“Situational Science”

Garry Trudeau exposed it in a big way in Doonesburytoday. “Situational Science” has been around for a while, but few knew there was a name for this social-political phenomenon. A quick check of Google shows that today’s Sunday cartoon strip is all the buzz on the Internet. Finally, someone nailed this new intellectual smokescreen on the head!

This interchange is between a student and his professor:

  • “Darn! These pesky scientific facts won’t line up behind my beliefs!”
  • “Situational Science is about respecting both sides of a scientific argument, not just the one supported by the facts.”
  • “That’s why I always teach the controversy! Like the evolution controversy, or the global warming controversy … not to mention the tobacco controversy, the mercury controversy … and the acid rain controversy.”

The name “situational science” appears to be a coined spin-off (and somewhat deprecatory variation) of the older “situational ethics“, the old argument that what I do cannot be labeled “right” or “wrong” by reference to established ethical and moral principles. It can only be analyzed in terms of what seemed convenient for me to do at the time – in the particular situation I perceived myself to be in. Thus, if I robbed a bank on Thursday, we can’t say this was “wrong”. We can only analyze all the situational particulars of that point in time. Hey, what if I was hung over and needed beer money in the worst way?

So, how does “situational science” work?

I’m winging these numbers, but the orders of magnitude are right:

  • The universe is about 13.7 billion years old.
  • The sun and solar system are almost 5 billion years old.
  • The continents as we know them today started cleaving off Gondwanaland sometime in the Jurassic period (about 167 million years ago), while T. Rex still ruled the land.
  • A vast inland sea flooded the North American interior from Arizona to Canada, about 72 million years ago. This sea hosted nightmare marine critters as large as brontosaurus and as fearsome as T.Rex.
  • Apes that walked erect are thought to have branched off from the simian evolutionary line around 4 million years ago. Early hominids such as homo erectus roamed Africa and most of the Old World about 2 million years ago.
  • Homo sapiens, our own species, is thought to have evolved over 100,000 years ago. These ancestors of ours, Cro-Magnon peoples, colonized Europe by 40,000 years ago. Their villages and tool-building technology were in many ways surprisingly modern.
  • We today are biologically and physiologically indistinguishable from the homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago because we are homo sapiens. The difference in culture lies entirely in the efficiency with which we can now discover and control our environment, and pass on those skills as accumulated knowledge, when we choose to exercise it.

Of course, that’s just what I say, based on 4,000 years accumulated knowledge, the history of science and technology, the disciplines of physics, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, biology, paleontology, archaeology, geology, oceanography, anthropology, and the physical record left in the earth itself … is not a walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon a “trip through time”? Let’s not forget to mention NASA, Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, and the record written on other planets currently being explored by Rover, Opportunity and Cassini.

The alternative is to declare, as did a writer to our local paper recently, that I choose to believe the universe is 14,000 years old, and that’s my theory, and my unsubstantiable theory is just as good as your trumped-up “scientific evidence” theory. (Actually, I thought the literalist Biblical interpretation placed the act of creation at about 4,000 years ago based solely on the time-line chronicle found in the Old Testament).

The Grand Canyon lies! You may think it started forming about 1.25 billion years ago, but my belief system says different.

Bottom line: “situational science” seems to be the view that what I believe cannot be labeled “right” or “wrong” by reference to established scientific fact or principle. It can only be analyzed in terms of what seemed convenient for me to believe at the time.

The corollary is that my construct is, therefore, just as valid as Stephen Hawking’s. When you criticize my shallow, self-serving assertions, I get to claim the moral high ground, because the learning passed on from hundreds and thousands of years of scientific investigation is just as un-scientific as my faith-based instant theory of everything.

Harrumph, my good man, I am the injured party here!

There you have it. We can all forget established scientific and physical principles and the record engraved in the solar system itself. Differences of opinion aren’t based on right or wrong, or facts. They’re just a controversy. “Need-based knowledge” has been around as long as witch doctors, and won’t be chased back into the shadow world of spirits and demons just because of a few hypothetical facts mankind has accumulated in 40,000 years of investigation.

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