On Science and its place on the Spectrum of Thinking

July 25th, 2011

As I look over my list of topics I want to write about soon, it’s clear that I’m thinking a lot about science at the moment.  I’m a scientist and do science on a daily basis, or struggle to anyway, but I’ve had a lot of triggers to write about several aspects of science.  I’ve got kids telling me they want to be scientists and asking how to do it.  I was on a committee for a defending science education PhD student last week who is studying whether students are actually learning about science in practice rather than just scientific facts.  I’ve been reading some criticisms of science based on non-scientific thinking that makes me cringe.  I’ve also been discussing some issues of falling science funding in light of budget issues at the federal level.  Ugh.  A lot of thinking about science!

I don’t “worship” science or “believe in” science and I’m not a follower of “scientism.”  Those are a bunch of crap phrases and arguments by those who don’t understand science.  I respect science and empirically it’s the only way of reliably determining non-trivial things about how the universe really works.  That’s clearly empirically true based on the successes of science and demonstrated to people every day by our technology.

We all have our biases and I do, too, and science is the only hope for overcoming them and developing deep understanding.  Disrespect individual studies or individual scientists, but disrespect science and I consider you a fool.

Let me propose a spectrum of thinking, if you will, that describes ways of approaching knowledge in the world.  At one end is uncritical acceptance of information, and at the other is rigorous mathematical proof.  Both, usually, are useless in the real world.  Most people sit toward the accepting end of things, as is appropriate since a lot of information is trivial in some sense.  Amy Winehouse is dead, I’m pretty sure.  I didn’t see her body or check her pulse, but I believe it.  A lot of things can be taken in that way, and a lot of people stop there, unfortunately.  (Unless they are super biased and skeptical conspiracy theorists, but let’s move beyond them for now.)

Further along is argument of feasibility, legal thinking.  I’m not a fan, to tell you the truth.  It’s not about the truth.  It’s about plausibility.  Let’s say Amy Winehouse had not been seen for an extended period and someone argued that she was probably dead, and that seemed likely beyond a reasonable doubt.  It might not be true at all, but lawyers argue stuff like this all the time and juries decide…wrongly, often enough, it has been shown (the Innocence Project).  Just accepting what people say, or accepting plausible arguments that seem pretty good is not a way to get to highly reliable information.

To make a quick aside, let me repeat the story of a friend I may have mentioned before.  My friend was an astronomy major and then went on to law school.  One of his classmates was arguing to his friends about the origin of phases of the moon.  She suffered one of the standard misconceptions about this.  He stepped in and told them the correct explanation.  She then went back to her argument, saying, “Wait, I think I can convince you to come around to my point of view.”

That’s shocking and disgusting to me, a scientist.  I want to know the right answer.  I don’t want to be swayed by anything but an objective process of testing that’s largely independent of personal bias and verifiable.  But that’s legal thinking.  It’s about making a case, not about getting at the truth.  Not surprisingly, I’ve never been selected to be on a jury.  I actually think they made the right call in the Casey Anthony trial.  She may have done it, but the prosecution sure didn’t show it.  OJ probably did it, too, but I agreed with that jury as well: there was reasonable doubt since the police were racists and lied about it, and their labs were not to be trusted.  Moving on…

Then we get to SCIENCE.  It’s a thousand-handed monster, stumbling in the dark, blind, groping, but making progress.  Hoaxers and the biased get smacked down sooner or later.  In the long run, it’s fair, and it works.  Bitches, as they say.  In the real world science is thing that gets answers that can be trusted, at some level, even if they’re not ever quite perfect or proven.  Little is so ideal in reality.

Beyond science is philosophy and certain areas of math.  This is the ideal stuff, where things are proven.  And in most circumstances, as a descriptor of the real world outside of science, it’s totally useless in my opinion.  Mathematical descriptions are part of science of course, but I’m not talking about them, as they’re limited to theory and ideal circumstances.  Newton’s law of gravitation is perfect and precise, but limited in scope, a fact which physics encompasses but the perfect equation does not.

Let me turn my ire to one person I will term a “philosophy weenie” who challenges Sam Harris’s scientific approach to morality on the basis of philosophy.  I was skeptical myself of Harris’s claims initially, but after reading the Moral Landscape came around to the basic point, which is not unreasonable: science can inform our morality.  It’s not clear that it can solve every hard problem, but it’s a practical approach that works in the real world.  The weenie rejects his arguments based on “consequentialism” which is the philosophical equivalent of chaos theory.  If you change something, you cannot know the consequences.  But she missed the entire point and used a philosophical argument to tackle a scientific argument, which is very unreasonable.

She’s talking weather while Harris is talking climate.  She’s talking individuals while Harris is talking mobs.  She’s talking individual molecules while Harris is talking gas dynamics.

Philosophy, in too many cases, is worse than useless because it gets in the way of practical answers that work in the real work and develop real understanding.  I have little respect for many of these arguments.  Sure, science is a subset of philosophy — it’s the one that actually works and applies to reality.  You don’t have to agree with Sam Harris or his thesis, but you don’t disagree with it on the basis of this weenie argument or I ridicule it.  Science actually works in its regime, and saying it can’t is worse than stupid.

OK, that’s a little off my chest.   More science talk coming up.



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