Hello again after a long absence from On The Fence Voters! I was hoping I’d return in March and here I am! Nothing like waiting until the end though. I barely squeaked this one out. I’m now one month and five days into my retirement, which clearly hasn’t been the magic bullet I thought it would be for allowing me to contribute more quickly. At least not yet. I expect to be more productive once I catch up with all the surprising new demands which come along with no longer working for a living.
Enough of that however. I’ll get started with a little personal story which will have relevance at the end.
I’ve had a very clear memory from when I was only four years old, undoubtedly because what I remember was so meaningful to me it was impossible to forget. Some parts were not as clear, but my mother helped fill in the gaps with her own recollections. We talked about it over lunch and coffee one day and had an enjoyable time piecing it all together. It made me happy that she also remembered it, as it obviously meant something to her as well. My mother, who passed away only two years ago, was as much a close friend as she was my mom, while also being my greatest teacher ever.
It was around Christmas in 1965 and I was sitting on our living room floor in my pajamas. I was surrounded by scattered sections of plastic train track and many other toys I’d been playing with, but just in front of me were the broken remains of a toy locomotive which Santa Clause had left for me under our tree. I’d been fascinated with the little train engine from the moment I held it in my hands. I instantly noticed it was heavier than the plastic train cars it came with, so I knew it had something inside which made it different. It could pull the rest of the train around an oval track on our floor and I wanted to know what made it able to do that. I spent far more time examining the train engine than actually playing with the train.
It had a little lever which when moved to one side would cause the train to come to life with sound and motion. The wheels would spin furiously and if I turned it upside down, I could see other little things spinning around as well. I could see tiny flashes of blue light down inside and it made a faint odor I could smell if I held the train up close to my nose. When I moved the lever back the other way again, the train fell silent and the blue flashes and funny smell would go away. I remember moving the lever back and forth again and again, trying to figure out what was happening inside. To me there was nothing interesting about a toy train endlessly circling a plastic track on our floor. The only appeal to me was in finding out what was making the engine run, and the moment I thought of my dad’s hammer in the basement, the little toy was doomed.
One morning, not long after Christmas, I gave it everything I had with the only tool in my dad’s workshop I knew how to use. Only shadows of this memory remain, I can barely recall doing this. It probably took only two or three good swings. I remember picking up the mangled parts though, one by one, to closely examine them. My mother heard the booms I’d made against the floor and came running from wherever she’d been in the house. I remember looking up at her, suddenly standing over me with a shocked expression on her face. She immediately picked up the hammer and removed it from the room, then returned and sat down beside me on the floor.
Instead of being angry, she seemed joyful as she picked up the broken train parts and put them in a little pile. She then explained as best she could how the little parts worked (which was amazing in itself, because as she famously demonstrated many times during my growing-up years, she was in no way mechanically inclined.) She showed me the battery which had flown out and explained that it had ‘electricity’ inside it which made the train go, and which (I know now) gave it the ozone smell I’d noticed and the blue sparks I’d seen whenever the train was running. During our lunch together, my mother told me how she’d noticed my intense fascination with the train and therefore understood why I smashed it open. She knew I wanted to understand it, so she taught me about it as best she could, even if she was completely outside of her element. My mom was awesome in so many ways like this!
She found something small in the carpeting which I’d missed seeing and which lead to the moment I’d remember my entire life. She held up two shiny blocks of metal, each a bit smaller than a sugar cube. With a grin, she told me to hold out my hands. She gave me the metal blocks then told me to bring them slowly together until they touched. I did as she asked and without warning they jumped from my fingers and stuck to each other with a ‘click’ before falling to the floor. I gasped in astonishment and looked up at her with my mouth wide open. My mother, now laughing, told me to pick them up and pull them apart. It felt as if they were glued together until they suddenly popped free from each other and left me holding one in each hand again. “These are magnets”, she explained. “They came out of your train when you smashed it with the hammer! They helped make your train go!” She then flipped the magnets around in my fingers and told me to try again. This time they pushed away from each other. I was stunned. They were the most amazing things I’d ever seen in my four years of life. I was absolutely astounded. To me they were magic.
In nearly 56 years, I’ve never lost my fascination for magnets and the invisible force surrounding them. The difference today is that I know they’re not magic at all. I know they behave as they do because of the orderly arrangement of their atoms. Science taught me that it’s simply electromagnetism, one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. It’s a force so common we take it for granted every day. We experience it whenever we flip some kind of switch to turn some kind of electrical thing on, or whenever we play with a couple of little magnets in our hands.
Learning that magnets were not magic did not spoil my curiosity about them, but rather gave me a much deeper appreciation for them. I understood the explanations behind electromagnetism and why they were valid, and because I could accept them as true, they helped me move forward to understand more complicated things. It’s the way science works. Small truths build upon each other to uncover even greater truths, and when they all fit together, they make sense and confirm each other… and then offer even more pathways to even greater levels of understanding. Science is beautiful in this respect.
As I grew up, the only answers which ever satisfied me were the ones I found in science books. The day my mother introduced me to electromagnetism (or more simply, magnetism) was a very big deal. At the age of four, I became a Science Kid and I never looked back.
At this point you may be wondering something. If On The Fence Voters is a blog about politics in the USA, why am I writing an essay about a smashed toy, my mother, some magnets and science?
Well, for one thing it’s a great way to reintroduce myself after a long absence from this blog. My first encounter with magnets is a happy memory I enjoy sharing, so I thought I’d invite you into my world to know me on a personal level, which is the type of relationship I prefer to have with anyone who reads what I write. For another thing, it’s to tell you how I want to approach On The Fence Voters now that I’ve returned. Along with a variety of other topics, I want to write about science and I want to make it interesting for you. There are reasons for this.
I’ve noticed that people who take interest in science are not as easily fooled by misinformation and lies. I believe it’s because once they’ve understood that science is built upon critical thinking, supporting evidence and proof, they tend to apply those same standards to all the claims and arguments they then face in life. It just comes naturally through understanding. In a political context, this couldn’t be more important. It means they’re less likely to be duped by false information and are more likely to elect the most intelligent and best qualified leaders.
The number one prerequisite for solving our problems is to understand exactly what they are, and that’s not happening very often in our present age. All we do is politicize them. An increased knowledge of science can only help in this regard, and that’s why I feel science discussions in this political blog are both appropriate and justified. My hope is that if I write about science in interesting ways, you’ll begin to see how science arrives at its conclusions and then understand why it can and must be trusted. If you already understand and value science, my hope then is that I can give you something additional to say the next time you talk with a person who’s casting science in a negative light.
I need to mention that I have no academic credentials to teach science, but that’s fine because formally ‘teaching’ science is not my objective. I want to bring science to you in order to increase your understanding and interest, in the same way a person could explain the game of Baseball to me so that I could understand and enjoy it more. (I honestly don’t know much more about Baseball than players throwing and hitting balls with bats, then running like heck once they do.) A person could explain Baseball to me without being a baseball player, just as I can explain some aspects of science to you without being a professor or a physicist. My challenge will be to make it both interesting and factual, and it’s in the area of ‘facts’ where I will spend much of my time reading to make sure my essays are correct.
It will be so challenging that I’m wondering what I’m about to get myself into. I definitely view this project with some trepidation and I find myself taking deep and nervous breaths when I think about it. In no time at all, I expect to be writing about things way above my education level. I do know where to look for answers though and I feel I can be competent in explaining things… and hopefully in an interesting style.
I know this is a ‘tough sell’. I realize I’m asking you to believe that reading about and becoming interested in science will somehow change how we believe in things and that’s such an oversimplification. Keep in mind that I know it’s far more complicated than this. There are so many factors involved that it’s dizzying to try to comprehend them all. At its core though, I think the idea is a good one. It’s fundamental. We must first understand the problems we need to solve, and science, properly conducted, is all about understanding. The root causes for our wacky politics are the wacky things we allow ourselves to believe.
I can’t sugarcoat what’s happening these days. Thanks to the explosive rise and addictive nature of social media platforms, people are simply believing wrong things at an accelerating rate and are forming flawed opinions. These people then elect flawed leaders who casually deny scientific evidence before them, often in favor of religious convictions. Flawed leaders then write flawed policy. Citizens and leaders alike ignore good science and instead believe garbage. We have anti-vaxxers. We have anti-maskers. We have climate change deniers. We have conspiracy theorists. And all of this garbage – including racism and hatred which only divides us further — is spread on social media with a few mouse clicks while scientific explanations stagnate not far from their starting points.
Science has little chance to compete for our attention because it requires actual thought and is therefore considered ‘harder’, and is therefore not nearly as often ‘Liked’, ‘Shared’ or ‘Retweeted’. On social media, no points are ever awarded for reasoned arguments. Social media favors compulsive and emotional reactions to sensationalistic stories and quickly propels them through the ether. Because it’s so simple to mindlessly ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ whatever falsehoods flow across our news feeds, they’re practically guaranteed to be sent forward to the next hundred users, or to the next ten thousand… or even to the next hundred million. When falsehoods become the only information reaching the masses, a transformation occurs. The falsehoods become real and reality becomes ‘Fake News’.
Then people vote. Etcetera.
Science is all that stands between us and a newly emerging Dark Age. It’s the only thing trying to tackle the enormous problems facing our world today, and yet it’s misunderstood, maligned and ridiculed. Without science, we have nothing but the fantasy that God and prayers will somehow fix things for us. This is utterly unrealistic. If we’re keeping score (and we should be) we can easily see that God and prayers have put zero points on the board and I’d challenge anyone to prove otherwise. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the religious folks among us. People do have a right to their beliefs but they also need to understand that time is running out for our world and we cannot wait for divine assistance. We need to come together now to fix things for ourselves. Unfortunately, this is very unlikely to happen in the USA, when even the prospect of wearing masks to protect against airborne contagions has become a deeply divisive issue.
Finally, note that I’ve written this for rational people. Irrational people may read this if they want to but I truly doubt they’ll get my message. As we all have plainly observed over at least the last five years, there are many in our country who are definitely not rational. There are citizens and politicians alike who are fully aware of the garbage and lies they are spreading, yet who do so purposely because they are motivated by hatred and racism, by overzealous religious convictions or by excessively and needlessly high feelings of patriotism. They view even the slightest levels of governance as threats to personal liberties and constitutional rights. It’s a foregone conclusion that reading about and understanding science will not help them. I don’t think anything can help them but personal epiphanies which seem unlikely to happen at this point in their lives. I shake my head at all of this. As I see it, It boils down to one thing:
We have to want to be better than we’ve been.
I admire science because it elevates us as a species. All of us represent Homo Sapiens, the only species on earth which can analyze complex problems and take methodical steps to solve them, and that’s almost entirely because of science. Science will tell us what we need to know, but when nobody believes it, or worse yet, when enough people choose not to believe it, science might as well be dust in the wind. This is where we’re headed. We must reverse course. It has to start somewhere, and for me, this little blog is as good enough a place as any to begin. It’s what I want to do, even though I envision difficulty. I also envision happiness and satisfaction when I end up with something that works out!
Keep an open mind. Bear with me. Indulge me. Humor me. All those things. I’ll be flying by the seat of my pants because I’m a retired truck driver, not a scientist. When it comes to anything but the basics of science, I’ll be like my mother who was way outside her element, but still doing her best to explain how a little battery-powered toy works, all because she recognized a need to do so. I know some basics of science and I’ll do my best to tell you why they work, because I now recognize a need to do so. Our world is in peril in many ways and too many in our country have become science deniers. That simply has to change if we’re to have any hope in coming to our own rescue.