Get the Fact Out

In the current age of post-truth, flat-earthers and alternative facts, it’s worth bearing in mind where we would be without objective reasoning. Science as an instrument is the finest honed tool that humans have ever come by to find out about things. It seems almost weird to think that up until only a few hundred years ago much of the knowledge we had about ourselves, the world, and the universe around us, was arrived at through either superstitious conventional wisdom, or incomplete guess work.

Up until the 17th century we didn’t know how lungs worked. The classical Greek thinking had it that there was some vital quality in the air, pneuma, which mixed in the lungs and sustained the function of other essential organs. Through to the 16th century the wisdom in renal medicine was that a simple membrane in the kidneys filtered and cleaned the blood. Both assertions are not true, but it took an astonishing thousand years after Aristotle’s impressive but flawed attempt to study human biology to get the medical facts right. Why did it take so long? The answer is twofold, and relates to what I mentioned above: received opinion and guessing on incomplete evidence.

The theory of air “mixing” in the lungs was unseated by the invention of the microscope, but the ideas about kidney filtration required something else. Andreas Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, took the audacious step of describing what he saw, rather than trying to make what he found fit the theories of his contemporaries. With lungs, it took the advance of technology to reveal the truth, but with Vesalius there was no need for technological advance. All it took was cutting open a kidney, and seeing that no such membrane is there. The fault was not in the stars but in ourselves.

I think this is telling. One of the most exciting news stories in science in the last few weeks has been the opening of the European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL). This enables imaging by shooting electrons at super high speed to emit X-rays. These in turn can be used to create pictures on an atomic level to visualise things like atomic bonds being formed and broken. It’s a stunning accomplishment and is likely to lead to big developments in medicine and engineering. But without a decent understanding as a society of what constitutes good information and bad information it creates an unpleasant image of the future, where evidence and objectivity are relegated to labs and the rest of us reap the rewards of technology without any further interaction. “So what?”, you might say. “I don’t need to know how something was made to use it”.

True, I’m not saying everyone needs to have a working knowledge of quantum theory or Einstein’s theories of relativity. But if there is one thing the last few years have shown us, it’s that a society where decisions are taken without an interest in evidence it can lead to disaster. Research suggests time and again people make their political decisions not on the policies proposed, but on how they feel about the person and their own bias confirmation.

Whether it be the election of Donald Trump and his assault on climate change action, or amid Turkey’s recent slide into religious conservatism and restricting learning of the theory of evolution, neglecting facts in the political process should be a major concern for all of us because it leads to bad government.

It’s an ironic indictment of 21st century life not just that climate change-deniers, anti-evolutionists, and flat-earthers exist, but that they have the sheer bloody-minded audacity to use tools like smart phones, cars, computers and the internet to share their ideas. The objectivity of the scientific process is not just for grand technology like the XFEL or CERN. Without it, we wouldn’t have tools like smart phones, cars and computers at all. We would still think there was a filtration membrane in our kidneys, and that vital pneuma filled the air in our lungs. Challenging the status quo of bad reasoning and traditional wisdom has enabled us to make huge advances as humans. We are able to have safe kidney transplants, and medication for our asthma to keep many of us alive where previously we would have died. Respect for facts and objectivity is a strong part of science because it works. If it can send rockets to the moon, robots to Mars, mend our bodies, why not make it a stronger part of our culture in general?


Leo Kindred

Science Editor