Editorial: Bet on science to (eventually) show us the way to the truth
Sometimes, it shows up in amusing ways, as when people dismissed last month's Mayan prediction of the end of the world.
And sometimes, it shows up in more meaningful ways, as noted below. But through it all, a pattern emerges. It's one that has held up for centuries, and in all probability, it'll keep doing so for centuries more:
"Science will win out." Science will have its way.
And over time, people will come to believe it.
Science's enormous power owes itself to this principle: Reality is on science's side. For society, that means beliefs that are in accordance with science gradually will be proven right, while beliefs that are against science ultimately will be proven wrong.
Science's willingness to accept experimental and other evidence is the closest thing we have to an unstoppable intellectual force.
Exhibit A of 2013: Mark Lynas' extraordinary conversion from an anti-GMO activist to one of the strongest supporters of genetically modified foods in the world.
The Toronto Globe and Mail tells the story:
"Environmental journalist Mark Lynas used to think that genetically modified crops were evil," the newspaper reported Jan. 8.
"He was a leader in the anti-GM movement, and spent years helping to rip out GM crops.... Today, GM technology is feared and reviled by celebrity chefs, foodies and peasant farmers around the world. GM crops are banned in much of Africa and India, and all but banned in Europe.
"But now, Mr. Lynas has recanted. He admits he was unequivocally, disastrously wrong about GM foods, and he's offering his apology.
"'I could not have chosen a more counterproductive path,' he told a British farming conference on Jan. 3. 'I now regret it completely.'"
So, how did this happen?
"He started studying the science," the Globe and Mail continued.
"He discovered there was no scientific evidence for the alleged dangers of GM technology, and overwhelming evidence for its value in increasing crop yields and producing more and better food to feed the hungry of the world."
And as Lynas goes, Europe, Africa and India will follow -- not next week and not next year, but eventually, as the weight of the evidence comes to bear.
After all, we've seen "over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten, and there has never been a single substantiated case of harm," Lynas said in his Jan. 3 speech.
"You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food."
Here's another example, this one showing how science probes for weaknesses in science's very own claims.
In the 1980s and 1990s, "drug manufacturers and some pain specialists helped create a body of research assuaging the long-standing worries about opioids and pushed to expand the use of the drugs in people with chronic pain," The Washington Post reported last month.
"Their studies reported minimal risks of addiction and dependence." As a result, painkiller prescriptions soared.
Now, we're paying the price, because addiction has soared, too. Those earlier studies were grievously flawed, as even the researchers who publicized them are starting to admit: "I gave innumerable lectures in the late 1980s and '90s about addiction that weren't true," said Dr. Russell Portenoy, a pain-care specialist in New York City, in a recent Wall Street Journal story.
"Clearly, if I had an inkling of what I know now then, I wouldn't have spoken in the way that I spoke. It was clearly the wrong thing to do."
Note the pattern: Someone - at times, a scientist - makes a claim about the way the world works. At that level, there's little difference between science and any other ideology.
But over time, the difference becomes clear, because science corrects its mistakes. It doesn't happen without harm, as families devastated by painkiller addiction know. And it doesn't happen overnight.
But it happens. And how lucky we are to live in a society that lets this tectonic process play out.
This opinion piece originally appeared in the Grand Forks Herald, a publication of Forum Communications. Dennis is a regular columnist for the Herald.