Have faith in science, math experts

Do you remember that nerdy kid in your high school chemistry course who was continuously having his experiments explode in his face?

Yeah, that was me.

For that reason, among many others, I am not a scientist; I nonetheless feel a kinship to scientists, more so as I come to think of myself as a professional academic. Maybe it’s the lifestyle or our similar outlook on the world, but the connection is there.

And it’s starting to worry me.

The attacks on science are hitting closer to home.

Every other week there’s some announcement from a presidential candidate that flies in the face of scientific consensus — global warming and evolution, most prominently. And behind each denouncement of a well-held scientific concept is a denouncement of the scientists — my kinsmen — too.

Jon Huntsman famously tweeted in August, “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Shortly thereafter, I watched a clip of Huntsman fending off a belligerent Fox News host. Huntsman tried to divert attention back to his record, saying “Let’s get serious here,” and the host responded by saying, “Tell the scientists to get serious and stop making things up.” There I had to stop. Huntsman remained cool under fire, but I was ready to snap my (mechanical) pencil in two.

At first, I was seething with fury. How dare this host attack scientists without offering a shred of evidence? How dare he slander them?

Again, that kinship sparked something inside of me: I may not have been the target of the host’s outburst, but it hit me all the same.

If all it had been was a personal attack, then the fury would have been all I felt. But once the initial fury had boiled off, a deep gnawing fear took its place.

When someone says they don’t believe in global warming, they are saying they don’t believe what 97 percent of the people who research climate science have concluded based on the evidence.

That statistic needs repeating, since many Americans believe otherwise: 97 percent of the experts who study climate science every day of their lives agree with the primary tenets of anthropogenic climate change.

If we can’t trust that the people who devote their lives to understanding how the climate works actually understand how the climate works, who are we supposed to trust instead?

And the worry that keeps gnawing at me is that if science can so easily come under attack and disbelief, what hope do the hallowed halls of math have? Will we come to a time when expertise is less valued than having a catchy sound-bite?

There’s one key difference between science and math. In science, one searches for the best fit explanation for the data. In math, one gives a proof. In science, the results are one odd collection of data or one better explanation away from being rejected. In math, results are forever.

But it doesn’t stop the worry.

I imagine myself up there in Huntsman’s place, fending off a belligerent host. “Why should we believe this calculus stuff, anyway?” he asks.

I say: Because I and mathematical experts the world over know it to be true.

“When will you stop lying?” he interjects.

I try to keep calm, explain that I’m not lying and that I could prove some of the basic concepts right there, on camera, for all to see.

“Sorry,” he says, “we don’t have any more time on this segment. Thank you. Good bye.”

And yes, I have encountered cranks like this who believe that calculus is a sham, and the Internet is full of “debates” over whether point-nine-repeating equals one or not (it does).

In my class, I could prove every statement, every theorem, every law I present. But I don’t have the time. At some point, I just have to say, trust me. Trust that I am an expert in my field and know what I am talking about (all the while hitting myself for using an appeal to authority).

The truth is often far more fascinating than any lie I could make up anyway.

So until some other option presents itself, call me crazy.

But I’ll trust the scientists too.

_Joseph is a graduate student._