Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Knowing What We Don't Know

Number of Species on Earth is 8.7 Million, Scientists Say:

Scientists have made the most precise calculation yet of the number of species on Earth, determining the total to be 8.7 million.

Previously estimated by mere educated guesses at a wide margin between three and 100 million, scientists calculated 8.7 million (plus or minus 1.3 million), a number they call "the most precise calculation ever offered" analyzing taxonomies and applying the patterns throughout genera and the rest of the classification hierarchy. The study was published on Tuesday in the journal PLoS Biology.

You gotta love how the “most precise calculation yet” includes a margin of error of plus/minus 1.3 MILLION. Even more eye popping is this:

Currently only about 1.2 million species have been officially registered, with about 700,000 informally registered and not present in central databases. Approximately 86 percent of land species and 91 percent of creatures in the ocean have yet to be discovered, Mora said.

All the years of exploration and scientific discovery and all the technological advances that have been made during those years and we still haven’t classified the vast majority of critters on earth? It shows you just how much we still don’t know about the wonders of this pale blue dot that we inhabit.

It also demonstrates the need for perspective, prudence, and humility when considering the abilities of science to provide the answers to everything. There’s no doubt that science, and more specifically the advent of the scientific method, has brought us a much greater understanding of our world and made possible many wonderful advances that have improved our lives in innumerable ways. But too often the limitations of science aren’t acknowledged and too much credence is placed on what science says about a particular matter at a particular time.

I’ve mentioned before that as a parent of three inquisitive young boys, I’ve been drawn back into areas that I haven’t really paid much attention to for years: astronomy, geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, biology, etc. Rediscovering an interest in these fields (not that there was much choice involved) has been a good experience for me as it’s easy to take them for granted as you take on the responsibilities and distractions of the adult world. And the opportunities for learning and exploring these area has never been greater with the quantity and quality of material now available on the internet, television, books, and videos. Our six-year-old son is already quite proficient at firing up Netflix and streaming dinosaur documentaries. The breadth and depth of the scientific knowledge that’s now available at our fingertips is amazing.

Along the way I’ve been remind that as much as might seem so at a given time, scientific knowledge is never static. What we know today is based on…what we know…TODAY. What we know tomorrow might be something different. A few examples:

- Pluto is no longer a planet

- There was no such thing as a Brontosaurus and the Apatosaurus didn’t live in swamps but on dry plains

- Despite what “The Flintstones” taught us, there was no such as a saber-toothed-tiger

- T-Rex may not have been a ferocious predator, but instead a scavenger who fed off the scraps of others. Or maybe not. Or maybe both.

The point again that what appears to be settled science at the moment often turns out to be far less settled over time. Rick Perry was recently ripped by many in the smart set for saying that evolution was a “theory that’s got some gaps in it.” Well, if you consider that on a fairly regular basis new fossil finds cause scientists to reconsider and often revise their understanding of the evolutionary process, how can you find fault with what Perry said? If you think that science has a perfect grasp of exactly how evolution was worked over the years and that the case is closed you have not been paying attention.

We should not hesitate to celebrate the progress that science has made in understanding our world and how it works. But we should recognize that for as much as we know today, there’s far more out there that we don’t know. And no matter how much science advances in the future, some things we never will.