EDITORIAL: A lesson of Monday’s eclipse — trust science

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At 11:54 on Monday morning, the sun will begin to disappear behind the moon. At 2:42 p.m., the sun will be back in full. When the eclipse is at its maximum, 87 percent of the sun, from the point of view of those of us in Chicago, will be blocked.

Not 86 or 88 percent, but 87 percent.

How do we know this?  Scientists say so. They figured it out and we believe them. It wouldn’t matter if we didn’t. The eclipse is coming all the same.


But when it comes to all kinds of other scientifically verified phenomena — the reality of man-made climate change, the safety of vaccinations, the safety of genetically modified crops — it is remarkable how easily so many otherwise sensible people tune scientists out. For reasons that have nothing to do with science, they reject the overwhelming consensus of the folks who know best.

Skeptics reject the scientific consensus on climate change because it conflicts with their free-market ideology. Who’s to tell a factory owner to stop belching coal smoke? They reject the consensus that vaccinations are extremely safe because they are grasping at explanations for autism. Have they not noticed that, thanks to vaccinations programs, kids with polio are no longer lined up in breathing tanks in hospitals?

They reject the consensus that genetically modified crops pose no more risk to health than other foods because they just don’t trust industrial-scale agriculture.

Skepticism is good. It is at the heart of the work news reporters do. As the old City News Bureau saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” But when the scientific consensus is overwhelming — as it is in the three examples cited here — common sense says to go for it.

Thanks to science, we better understand our world in the smallest and biggest ways, from the whirl of neutrinos to the spin of galaxies. A hundred trillion neutrinos, by the way, just passed through your body in the time it took you to read this sentence. Believe it or not.

Monday’s solar eclipse reminds us that the natural world will do its thing whether we listen to scientists or not. Climate change, for one, can’t be wished away. It makes more sense to do something about it.

Don’t forget to wear those special safety glasses when looking up at the eclipse. If you don’t, scientists warn, you could go blind.

Funny how we believe them when our immediate well-being is on the line.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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