Thursday, September 15, 2005

A National Day (Or More) of Science

If you want to save lives, you can do more by becoming an engineer or scientist than by becoming a priest, by studying data than by studying a bible, and by building machines and levees than by building churches.

President Bush has declared Friday, September 16th, as a "National Day of Prayer" for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, he also used this opportunity to encourage people to perform acts that would actually benefit the victims of this disaster; to contribute time, money, and needed goods.

After this day of prayer, there is something else we can do that will actually help to save lives in the future. We could use a day or more of good science.

Thousands of years of prayers have done little to save people from the ravages of hurricanes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. Dumping virgins into volcanoes have never saved a village. No rain dance has ever ended a drought. All of the prayers that a nation can muster will not keep any hurricane away from our shores.

At the same time, we can see even with Hurricane Katrina, that science has given us far more power than prayer. Scientists built the weather satellites that took the pictures that told us that a hurricane was on its way. Scientists built the rocket that put the satellite in orbit, and the communications equipment that allowed us to see what the satellite could see. Satellites designed and programmed the computers that ran the computer models that predicted the path of the hurricane, giving people a chance to escape. Scientists ran the equations that told us that the levees around New Orleans would be topped, and possibly destroyed, by a Level 4 hurricane.

Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, called the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana, and the mayor of New Orleans, well before the storm hit and told them what to expect. He did not get his information by looking at entrails or fasting while praying for divine guidance. He got his information by taking physical data, putting them into formulae that had a proven ability to explain and predict the future based on current observations, and read the results.

There was no magic. There was no miracle. There were human minds using human intelligence to solve a problem.

Scientists save lives.

These people, that some condemn with the accusation that they base their whole perspective on "atheistic materialism" that sees no place for a God, have helped more blind men see and lame men walk than any religous prophet.

Those who ignore scientists -- people who have no respect for what scientists do, how they do it, or the results they get – get in the way of saving lives.

Science vs. Religion

There is a debate over whether science is compatible with religion. Some religious leaders fear that science has the power to replace religion, so they seek to tear down and destroy science.

I really have no interest in that debate. I know that there are excellent scientists who hold their ability to look at the world objectively and use data and scientific theory to guide their conclusions, who are also very religious. I know others who think that science provides no evidence for a God and no reason to postulate a God, and have given up on those beliefs.

I do not think that it is at all important to take sides in that debate.

I do not know Max Mayfield’s religious beliefs. I see no reason why they are at all important. He, and the people who work for him, have the capacity to look at data, plug it into scientific formulae, and get conclusions that save lives. The lives are saved.

Max Mayfield, and those who worked underneath him, worked to save lives. That is the only fact that I will judge them on. That is the only fact that any morally decent person should judge them on. Not on their religious beliefs. Only on the efforts they made to save lives.

They did good.

Moral Guidance of Science

Science can be used for good or for evil. Science is not unique in this. Since the very first moment that humans learned how to use tools, those tools could be used equally well by good humans (to help themselves and others live better lives), or for evil (to do harm to others).

I can well imagine an early cave man with his cave wall painted with the slogan, “Clubs no kill people; people kill people.”

Good people use science to help others; bad people use science to harm others. Science itself is neither good nor bad. Science itself is tool. It is more powerful than most tools, but it is still a tool. Its use depends on the moral character of those who use it.

There is nothing evil in using the power of science to better understand hurricanes and their effects in order to save more lives. If we give scientists the tools to study hurricanes, learn their ways, and learn how we can better defend ourselves against them, we will have a power to save lives far beyond anything that prayer has ever demonstrated the ability to do.

Good, Evil, and the Ravages of Nature

Most of the world’s religions carry a common message. Nations whose citizens behave morally will tend to benefit, while nations that shun their moral duties and obligations will suffer. Usually, it is said that they benefit or suffer because of the blessings or punishment of a God.

Yet, these things are true, in a way, even if there is no God. If we, as a nation, act irresponsibly by neglecting the capacity to save and protect lives that the scientist creates, then we will suffer the consequences. Lives (and property, to the degree that it is also important) will be lost that could have been saved.

We will, as a nation, continue to be punished for our irresponsible behavior.


Boelf said...

Well said. I notice you managed to say it without pointing out the anti-science policies of the Bush administration. (and indeed we are paying dearly for that moral bankruptcy

Alonzo Fyfe said...

boelf: I will get to it. I figure, at some time over the next 3.3 years of a Bush presidency, we will see more rewriting of science for political purposes, and I will be ready.