Why Science Deserves Its Popularity

Merriam-Webster saw a major uptick in people searching for the word. What we choose to look up says a lot about what's important to us

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A friend of mine told me this fantastic joke recently: Werner Heisenberg is driving down the highway and a police officer stops him. “Sir, do you know you’re going 82 m.p.h.?” the officer asks. “Thanks a lot!” Heisenberg snaps. “Now I’m lost.”

So, um, get it? Because Heisenberg was the legendary German physicist? The one who concluded that you can know either the momentum of a particle or its location, but not both — at least not precisely? I know, I know, it’s a good one. You’re welcome.

All right, so maybe Werner Heisenberg jokes won’t be the best icebreaker the next time you go out, but here’s the thing: you’d probably have a slightly easier time getting a laugh this year than you would last, because physics jokes are funny only if you grasp a little bit about physics — and science in general — in the first place. Which brings us back to the happy announcement from the folks at Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that its word of the year for 2013 is, yes, science, based on the increase in look-ups it registered on the dictionary’s website, a cool 176% more than in 2012.

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That matters — a lot. The words the people of any culture seek to understand are powerful measures of what’s important to them at that moment. It’s unlikely many folks looked up tritium this year, but back in the early days of the nuclear age, the stuff could spell life or death. Something similar was true for temperance in the 1920s or fascism in the 1930s — especially since one of those ideas soon led to the disaster that was Prohibition and the other to a global war.

This makes the fact that science scored so high in 2013 a hopeful sign. It’s a word that implies a certain rigor, an intellectual discipline, a systemized accumulation of facts that can have a wonderful binary quality to them. If I say a virus causes a cold and you say it’s an imbalance of the body’s humors, well, I’m right and you’re wrong. Period. A similar absoluteness applied a long time ago to the round-vs.-flat earth debate and to the question of whether the earth — regardless of its shape — sat at the center of the universe. (Hint: it doesn’t.)

And the same, today, is true of the direct cause and effect between greenhouse gasses and global climate change. The science is real even if you call it a hoax, even if you scream about it on cable TV, even if you buy political ads saying otherwise. Science doesn’t care about any of that. Science can’t care. It’s a set of physical, chemical, thermal and other laws that play out over and over, predictably and consistently. You can’t argue with gravity. You can’t change fire’s mind.

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In recent years, however, a lot of people with very particular interests have sought to muddy the meaning of science — to make facts elastic, certainty doubtful. It’s not just the obtuseness of the climate-change deniers. It’s the know-nothingism of the vaccines-cause-autism camp. It’s the deadly cynicism of the tobacco industry, whose representatives continue to call smoking simply an adult choice, and who for years spoke of an imaginary “cigarette controversy,” as if anyone doubted that setting fire to a product that contains 600 additives and produces 4,000 compounds and then inhaling the smoke wouldn’t, you know, make you sick.

It’s easy enough to turn science’s own empirical absoluteness against it. Hey, it’s 3 degrees outside, and the past several years actually warmed more slowly than the ones before them. Where’s your climate change now? But establishing a scientific fact, like the indisputable truth that CO2 captures atmospheric heat, is not the same as saying you understand the billion moving parts in any climate system — anymore than knowing with certainty that HIV causes AIDS is the same as developing a vaccine or cure. Those things take time.

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Earlier in the year, well before Merriam-Webster’s announcement, there was a media firestorm over a Politico article that nicely captured the beating the concept of science has been taking of late. The Politico post revolved around leaked e-mails in which a Wall Street Journal sports editor was discussing a possible story called “In Defense of Football,” which would question whether people were overreacting to the risk of concussions in the sport. It’s not a wholly specious argument — humans do tend toward hysteria — though concussion science is awfully solid. Then, however, the Journal editor wrote this: “Another thing [the writer] might mention is this absurd concussion lobby, which consists of these researchers in Boston and other assorted grant-grubbing academics and worry warts who are all trying hard to push this nanny-state narrative.”

Well, no. Concussions are real. The chronic traumatic encephalopathy that comes from them is tragically so — and the dementia, violence and suicides that it can lead to have caused too much suffering already. Those “researchers in Boston” and the “other assorted grant-grubbing academics and worry warts” are doing good, dogged, important work. Calling them names and wanting them to be wrong is not the same as their actually being wrong. And if by “grant-grubbing” you mean “seeking the necessary funding to understand and treat a serious problem,” well, then say so, because to describe it any other way is to fail to grasp how science works and more important, what it is. If you truly don’t understand that, well, look it up.

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