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This editor knows the value of science.

July 7, 2012

The Sydney Morning Herald has a great editorial today: Science gets a chance to show the way.

Using the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson as a hook, it makes some very commendable points:

Achievements such as those are like peaks in a mountain range. They draw the world’s attention, but really it is the great mass of the range itself that holds the peaks up which has more significance. Without the massive bulk below, the peaks would not reach so high. For science that great mass is a huge amount of lead-up work. The standard model of particle physics is the work of many hundreds of researchers, only one of whom was Professor Higgs. That achievement sits within the millions of achievements of the wider research effort of the whole science community. And that is enclosed, too, within the wider community which understands and supports what science has achieved and can achieve.

The way we live our lives is built on the efforts of scientists. Yet current trends are putting that effort in jeopardy. The first dangerous trend is the decline in the study of science among secondary school students.

The other trend jeopardising the role of science is the alarming tendency for people to dismiss what science has to offer. Science is so universal that it is taken for granted, even despised as merely one option among many in understanding the physical world. Science’s healthy scepticism can be turned against science itself. We see the effect in the rise of creationism, a sophistic attempt to assert the claims of religion in scientific, or rather, pseudo-scientific, terms. We see it too in the arguments of the climate-change sceptics, elaborated carefully in the language of science, but always with an unscientific agenda in view.

Scepticism is a necessary part of scientific progress. All evidence of climate change, like any scientific data, must be approached with a sceptical frame of mind so existing theories can be tested against new facts as they arise. But with climate science, scepticism is manipulated by those with closed minds to reach a pre-determined conclusion – that theories of climate change are somehow a vast conspiracy, conceived by malign forces and for obscure reasons, to undermine modern life. To such people, evidence of climate change is suspect; only evidence which tends to question it is conclusive. Thus is science perverted to corrupt ends.

Politicians who pander to a popular mood which questions science as the basis for public policy are only furthering and worsening both these trends. By offering a dramatic example of what disinterested science can achieve, the physicists who proved the existence of the Higgs boson have lifted all science out of this temporary morass. May it stay out.

An editor with a command of scientific literacy. Terrific.

But just to complete the picture, Mike Carlton urges us not to get carried away:

However, I urge caution. We must make sure this is not another scientific hoax like the wicked climate change conspiracy foisted upon us so the socialists can redistribute the world’s wealth. CERN and the Higgs boson boffins should run their findings past Alan Jones, Lord Monckton, Cardinal Pell and others who know what they’re talking about.

It will save a lot of trouble. Only the other day, Alan was in Melbourne explaining to an adoring crowd of 100 people that climate change is just ”propaganda”. It may be the poor chap is barking mad, of course. Breakfast radio can do that to you. I got out myself just before those nice young men in their clean white coats arrived with the padded van.

But science is too important to be left to the scientists.

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