Principles of Natural Philosophy

There are many people out there who will call me a bit of a geek, and I am one of them. Without getting too introspective, I like to think of myself as a competent geek. Not competent at any particular skill within the pantheon of geekdom, but conversant in the noble arts enough to get by.

In recent times, the once humble and overlooked geek has been raised within the public consciousness to a newly-built pedestal. I claim no part of that – it is almost certainly due to the perennial shifting of admirations from the global media – but the world now gazes on those who can use a scientific calculator with a more equitable split betwteen admiration and pity. I wish I could say it were ever thus.

One symptom of this new dynamic is that where science and the pursuit of knowledge were once overshadowed by the commercialism and avarice of the 1980s, they have now been dragged out in to the light of day. Scientists stand blinking in the floodlights of attention, doing the same fine job they have been doing for decades and yet – suddenly – with the approbation of the masses. And I wonder why.

I am no scientist, but I am an admirer of scientists. I cannot hope to win that most coveted of academic awards – the Nobel Prize – in any field, but what I can hope to do is assist with the understanding of something which I hold very dear. The scientific principle.

From the birth of my political self, one thing I have been aware of is that for some reason, the length of time one has held a belief for is somehow a market of how ‘right’ one is. Within politics, it is seen as being ‘unwavering’ or stalwart, as if a refusal to change ones opinion due to new information is somehow a good thing. And that changing ones belief to suit new evidence is somehow weak. I would argue that it is the opposite.

Many people think of science – or perhaps I shoud capitalise it – Science – as a doctrine, or dogmatic religion. Once again, I am no expert – but I see science as the opposite of this. It is a process and structure. Science is also – I believe wrongly – seen as the enemy of Religion. Here there may be some truth. Science is, at the most basic level, based on observation and replicable experiment, whereas religion is based on hearsay and faith, so it is possible that they are in opposition. I am making no claims to the contrary.

But science is, at its heart, the pursuit of knowledge, and the questioning of what we claim is reality. The willingness to learn new truths, and to overturn long-held beliefs are important tenets for the honest scientist. The works of Newton and Einstein, Darwin, Mendel, Faraday, Hooke and Boyle – perhaps some of the most famous names in Science – are constantly being tried, tested and questioned. No one is beyond such reproach. In future years, behind their backs and without the right to reply, today’s heroes of science – Feynman, Hawking, Dawkins et al will be both revered and condemned by the work they are doing now. And I would hope they will welcome it. As our knowledge increases, so does our ignorance.

The knowledge on which our current understanding of the universe – and everything in it – is based is being added to daily. Every small step forward adds to the sum of wisdom available to it. We can – being ensconced in a fairly liberal society – choose to accept it, learn from it and move on, or we can choose to ignore it, condemn it as false, and stay put. But increasingly, the world chooses to call on Science as our saviour, to repair the damage inflicted by previous generations of both the enlightened and the ignorant. Moving on is the imperative, which rubs some people up the wrong way.

Our ancestors made strides forward in the development and industrialisation of the world, so that today we have every right to expect nearly every baby born to western society to live well in to middle age. But this was at a cost. Medicines brought about larger populations, which required the cultivation of large areas of land. The furnaces of the industrial revolution – essential for improving the quality of life for the average human – brought the scourge of the 19th and 20th centuries – pollution. And the descendants of those who developed the poisons in which we now immerse ourselves every day on our commute in an air conditioned car to an air conditioned office are now the ones saving us from them.

I hope that we will continue to invest in those people who choose science as a career. It is often underpaid, and almost always thankless, but these people are not only the ones who will be responsible for the cleaning of our skies and seas; they are also the only ones capable of delivering those things we will desperately need in the near future. Energy, food, medicine and clean water, air to breathe and perhaps even space in which to consume all of the above.

For my part, I am extremely happy that somewhere out there is a person who is questioning every fact laid before them, subjecting newspaper headlines to the scrutiny which so many of us fail to impart. The balance has shifted, and now those willing to consider a change in their opinion may – at last – be seen as reasonable, honest and worthy of support.

Perhaps the biggest benefit we can expect from the acceptance of the nerds, the reverence of science and worship of the truth is that at last, the geek shall inherit the earth.

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