Sunday, March 6, 2011

Being involved with Earth science

I've been deeply committed to "Earth Science" for more than 50 years, now. I can't explain the origins of my fascination with various aspects of this world, except to say that I've found the world in which I live to be a source of constant wonder. I understand an interest in such extraterrestrial topics as astronomy, but largely because I find it amazing to contemplate how we here on Earth have come to be here -- the debris of stellar supernovae come to self-awareness and a need to understand our roots in the physical universe. Extraterrestrial concepts are interesting to me in large part because of their comparison and contrast with what is going on here on Earth!

Anyway, the science of the Earth has been near and dear to me since I was a small boy. Not only is it a puzzle of monumental complexity that's quite capable of challenging the strongest intellects of our world, but the ramifications of Earth sciences have a clear relevance to everyone on the planet, whether they realize it or not! It pains me to see how aggressively ignorant so many humans are, willing to discard rationality in favor of cherished superstition or political agendas and unwilling to spend any time trying seriously to understand the grandeur of the physical processes upon which our very existence depends! Being ignorant is not a particularly good strategy for survival, but it seems to be quite popular these days. We ignore the contributions of Earth science at our peril.

Being a scientist necessarily involves the possibility of being wrong. As I've emphasized many times, being wrong is implicit in being a scientist. Fortunately for us, science is mostly self-correcting, including the occasional ethical transgressions of those whose ambitions exceed their commitment to the inherently honest work of science. Bad science is typically found out sooner or later, to the detriment of those who may have committed ethical transgressions in the process. If an idea is advanced that ultimately is inconsistent with the evidence, this will be noted and corrected eventually. Science is not a discovery of absolute truth, but an exploration of ideas created by fallible humans -- ideas in constant need of reconsideration in light of new evidence. We're often wrong in science, but we trust the process to correct our misunderstandings eventually.

Recently, I've seen some examples where some of my colleagues seem to be trapped inside the confines of what they've been taught. We're taught our science via the application of traditionally-accepted methods, that have been successful in the past. Those methods have been developed to deal with the particular challenges of our science, but it's disappointing to me when some of my colleagues feel that those methods define the processes. If science is to make progress, we need to avoid being trapped by traditional modes of thought that have worked in the past. We all should be prepared to be willing to embrace new ideas, even as we remain skeptical of all of them. It's a difficult road to walk, as it follows a narrow line between being blinded by old methods and being too willing to accept new methods.

Those seeking absolute truth must look to something other than science. Science simply does not deal in absolute truths! Skepticism about ideas that question the consensus is fine, but we must be able to recognize which of these new ideas is worth pursuing versus those that clearly are not. If we consider a hypothesis that goes against scientific consensus that involves, say, supernatural influences, this is simply not a meaningful path for the science to follow. If we wish to overthrow the consensus about something, it seems reasonable to ask for extraordinarily compelling evidence. An idea challenging the consensus that cannot provide compelling evidence is not acceptable, even if that idea ultimately turns out to be correct! The classic example of this is continental drift (proposed by Alfred Wegener, a meteorologist), the compelling evidence for which was lacking when Wegener proposed it, but was found many decades later. Science eventually came to embrace this notion, despite rejecting it when it first was proposed. This is a wonderful example of how science really works, but is misunderstood by most people.

Science is a marketplace of ideas. Good ideas eventually survive and bad ideas are discarded. Being a part of this is a lot of fun!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Broadly, as an Earth sciences student, I have encountered good professors and not so good professors. In retrospect all of the good professors that I can remember were, above all else, good teachers. Unfortunately only about half of the professors that I have encountered in the sciences so far were good professors. With many rather having involved themselves with largely self-promoting research than teaching.

Fortunately Chuck, you are not one of these individuals. You are one of the few professors out there who are able to maintain a very high standard in both research and teaching. Thanks.