When I talk to people about science, they often think I’m on the left or the right politically. When I wonder about the various sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they think I’m on the right. I’m not; it’s just science. When I tell them that addiction is a brain disease and needs treatment rather than punishment, they think I’m on the left. I’m not; it’s just science.
In science, left and right mean different things than they do politically. There’s no implication about ideology, no ability to predict what you’ll think about something. In science left and right don’t refer to ideas. Left and right are tails of a distribution.
Everything exists in a distribution. If you measured everyone you knew and plotted their heights on a graph you’d find a distribution of heights that approximates a “normal curve.” That’s the bell curve that so many of us are familiar with. In such a curve, the left wing would be people smaller than “normal,” and the right wing would be those taller than normal. But because these curves get tighter towards the outside and because science didn’t come up with left and right inside a two winged building, these are called tails, not wings, of the distribution.
There are many kinds of distribution. Normal isn’t the only one. There’s the chi square distribution. There’s the Poisson distribution. There’s expontential distributions. You get the point. But regardless of the distribution, left and right have a meaning in science. They are the extremes of the distribution.
We are, as a country, getting more extreme in our politics. The Pew Research Center did a nice piece showing how the distribution of consistent identification with conservatism and liberalism have changed in relation to political party affiliation. America used to look like a country with a single distribution of ideology. It’s starting to look like two countries with separate distributions.
The thing about extremes is that they rarely last long in science. If a chemical reaction goes too fast, it ends quickly — sometimes in an explosion. If the rabbits start breeding extremely fast, they outstrip their food supply and their population crashes. If the wolves eat all the rabbits, they starve and their population crashes. Nature keeps things going with equilibrium. When the pendulum swings to far to one side or the other, things don’t tend to last long. Science teaches us that extremes cost too much. They take too much energy to keep up.
Whether we’re on the right or the left, we’re still Americans. When we try to be more right than our neighbor or more left than our coworker, we have to exert energy that’s no longer available for being American. We start to lose American identity and gain the identity of the left or the right. Because such a thing is too difficult to maintain in a normal environment we have to change or environment to make this new equilibrium less expensive. We do that by hanging out only with people who agree with us. Hence the changes in the curves seen in the Pew article.
America has the best food production, the most defensible borders, and the best inland communication and navigation systems, of anyone else in the world. The only force in the world that could take down the United States of America is Americans. We seem lately to be doing our damnedest.
Howard Wetsman is an addiction psychiatrist living in New Orleans. He blogs at TOCDr.com and maintains a channel on YouTube where he has released his serial Ending Addiction. He is pursuing his goal of ending addiction by educating everyone about the genetics of addiction with this new venture GenEd Systems.