Museum. Reports tell of Nye presenting science to rebut Ham's absurd claim that the earth is just 6,000 years old. Ham said his view requires faith rather than evidence, and we can't know the past, as we weren't there.

It was, perhaps, a fruitless debate, with minds made up beforehand. And for the most part, there might be little harm in idiotic anti-science. Yet there can also be far-reaching consequences.

Right now, science is telling us the most over-arching issue we face is global warming. There's no longer any real scientific debate on the fundamentals - of 9,136 scientists who wrote 2,239 peer-reviewed climate articles published from November 2012 to last December, only one rejected the link between human activities and global warming. But, much as with creationism, there is powerful climate change denial - and, importantly, this is preventing major efforts to stave off catastrophic consequences.

Here in Hong Kong, we seem splendidly unconcerned about such issues.

We have little defence against storm surges that were severe even with past typhoons, and plan major projects on reclamations just above current sea level.

Shopping malls run air-conditioning overnight, maintaining absurdly low temperatures. There's almost religious reverence for foolhardy construction projects.

And at night, the city is aglow with neon and LED signs. We might as well combine them into one monstrous message: "Hi From Hong Kong - City of Smart Phones and Stupid Disregard for Science."

Martin Williams, PhD, is a Hong Kong-based writer specialising in conservation and the environment