Karl Neder rejected Einstein’s theory of General Relativity because it was ugly. Compared to the instinctive beauty of Newtonian physics, complex field equations and curved space time seemed fussy and contrived.
Karl Neder is a fictional character in science writer Philip Ball’s first novel, ‘The Sun and Moon Corrupted’*. But he represents a part of all of us: the part that rejects ideas and even facts because they don’t fit with our prevailing world view.
Change your beliefs
We are often so comfortable in this world view that shifting from it can be painful. I know: I’ve experienced it myself. Like Mark Lynas, author of ‘The God Species’** and environmental campaigner, I have had to radically change my views on some key issues.
Like nuclear power. I’m still not a fan of its past incarnations in either their technological form (see the waste piled up at Sellafield) or organisational (see the hidden subsidies from governments for years on end that were the only way to make it cost effective). But nuclear power increasingly seems to be our only option if we don’t want to return humankind to the stone ages and yet prevent the onrushing climate change calamity. Newer forms of nuclear power, though the capital costs remain incredible, do seem to be cleaner and safer.
Genetically engineered foods too. These days I might buy organic meat because of the welfare guarantees but I recognise that to reject GE vegetables and grains is to reject our best chance of feeding the world. Genetic engineering can increase yields, and slash requirements for pesticide and fertiliser.
While there may have been good reasons to reject nuclear power in the past, it’s irresponsible to cling to my views from two decades back when the prevailing evidence today shows that it is both safe and necessary. My objections to genetically engineered foods were based on no good sense: just instinct and propaganda (much of it created by Mark Lynas and his colleagues at the time). Accepting that I was wrong about them is vital, because people like me helped to prevent them doing years of good, feeding the hungry and cutting the impact of agriculture on the environment.
If we define our world view by one principle, rather than a set of opinions, then we can avoid making these mistakes. Or at the very least we can minimise the duration for which we are wrong and make it easier on ourselves to change our minds. That principle is a scientific one: one of decisions made on the basis of evidence.
This isn’t a principle without limits: I base my parenting on thousands of years of evolved instinct, rather consuming parenting manuals. But we don’t have good instincts for understanding the world around us in all its complexity, especially when those instincts are swayed by our desire to stay within self-defined comfort zones.
If we are to survive the future, and design a better one, it must be on the basis of evidence and logic, not instinct and fear.
*I would recommend ‘The Sun and Moon Corrupted’ to anyone, whether you are into science or not. There’s a fair amount of science in there, as you might expect from a writer on science fact, but it is wrapped around a fascinating plot, strong ideas and some really good main characters, particularly the main character and her father.
*I can highly recommend ‘The God Species’ too, whether it is reaffirming your (new) world view or challenging it. In fact I would go so far as to say it should be required reading. Maybe we need an equivalent of Gove’s scheme to give every school a bible…