ADELAIDE - One of our species’ best inventions is the scientific method, which has enabled us to create and sustain what we call the modern world.
Importantly, science works by discovering and understanding the reality or truth about how the natural world and wider universe operates.
Sometimes, as is the case in quantum physics, science requires us to suspend disbelief because how the universe operates at the quantum level is utterly at odds with what we observe in the world around us on a daily basis.
The world revealed by quantum physics is so bizarre and counter intuitive that one of its founders, Max Planck, is said to have observed that if you were not deeply disturbed by quantum physics then you clearly had not understood it.
He also said that “anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realises that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words, ‘Ye must have faith’. It is a quality that a scientist cannot dispense with”.
These two observations by Planck draw attention to why science can be so hard for non-scientists to understand.
First, scientific concepts often are very complex and difficult to grasp, especially for minds that are not naturally able or trained to think about the world in scientific terms.
To use myself as an example, I find the world of higher mathematics utterly incomprehensible. I can add, subtract, multiply and divide with ease, and read a balance sheet readily, but differential calculus leaves me bewildered.
My brain just does not work the right way to easily grasp higher level mathematical concepts.
My guess is that I am far from alone in having this particular problem.
Second, it can be very difficult to grasp that a discipline like science, which concerns itself so deeply with matters of fact, also requires a degree of faith.
I think the primary reason for this is that the sort of faith required is not of the supernatural but rests in the ability of human ingenuity and effort to find solutions to even the most difficult scientific problems.
Most people think of faith in religious terms and so may find Planck’s assertion that faith is an essential requirement in science difficult to reconcile with its insistence on finding demonstrable proof for why and how things work.
Religious faith requires no such proof. It relies instead upon the suspension of disbelief and uncritical acceptance that certain assertions are true.
A third problem is that science can discover things that are very difficult to conceptualise or articulate in a way that seems grounded in the observable world in which we live.
A good illustration of this problem is something that has become ubiquitous in the modern world: the smart phone.
How many of us actually understand how the phone in our pocket works?
Most of us know it needs a battery and a connection to a network to allow us to communicate with others.
We also know that clever people have written computer programs that allow us to, for example, take photographs with our phone and then send them to others via things like Viber or Messenger or TikTok or similar applications (known as apps).
Beyond that, I think most of us have no idea how the machine in our hand actually works.
Worse still, attempts to explain this are virtually incomprehensible because they take us into the world of quantum physics where very strange things can and do occur.
Particles appear and disappear seemingly at random, some change their state depending on how you choose to observe them and still others are able to change state (or ‘spin’) instantly when a particle with which they are ‘entangled’ also changes state.
It is these strange things that lie at the heart of the science that allows us to create hand held computers as powerful and useful as our modern mobile phones.
The truth is that only someone deeply immersed in the study of these things has any hope of truly grasping what is going on inside our phones.
Faced with this reality, most people are content to know that their phone works and do not think about the science behind it.
Unhappily, there are some people who find it difficult to accept the science that relates to things that they either do not understand or find inconsistent with their pre-existing world view.
For example, when Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859, he knew it would create uproar and dissension.
This was so because what Darwin said about how life evolves on earth directly contradicted the long held beliefs of most of the world’s major religions, especially the monotheist religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
In their view, God had created the world and everything in it and so no further explanation was required.
Also, Darwin’s theory required accepting that the world had existed for very much longer than religious thinkers had hitherto believed.
As Darwin feared, his work was greeted with outrage, anger and derision by many people. They could not accept the truth about the origins of life on earth because it conflicted with a central tenet of their faith, which insisted upon a supernatural explanation for creation.
History shows that it took a very long time indeed for the religious to find a way to reconcile their beliefs with the undeniable truth of what Darwin had discovered, although there are still those who will not accept that evolution is a reality despite all evidence to the contrary.
For those people, their faith simply cannot be reconciled with demonstrable reality and so reality must be denied.
There are many examples of this type of thinking in the world and they range from being mostly harmless through to being profoundly dangerous.
Thus racist, misogynist and xenophobic ideas persist in the world despite ample scientific evidence that they are based upon completely erroneous ideas.
In a similar way, those who insist that climate change due to human activity is unproven or simply a hoax, believe that the harms created by global scale pollution and environmental degradation of the planet either are not happening at all or are of no real consequence or can be managed without major changes to the way the world’s economy is organised.
Their faith is not religious but ideological in nature but it still blinds them to the obvious truth and, so far at least, has prevented necessary corrective action being taken. We will all suffer greatly as a consequence.
Ironically, those who find science hardest to accept may cling tenaciously to ideas that are not supported by any credible evidence at all.
Thus anti-vaccination advocates point to the supposed dangers of vaccination without any apparent regard for the observable facts about the profoundly beneficial impact this has had in eradicating what were previously very lethal diseases.
They magnify the incredibly rare complications associated with vaccination to huge proportions and either down play or ignore the risks associated with not being vaccinated.
They place their faith in the idea that the diseases which vaccination is designed to protect against are part of a ‘natural’ life experience, for which we humans have a similarly natural or inherent capacity to adapt.
This is nonsense and utterly contrary to the observable and historic reality of the human experience of communicable diseases, which has been one of enormous suffering, disability and death.
The present coronavirus pandemic is an obvious example of what happens when a communicable disease runs rampant, yet there are still many people who apparently are unwilling to even consider being vaccinated if and when a vaccine becomes available.
As a person who grew up when diseases like polio and smallpox were rampant I know that vaccination has saved countless lives, so I find the anti-vaccination movement simply incomprehensible.
I think that it is very clear that when it comes to seeking the truth about the natural world and the wider universe, far too many humans prefer to cling to unproven and unprovable faith or ideologically based ideas rather than accept any science that is inconsistent with their predetermined world view.
I think that people do this in order to protect themselves from the necessity to open their minds to ideas that might cause them to have to alter a world view in which they find comfort and certainty.
Some people will not willingly give up such ideas if they are required to live in the real world as revealed by science, in which uncertainty, ambiguity, doubt and even danger are the normal state of affairs.
Other people do not wish to be forced to contemplate the unpleasant and confronting nature of the human species as the world’s foremost predator and despoiler of the natural world.
And still others may simply be intellectually overwhelmed by the sheer complexity that science has revealed, especially as we humans seem to be programmed to seek clear and simple explanations for often extremely complex and difficult problems.
Fortunately for humanity, there are amongst us people for whom doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity are a challenge, not something to be feared.
These are the inquisitive, inventive, persistent and sometimes courageous individuals who have faith in their ability to find the truth when all others either have given up or are unwilling to make the effort required to do so.
Were it not for these people, we all would still be living in caves, enduring the nasty, brutish and short lives of our ancestors.
All this is especially relevant to Papua New Guinea because the immediate ancestors of the current generation were confronted with things that were impossibilities in their world until the very moment they appeared.
Despite that, they chose to embrace ideas, technologies and experiences that were either utterly inconsistent with their previous world view or simply had no place in it.
I vividly remember people who were living completely traditional lives happily climbing into an aircraft to fly off to the coast for work.
In doing so they placed their faith in a technology about which they had no knowledge, let alone the ability to operate. They only knew that this machine could fly because they had seen it do so and they wanted to have that experience.
They demonstrated one astoundingly useful characteristic of human beings, which is the ability to adapt to a changing world.
In the main they managed to handle their collision with scientific modernity with remarkable ease.
Very few clung with irrational stubbornness to their old ways when faced with compelling evidence that a newer and mostly better way of living was available to them.
For this all living Papua New Guineans should be grateful.
If only those of us in the so called modern world beyond PNG could be as flexible and pragmatic as they were, we might do a much better job of creating and sustaining a world based upon the precepts of the revealed scientific truth, not those of faith in the supernatural or hopelessly misguided ideologies.