So, even though the 23,000-year-old New Mexico evidence had been known since 2009, the 2018 Times reported the 13,000-year-old footprints as the oldest on the continent.
This tells us some important things about the nature of science and highlights some of our current difficulties with interpreting scientific findings. As I noted last year, “science” is not a “thing;” there is no single organization, nor an official spokesperson like the President of the United States. Science is a process of thinking about and trying to understand the natural world (including humans and their societies). Lots of people are part of millions of projects to figure things out. Science (i.e., the mass of those people, over time) aspires to “truth,” but, unlike most religions, does not claim to have done more than ‘the best job we can’ at getting close to it.
A twelve-year lag from discovery to publication isn’t all that unusual in science. After all, when dealing with events from thousands of years ago, what’s a decade? Part of the time is taken up with confirmation, verification, theorizing, contextualization, and all that’s before ploughing through the formal publication process, with its own hurdles and delays. History isn’t all that different. Normally, it’s no big deal.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed how we see this process, however. Not only is each small step along the way immediately publicized, but our anxiety over the impact of COVID has led us, as a global society, to expect/demand instantaneous results and alignment. The ordinary, incremental, and conservative/prudent course taken by researchers, Big Pharma, and the FDA/CDC/NIH can come across as bureaucratic and uncaring. I mean: “What’s with this Pfizer booster shot? The Administration (self-proclaimed champions of “science” says: go! (even before the test results are in)). Pfizer says: go!, then it’s a while until the FDA Advisory committee says: go! Then the FDA has to “make it official.” Then the CDC has to tweak and the answer to fit into an implementation plan. Then we all need to hear the benediction from Dr. Fauci. The “normal” scientific process values methods that produce a high degree of confidence in its results; it doesn’t aim at a binary yes/no, go/no go decision; it would rather be right (i.e. highly confident), than fast.
But this looks weird under the media spotlight amplified by global anxieties. What we have seen over the past 18 months is pretty miraculous on several levels and we should all be grateful. The science that normally plods along, unseen by more than a few hundred people, is now ”BREAKING NEWS.” The folks that do the work should perhaps be cut some slack at being slightly discombobulated by all the attention and the expectations of not only miracles, but immediate and definitive miracles to boot.
Nor should we be surprised when “Science” changes “it’s” mind. We learn. We learn methodically. We then adapt to new learnings (hopefully). We all remember when we were scrubbing down boxes of soy milk from the market and dousing cantaloupes in a mild detergent rinse. We learned that COVID is basically an air-borne disease and adjusted. When the next curve ball comes at us, we shouldn’t be surprised. None of this means that “Science” was wrong, since it never claimed to be “right.” It only claimed to give us its best thinking at the time.
This lack of certainty inherent in the scientific process unfortunately creates an opening for those who, for various reasons, either want to attack “Science” or who think that since, it’s not perfect, anybody can do it and come up with their own explanations that are just as good. This is a breeding ground for anti-Vaxxers, anti-masketeers, and (my recent favorite) a woman apparently suing a hospital in Bakersfield to require them to give Ivermectin (an antiparasitic drug) to her ICU-bound, COVID-inflicted husband, despite a total absence of “scientific” evidence of effectiveness.
We are seeing the same set of reactions to the science of climate change, to even more dire results. There, as with COVID, the projections of scientists may prove to be incorrect. In the 18 and 19C, most intellectual elites thought that there was an invisible “aether” through which many physical phenomena operated, most doctors that “bleeding” of patients was a great therapeutic regimen. All those smart guys were wrong, or at least we no longer think their answers make sense. As I have said in other contexts, science, like democracy, is about humility and our collective ability/willingness to allow for the possibility of error. So, while there is no room for smugness, neither is there room for burying our collective head in the sand. Intelligent people operate on the basis of the best information/ideas/theories that they have available. In terms of climate, it’s only prudent to take significant action immediately.
In terms of the anthropological peopling of the Western Hemisphere, there’s no great rush to confirm that the New Mexico footprints are 23,000 years old. If the 2018 Times report omitted the 2009 discovery of those footprints, we can all live with that. The stakes are lower. Most of the time, if scientists take twelve years to publish their startling data and insights, that’s OK; it’s just science at work.