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Mars and mistrust of science

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The original image of the “Face” on Mars’ surface, left, and a higher-resolution image of the same surface taken 20 years later. (Courtesy NASA)
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http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/sally-stephens/

The broad mistrust of science and critical thinking is a significant — and growing — problem in the United States, though not a new one.

For example, in 1976, the Viking spacecraft entered orbit around Mars. While two landers descended to the surface for up-close-and-personal study, the orbiters flying above took thousands and thousands of photos of the red planet. One image seemed to show an enormous human face, one mile long, jutting out in stark relief against a surrounding flat plain.

To scientists, the “Face” was clearly a butte or mesa, like those that dot the American West. Erosion from blowing winds, combined with dramatic low angle, late-afternoon lighting, created the illusion of an eye, nose and mouth. A black dot, indicating pixels of lost data, happened to fall where a nostril would be, making it look even more face-like.

But to others, the “Face” was clearly sculpted by an ancient Martian civilization. These believers noticed other nearby features they claimed were pyramids, ruined temples and fortifications. To the believers, NASA scientists were conspiring to keep the truth about alien civilizations from the American people.

In 1992, the first NASA mission after Viking approached Mars. However, a few days before the spacecraft arrived at the red planet, NASA lost all contact with it. It was likely a problem with a fuel line that caused the craft to spin out of control. But “Face” believers claimed the agency had intentionally destroyed the spacecraft to keep from having to admit the Face was real.

Four years later, NASA returned to Mars, and scientists — and the public — finally got another look at the Face. Better, higher-resolution cameras aboard the new orbiter showed there was, in fact, no eye, nose or mouth there. The “Face” was exactly what scientists had said it was: a natural landform sculpted by wind, not a sculpted human face.

Why were we convinced that’s what it was?

Humans look for familiar features in random patterns. And we’re particularly programmed to see faces. That’s why we see animals when we look at clouds, images of Jesus on potato chips, the profile of an old man on the side of a mountain in New Hampshire — or a face in a low-resolution photo of Mars.

The story of the Face on Mars illustrates how science is supposed to work. An intriguing observation is made. Scientists try to explain what was seen. Additional experiments are conducted — in this case, a new mission with better cameras — and scientists refine their explanation accordingly. Science is driven by data and results, not preconceived ideas or beliefs. Scientific theories are testable and the results are repeatable.

But the story also illustrates how results alone, without underlying respect for the scientific process that provided them, don’t always change people’s minds. Some believers argue NASA doctored the newer photos to make the “Face” less prominent. They continue to believe that NASA is hiding the truth about Mars and aliens. While these kinds of conspiratorial, anti-scientific beliefs were once considered to be on society’s fringe, their underlying mistrust of science and scientists has become almost mainstream.

We see it, for example, in the denial of climate change, the anti-vaccination movement, the Administration’s repudiation of evolution and its efforts to rescind science-based environmental protections. Distrust of science and scientists — often fanned by media pushing a political agenda — has potentially serious consequences for the environment, our health and our future.

The explosion in social media and the ease with which fake news spreads makes it increasingly harder to know what is real and what’s not. Science and the scientific method can provide a framework to help distinguish between the two, as long as people listen to what the scientific evidence says, not just what they want to believe.

In 1996, astronomer Carl Sagan presciently said: “Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.”

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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