Hello there, Apocalypse! Or why I think we need to be scientifically literate.

On December 21st, the world will come to an end… yet again.

We’ve been at World’s End all too often, it seems. There was the turn of the millennium with all the doomsday blockbusters (not counting Y2K), then at least one rapture in 2010 which never came, and now the end of Mayan calendar on December 21st, 2012. Really, by this time we should have seen the pattern and realized that, no, The End is not coming anytime soon.

Somehow, some people still want to believe that The End will come in all its glory in their lifetime.

I will not go into the psychology of why people want The End to come, because I’m one of those that doesn’t feel the need for it to come anytime soon (although it would be interesting). I cannot get into that headspace and find the logic behind it, but obviously there is a group of people who will believe in The End no matter how much evidence speaks to the contrary and even when the Maya hadn’t meant that at all. This group of people dreams up the scenarios that might happen and spreads the word, an act that sometimes I want to label as criminal considering how it affects some people and can potentially ruin their lives.

I think that is the part that I find most distasteful in the whole apocalypse-thingy. I don’t care if anybody believes the world will end, the problem is when the idea is imposed on the wrong person and affects them in a devastating way. Thankfully people are smarter these days and it takes a lot more than the Earth being swept by fire or water; you need a clear explanation as to how that can happen. Unfortunately, the very idea that makes people smarter is also being used to convince people of something that would not happen.

We’re in a scientific age. We know what science and technology brings us, but a lot of us don’t know how science works. We just know that what it says is right. The knowledge is taken by some more or less as a gospel and ‘Science’ has become a sacred word.

This does not only happen in world ending scenarios. Marketers use science and all its complicated terminologies to sell various products and services. Not all of them are completely false, BUT that doesn’t mean they are true either. The ‘scientifically’ explained 2012 apocalypse is just one gem in the enormous pseudo-science treasure chest (and one good enough for a movie, apparently).

I blame scientific illiteracy for these things to persist and continue to prey on people.

It is strange when you think that science is pretty much a part of the curriculum anywhere in the world, and yet people still get duped over science all the time. Is it because they don’t know enough to spot those fallacies? I would say no. There is too much knowledge in the universe for one person to master in a single lifetime, and it won’t be a productive life either. And to my experience, you can know everything you need to know and still get duped. The more important thing is understanding the principles in science and most importantly how science actually works.

That topic never get discussed in the curriculum, does it? Not where I come from at least.

It’s truly a shame that students are put through so many heartaches and headaches, learning about radical ideas (from centuries ago), and come out none the wiser. The people who get a glimpse into what it really is are those studying for a science degree, and some of them come out not understanding as much as they should. The downside to that is that science has in some aspect become an exclusive playground to scientists, almost like a cult with secret teachings and doctrines. But in its purest form, science is open to scrutiny. It’s a system based on the fact that knowledge is obtainable and verifiable by anyone anywhere.

When I think of scientific literacy, there are a couple of things involved. First is how science works. Like I mentioned before, science is open to scrutiny. Knowledge must be obtainable, repeatable, and verifiable by anyone anywhere to be considered fact. An idea or prediction in science must produce a distinctive result which is measurable to be considered plausible at all.

Another thing that I think of as a component of scientific literacy is the understanding of scientific principles: the philosophies, the thinking, rather than the knowledge. These are different for different disciplines in science and require a certain amount of familiarity with the material to understand precisely what is going on. I believe we already cover a good amount of that material in school but make the mistake of not making the connection to the thinking behind it. A student can learn about Darwin in class but doesn’t link it to the fact that (1) all living things change with time in response to the change in the environment (2) nothing in nature can be labelled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in an absolute term but rather ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’ in a particular scenario. This gets a lot of people duped over health products which claim to have ‘good’ things for you. While that label is okay for general use, it is good to ask how as a follow-up.

Proven principles also help in checking whether a proposed idea holds any ground. This helps if it cannot be confirmed immediately but note that the verification of plausibility alone does not in itself say that it is true. It just makes it more likely to be true. There is a distinct difference.

We’ll get back a bit to the apocalypse a bit to see how some claims hold in terms of scientific evidence. An asteroid or a planet hitting Earth on the 21st of December is obviously out, because an object that could destroy human civilization would have to be big, like 10s of kilometers across. We would see it hanging in the sky on its way to Earth weeks beforehand. A solar flare is also obviously out because the intensity of a flare is not enough to toast the Earth’s surface. Astronomers also have a very good idea of what a star would do so they would, to some degree, be able to detect an anomaly if that happens. So our sun is safe; nothing is exploding in our neighborhood. An epidemic is a more reasonable speculation and a real threat as we have seen from recent outbreaks of influenza, but an epidemic is slow. We can’t give a date to that. Most importantly, a bug that can destroy all of us on its own is very unlikely. If you’ve ever read Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain (a really good science-fiction if I might add, emphasizing on science), you’ll see that there is a compromise between being widespread and being deadly because natural selection will favor the bug that can prolong the life of its host which allows its spawn to survive. A dead host is no good for a bug. Another thing is we also want to survive. On the genetic level, we’re probably one of the most diverse species on the planet right now (aside from plants, insects, planktons, and microbes), a portion of us will have the right genetic make-up to make it through. That also happened with the plague during the Medieval period. If a bug turns up so deadly and frightening, what would more likely to happen is that our civilization would collapse out of panic, chaos, war, and starvation than the bug itself. In any case, there is no report of a super-bug ready to wipe us out.

The list of claims goes on and on and on, but there is no evidence of an apocalypse coming our way today or in any of the next few day. Why do the claims persist then? What I think of is that some scenarios presented sound possible, like the epidemic scenario, and some people treated as if they are true. But, like I said, being possible or plausible does not mean it will come true. A plausible explanation need not be true. That does not mean thinking of an apocalyptic scenario is entirely pointless, though. Thinking of worst-case scenarios can prepare us for when a real calamity arises. It is also a time to reflect on what really matters in our lives.

I think the healthy state of mind is to always be skeptical. Always demand proof and explanation that have evidence to them and not just something that sounds plausible, because that is where the trap lies. Be open to being wrong as much as being right and not just hang on to something simply because it was believed to be true in the past. That’s also the basis for scientific thinking to keep growing.

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