Dominical Tangent

The last time I saw the West Coast I was cycling it in 2014

Up here in the mountains the temp ranges from 12-25 degrees these days, whereas three hours down at the coast in Dominical it sits at a nice 25-30. Last weekend was definitely a calming and needed weekend getaway. Upon shutting your eyes to sleep at night, if you start visualising skittish ants, squirming centipedes, sluggish caterpillars, or slithering worms, it’s probably time for a break. Some described Dominical as Florida in the 50s and with the surfing ‘mericans, laid-back locals, fruit stalls, taco joints, sun-bathing tourists, multi-lingual background chatter, coconut trees, palm-rows, colourful birds, and abundant reptiles, 50s Florida sounds about right.

Iguana bathing beside our breakfast table

Walking along the seaside market street, having just seen an iguana run out from the brush, skittering across the dust and gravel to stop poised below the tree, we got wondering as to why the only giants of south America left are the crocodiles and alpacas. Some friends were surprised at how recent the last glacial period was, and the fact that we are still in an ice age*. Researchers over in Adelaide have found evidence that humans were one component that combined with other factors leading to the decrease of megafauna populations. Although these stunning creatures were barely able to persist alongside humans, it was only when the glaciers retreated and the climate warmed around 12,300 years ago that a lot of the South American megafauna went extinct within a hundred years.

The Smilodon, or saber-toothed-cat was one of many megafauna to go extinct

The discussion moved onto whether the current climatic changes are human-induced, how life may fare in such conditions, how humans may cope, and in the end leading to the accusation that I am a climate change denier. Nice. Oh, how uni students like to enjoy the beach! “99% of scientists believe in anthropogenic climate change, so you should.” 99% of scientists denied continental movement and they also believed the sun to be only a few million years old, so, no thanks. Appealing to authority and appealing to majority are both excluded from my skeptical handbook for good reasons. I am not denying climate science at all, but I am not going to believe it because “science” or because “lots of scientists” do.

Toucan taking a break from fruit-munching outside the hostel.

The cult-like culture that has developed among some scientists who applaud science as our new Saviour is not too dissimilar to dogmatic religions or destructive regimes of the past. Alongside mythology and philosophy, science is just another means of understanding the world, deserving no extraordinary or special status. “But science has methods, peer-review, and systems that make it reliable.” Again, sorry, but no. The replication crisis that has arisen in the past decade has shown that nearly 70% of scientific studies can not be replicated by other researchers. Not only that, but the methods between disciplines and across time vary extensively**. The “scientific method” is a historically violated concept that has no pragmatic relevance to the progress of science. The methodical manner to which evolution was discovered bears few similarities to discovering the moons of Jupiter or the structure of DNA.

Science is a human-built institution with in-built systems designed to smooth out logical mistakes and perceptive limitations of us all. In the eloquent words of Jacob Bronowski:

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.

“No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power” -Dr Jacob Bronowski

In fact, this is arguably where science expresses itself most beautifully. For four hundred years we still haven’t found out what gravity is. Astronomers are still debating the origins of the moon. Whole fields have tossed and turned for the question of language and mind. The mechanisms of evolution are still under scrutiny and refinement, and human ancestry is still being pieced together. Yet none of this is demoralising for the scientist. I take every possible chance to quote Bronowski, and here again he articulates it perfectly:

Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.
  • *For some context, an ice age is when there are extensive ice sheets on both poles and alpine glaciers. The current ice age we are in at the moment began 2,600,000 years ago. Inside these ice ages are glacial periods (cycles within cycles) where extensive glaciers cover the continents. These periods coincide with the variations in the Earth’s orbit around the sun that occur on massive time scales beyond the scope of human lifetimes and so the the last glacial period was from 110,000 to 12,000 years ago. In historical perspective this ended long, long, long ago, around the same time that China domesticated rice. In a natural history perspective it feels like a mere pendulum sweep. Geologists think in ‘mya’ (millions of years ago) so 12,000 years is a mere breath.
This skeleton of a 4-ton giant sloth is just as big as modern elephants, another extinct pleistocene beast.
  • **Methods came out of a time when thought was applied to systematising the scientific process so that it could find out facts like a recipe. Unfortunately, science is a much messier process than methods would allow. Upon contemplating the existence of such methods, what would the rationale be for their justification?

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