Sunday, January 02, 2022
The disadvantages of being a scientist
I am a scientist. I have a university Ph.D. degree in chemistry, so I could put the title Dr. rer. nat. on my business cards (but I don't). After 10 years of university studies, I spent 25 years in a company doing research & development. As a general rule, a professional education and experience results in somebody knowing much more about the core subject of his education and job than the average citizen, and that even holds true for related subjects. For many people that doesn't play much of a role outside their job: A certified public accountant (CPA) knows a lot about accounting, but the subject is unlikely to come up during a family Christmas party.
Natural sciences are a bit different in that respect, because chemistry, physics, and biology literally relate to absolutely everything in our lives. I spent the last 5 years doing R&D on chemistry related to climate change, and that subject sure does come up in general conversation. I also understand enough of biology to have a somewhat better understanding about virology, a subject that has been hard to avoid in conversation over the last 2 years. But knowing more about something doesn't necessarily make life easier. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and you sure wouldn't want to explain scientific facts to everybody who mentions a subject in conversation.
I just got some New Year's wishes from a friend, who hoped in his mail that 2022 would be the year that COVID would go away. I couldn't bring myself to tell him the truth: COVID is way beyond the point where there was any hope that it would ever go away again. COVID will become part of our lives for the foreseeable future, it will just change from being pandemic to being endemic, that is to say everywhere. The good news is that COVID follows an evolution predictable by Darwinism: Successful variants like omicron are increasingly infective, but decreasingly mortal. A virus that kills its host is an evolutionary failure and tends to get left behind by the evolutionary more successful variant that spreads further by keeping its host alive. If you want to understand more about this, I would recommend you play the game Plague Inc. a couple of times. As a result the probability of you not catching COVID over the next decade is about the same as your probability of not catching a flu over the next decade, that is to say pretty close to zero. But your chances of surviving that COVID infection increase every year, and at some point the right-wing deniers who said that COVID is just a flu will actually be right, although that statement certainly was wrong in 2020/2021.
Regarding climate change, the central objective of the Paris Agreement is its long-term temperature goal to hold global average temperature increase to “well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. The bad news is that it is highly unlikely that the world will achieve this goal. Back in 2017 the probability of hitting the 2°C target was scientifically estimated to be around 5%; the fact that in the years since the world hasn't done enough to work towards the target means that today the probability is even lower. There is almost certainly going to be some overshoot. The not-so-bad news is that the 2°C target is completely arbitrary. We are currently "well below 2°C" and already have significant climate events. The probability of extreme weather events at let's say 2.5°C will be higher, but it isn't as if the world is fine at 1.9°C and then becomes uninhabitable at 2.1°C. The higher the temperature gets, the worse the situation for humanity will become, so battling climate change is a really good idea. But the criteria of failure or success are a lot more complicated than a single number.
You can see, knowing science doesn't make my world a happier place to live in. You constantly bump into people who spout nonsense because they don't have the scientific knowledge. And once again, like in the Middle Ages, we live in an age where people think that their irrational beliefs are more important than scientific facts.