Don’t let sceptics turn science into a weapon

A computer-generated perspective view of Latona Corona and Dali Chasma on Venus

This computer-generated perspective view of Latona Corona and Dali Chasma on Venus shows Magellan radar data superimposed on topography. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) - Credit: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Like many of you, the other day I woke up to read headlines screaming “SCIENTISTS DISCOVER LIFE ON VENUS”. Like, I trust and expect, most of you I did not react to this by leaping to my feet and shouting “OMG LIFE ON VENUS” but rather by clicking on the link in question and saying “Yes, but have they really?”

Well no, of course they haven’t. What they have discovered is traces of a chemical called phosphine in Venus’s upper atmosphere. This chemical, as far as we know, does not arise unbidden, as it were, but rather is – again, as far as we know – either artificially produced in a chemical plant or the result of microbial activity.

So what scientists have discovered is, while not exactly the “LIFE ON VENUS!!” the headlines suggest, something whose presence in Venus’s atmosphere is, currently, difficult to explain without the presence of at least monocellular life somewhere in the planet’s biosphere.

It’s worth pointing out right now that unless astronomers are seriously mistaken about conditions on Venus, then monocellular life is likely to be as good as it gets, given that down on the planet’s surface the temperature is about 500 degrees Celsius. So even if this discovery is fully borne out in time, don’t be expecting to make contact with Venusians any day soon. And there is, of course, always the possibility that scientists will discover a method by which phosphine can be generated in a lifeless environment, at which point this will all be confirmed as having been a big fuss about nothing.

It is worth pointing out that the scientific method never claims to produce the final and definitive explanation of any observed phenomenon; simply the most convincing explanation we’ve yet found. Everything is under constant review and re-examination; scientific ‘fact’ is always provisional.

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I say this is worth pointing out because there is still a body of (misinformed) opinion which seems to regard the fact that “science” occasionally changes its mind about things as a weakness, a sign that “science” isn’t to be trusted.

The anti-masker brigade, for example, will occasionally point to the fact that the ‘everybody wear a mask’ recommendations/ordinances didn’t start until the pandemic had been under way for a few weeks as a sign that the whole wearing a mask thing has been retroactively bolted onto the pandemic as an opportunistic effort at population control (or something; who the hell even knows any more).

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That’s aside from the ones who still don’t believe the pandemic itself is actually happening, of course.

The truth is that this virus has been known to exist for less than a year; the medical and scientific establishments are learning about it in real time as the rest of us watch. So to begin with, masks were not considered an effective tool against infection as the virus wasn’t freely airborne. In due course, it became apparent that a lot of transmission was happening in public places as a result of people walking through the ‘cloud’ of virus particles that an infected person breathes out, and that if the (unknowingly) infected person wore a mask, the size of that ‘cloud’ would be greatly reduced, and so masks for all it was.

A lot of the resistance to masking up in the United States seems to stem from a general cultural resistance (especially on the American right) to the whole notion of a collective good, and indeed against the very idea of doing something for the benefit of other people.

Start caring about the welfare of strangers and the next thing you know... communism. It’s the very fact that wearing a mask is meant not to protect the wearer, but other people from the wearer, that seems to put some off.

There’s also the fact (and this is perhaps more internationally applicable) that putting on the mask is effectively a tacit acknowledgement that one might have the virus; some people don’t want to contemplate this and understandably so. But even if one knows for certain that one is uninfected, putting on the mask contributes to a culture of mask-acceptance, and makes it all the more likely that the unwittingly envirused will also mask up, which is good from the whole people-not-dying-unnecessarily angle.

Apart from some vague, huffing faux-libertarian victimhood-craving, I’m not even sure what the case against masks (in this country at least) is any more. Even those railing against mask use (including, I’m sorry to say, a radio host who has been a friend of mine for decades; that’s going to make any future meetings we have a bit awkward) don’t seem to know what their actual objections are, other than a foot-stamping, toddlerish nobody-tells-me- what-to-do.

Well maybe nobody does, but let’s not let them pass off throwing a petulant tantrum as taking a heroic stand for personal freedom, because it’s not.

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