Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Appreciation for the Ancestors

I’ve had some time to think about the scientific method in recent days, and not just because of the ID flap in Kansas that set the blogging world all aflutter. Strangely enough, I find that I can tie some of my SCA experience to this subject.

I recently did a very simple Arts & Sciences project on making charcoal, and in the course of my research and work I was struck by just how scientifically minded some of our ancestors must have been. Someone in the ancient world was a razor-sharp observer who noticed that the coals left behind by a fire would actually burn again and burn hotter than the original wood fire. This person realized that a hotter fire could be useful, set out to make charcoal on purpose, and figured out how to do it.

There was no book of knowledge available to the first charcoal-maker; that inventor had to discover the secret. I can see that this person had a scientific mind; he or she figured out that wood left burning in open air would leave nothing but ash, while wood kept from air would leave charcoal. In all likelihood, this person used the scientific method: take a guess at what’s happening, then test to see if the guess is right. As history has shown time-after-time, this method gets results.

The inventor of charcoal passed the knowledge on to others, and they found uses for it. Charcoal burns hot enough to melt copper, tin, and iron. At some point, our observant ancestors noticed that such a hot fire could extract metal from rock, and they set out to do it on purpose. They must have tried different kinds of rock and different methods of keeping it in the fire until they knew which rocks to heat and how to extract metal efficiently. They built on the knowledge of their predecessors and passed their discoveries on to their descendants.

Make no mistake, modern civilization runs on the innovations of our ancestors. To quote a phrase, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

So I have to wonder why we want to kick the legs out from under some of our giants today. That’s what the Creationist/ID movement is trying to do. They don’t respect the success record of the scientific method. They don’t try to discover how life works; they don’t make observations and test guesses; they’re not attempting to do any real research. Someone told them what to believe, and they like what they were told, so they’re just attacking anything that contradicts that belief.

It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s a frightening one. Thanks to modern communication technology, virtually anyone can shout claims across the world, regardless of whether they contain a grain of truth, and the number of voices spreading the truth is unfortunately small compared to the number of voices spreading comforting lies. Welcome to the disinformation super-highway.

Think hard about what you what you want to teach your children. Your descendants will be standing on your shoulders someday. Those who have learned the scientific method will be giants. What will your descendants be?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw recently the recipe for making saltpeter, incredible.