“There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” Karl Marx
I have been thinking a lot lately about the state of science and its relationship to the rest of modern society. One of the most concerning issues, from my perspective, is a willingness of the part of many to use “incomplete” science to support particular viewpoints. By “incomplete”, I mean adopting and expressing a statement with either the belief or assertion that there is a substantial amount of supportive science, whereas in fact the opposite in true.There are no substitutes in science for patience, persistence, and rigour. Science is hard work, and it is fundamentally important to our society. Short cuts are not allowed.
As an example: denying that human-driven climate change is occurring, would NOT fall into this category. Denial is simple, and often willful ignorance. Arguing that the number of current deadly military conflicts has increased globally because of climate change, WOULD fall into this category. The latter is an intriguing hypothesis, but the jury is still out and we simply should not abandon other hypotheses in favour of this one. That would be dangerous.
This is something that bothered me a lot about Alexander Pyron’s recent article on the state of current species extinction. Pyron made a number of assertions about extinction which simply are not correct. He also made statements based on incomplete science, such as the manner in which the biosphere has recovered from mass extinctions in the past. His OBSERVATION that recovery has always occurred is of course accurate, but beyond that his reasoning is pure speculation. Now, here is my main point: I will level an equal criticism toward some on the opposite side of his argument, i.e. claims that we are in the midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction, and that we are now living in a new, human-characterized geological epoch, the Anthropocene. About the mass extinction, no, we are not there. Not yet anyway. Yes, humans are devastating biodiversity, but the scale of destruction has not reached levels seen in the fossil record. Furthermore, one of the features of a mass extinction is that rates of extinction greatly exceed rates of origination, i.e. the rate at which new species are evolved. That can happen either because the actual rate of extinction is accelerated, e.g. by an asteroid impact, and/or because the rate of speciation falls, perhaps because of climate change, changes of sea level, and so on. Today, what is the global rate of speciation? It has most likely plummeted in heavily urbanized and agriculturalized areas, but do we actually know? These questions are important, because their answers will hint at how much room remains for us chart a different course for both ourselves and biodiversity. We are not yet condemned to adapt to an ongoing mass extinction, but we must act to prevent one.
As for the Anthropocene; we humans will leave a mark in the geological record. But will we alter the geological future of the planet as it is currently unfolding? Will our presence be marked by a boundary or interval of mass extinction? In my opinion, the science is not yet complete.