Wednesday, September 29, 2010

We scientists are freaks!

Conversations with my friends today have brought home to me a theme I've written about in places, but never with the thoughts crystallizing in my head today. The theme is the way by which scientists are trained to think about the world. Of course, there is no simple formula for the so-called 'scientific method' but there clearly is a way to think like a scientist.

A scientist uses logic (mathematical logic, as well as classical logic) and evidence in a way that many non-scientists seem unable to do. Logic forces us to consider the logical implications of our ideas, and when logic is incapable of resolving issues, we scientists turn not to faith but to evidence. We seek to develop ways by which the evidence can help us decide the validity of some hypothesis (idea). Ideas are cheap - but it involves creativity and effort to develop meaningful ways to evaluate our ideas. Scientists don't accept arguments by authority - no matter what credentials an individual might have, they're insufficient to keep others from questioning the ideas of the most famous scientist. We have no sacred texts, full of revealed truth. Truth in science is an ideal towards which we can strive but will never achieve. Honesty is the foundation of science, any intentional dishonesty is anathema. And so on ...

Although I make no claims that science is the answer to all our problems - far from it, actually - it's a way of thinking I believe can be applied successfully in many ways. When we're confronted with a problem, there's no one way to seek solutions to that problem, but any proposed solution should be based solidly on logic and evidence. If a proposed solution is illogical, or contrary to the evidence, it can't be considered to be of much value. When societies struggle to deal with complex problems like global climate change, extremist terror, abortion rights, the national economy, genetic manipulation, evolution, and so on, it seems to me that if people are going to vote on such topics, they need to have at least some understanding of the issues. It's not enough simply to accept someone's word about important issues! People shouldn't be willing to let someone else tell them what to think - they need to know how to think it out for themselves, and then do that thinking. Ostensibly, education should provide people with the tools to do this, but the sad fact is that most people find education to be boring and consider it to be irrelevant. And in many ways, that assessment is all too true - education in the USA gets low budgets and little priority.

You may not be a global change scientist, but if 99+% of global climate change scientists accept the IPCC position on the subject, is it rational and/or logical simply to disagree with that consensus? On what basis might a non-scientist disagree with the findings of the vast majority of global climate change scientists? Are you similarly inclined to dispute Einstein's Theory of Relativity? It's not that the consensus represents some sort of sacred truth - the IPCC report is not immune from dissenting opinions, but if you're claiming it's wrong in some way, surely you can offer extraordinarily compelling evidence to support your rejection of the consensus. How many global climate change deniers have provided such irrefutable evidence? The answer to that is clear: none of them.

When you see a debate between a global climate change denier and a global climate change scientist, the odds that one of them is correct are not 50-50! If you can't evaluate the scientific arguments, then it seems to me that a logical position is to accept the arguments of someone who has 99+% of that science community behind her/him! It's not a 'coin flip' - the debaters are not on equal footing. Not by a long shot!

Most people around the world seem to be drifting away from any interest in science and the technology derived from it. This, despite the overwhelming dependence in our modern world on science and technology! How can this be happening? It seems to me that the technology most of us use is making us lazy. It's work to think. Understanding and choosing among competing ideas takes substantial effort. Apparently, it's easier just to follow some demagogue masquerading as a 'pundit'! If education is to be effective, the recipient must be a fully-engaged participant in the process, no matter what the topic - no matter how good or bad the teacher might be. Education is not something we inflict on young people, it's a process they should understand and know how to continue for the rest of their lives! It's a commitment to learning no matter what the topic and without regard to the teacher's abilities.

One of my friends said it well - "We scientists are freaks!" For many of us, science necessarily is a lifelong dedication to gaining new understanding. And most of us are not only interested in science. Many of us are serious students of history, or some art, or journalism, or other topics. We are the most well-rounded people in my circle of acquaintances - how many artists do you know who are seriously involved in a hobby related to some science? I'm very proud of being associated with people who are likely to be capable thinkers and learners in many areas, not just their technical specialties.

I have much more to say on this, so I'll continue in my next posting.


Anonymous said...

I cannot wait any longer to keep reading the next posting, Chuck

Please, do not delay too much

It is an excellent dissertation about how young generations should be educated to become future citizens with self-independent thoughts and a critical nature

I absolutely agree

Education is a process that young people should understand and know how to continue for the rest of their lives

It's simply a commitment to learning no matter what the topic is


Chuck Doswell said...

Arnau is one of my UIB friends and is the source for the title of this extended piece.