Wednesday, March 3, 2010

War Metaphor

With our nation in two wars and with conflicts of various kinds simmering or breaking out at various points around the world it is no surprise that war is the metaphor we use for sports, bad relationships, and even conflicts on cooking shows. This week's science section in the New York Times used a war metaphor favored by science geeks and senior military leaders to describe the current conflict over climate change:

"The battle is asymmetric, in the sense that scientists feel compelled to support their findings with careful observation and replicable analysis, while their critics are free to make sweeping statements condemning their work as fraudulent."

Asymmetric can be good or bad depending on which side of the asymmetry you happen to be on. I wrote about my riding buddy Lt. Col. David Callahan of 4th Bde, 1st Armored. He was a tank platoon leader in the Gulf War and was on the good side of assymetry. Iraqi T-62s attacked his platoon. His tanks engaged the Iraqi tanks and took them out with first-round hits at 1,980 and 2,340 meters. The Iraqis could not fire effectively at that range. Asymmetric is good when you have the M1 Abrams with the stabilized gun and computerized sights and the other guy is fighting from Soviet surplus armor.

But we are on the bad side of asymmetric warfare when the bad guys fire at us from mosques and hospitals and we can't fire back.

I am flying home from a gathering of 15,000-plus people who design, build, buy and sell the kind of analytical instruments that the real CSI people use and every lab relies on. Walking around an event like that, listening to presentations on the latest in bomb sniffing devices, water and food quality testing, and all the rest of the instrumentation at that show, it seems just incredible that anyone could be getting their science information from Talk Radio shows, Larry King Live guests, or TV preachers.

In the same article, one scientist said the answer was just to stick to his work, that "Good science is the best revenge." I wish it were true, but it is not because you do not have to believe in science to use it. People who believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old use computers to promote their belief. But all computers are based on 20th century physics which grew out of Einstein's work at the beginning of the century. If Einstein is right, computers exist and the universe is about 12 billion years old. If Einstein is wrong, computers would not exist in their current form. Nothing prevents someone who rejects science from using the results of good science to promote their own lunacy.

Good science extends and enhances the lives of people who reject it. In this way, science arms its own enemies. It is on the wrong side of a very asymmetric war.