Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Problem with Science

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Before reading further, take a moment and watch this video. It's not very long, a little over 3 minutes: Bill Nye on CNN

This video struck a sour note with me. It seems as though this video exemplifies a lot of what is wrong with our society today. A debate about a politically charged controversial subject? No, not that part. The part at the very end. The part where the reporter says that the "science group" bullies people who don't agree with them.

Here's what I think is the biggest problem; people have opinions and ideas. Don't misunderstand me, ideas in and of themselves aren't what's wrong, no. But when we stubbornly and resolutely cling to an idea because we thought it up at some point, that's where it becomes a problem. As human beings we are subject to logical fallacies such as confirmation bias; I believe that what I think is right so much that I will refute whatever evidence is presented that might suggest otherwise, no matter how numerous or credible. In extreme cases of this, you start to develop wild conspiracy theories to defend my thought. In fact, human beings are so good at using logical fallacies that we have 2 dozen of them in our arsenal (for a breakdown of them check out this fun site: Your Logical Fallacy).

The main crux of the problem is that people believe that science is merely someone's opinion and can be argued against. Science isn't just my opinion, though. It's much more than that. Science is developed through the use of the Scientific Method, which all true scientists use. Sure, there are some crackpot "scientists" out there, but those people are to science what the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity; crazy extremists who do not represent the vast majority.

The scientific method can be a little complicated for people who are unfamiliar with it, but Neil DeGrasse Tyson sums it up nicely:
     "generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules: 
      test ideas by experiment and observation; 
      build on those ideas that pass the test; 
      reject the ones that fail;
      follow the evidence wherever it leads; 
      and question everything."

By using the scientific method we can ensure that the data is accurate. I can conduct an experiment. I can write down exactly how I did the experiment; what tools I used, when I did the experiment, what was being experimented on, and under what conditions. I can take very thorough notes and record my results. Then, another scientist can do a repeatability test and replicate my experiment. If they also achieve the same results, then the test is accurate and the results are true; we can put value in those results. For example, if I look into a powerful enough microscope I can see that water is comprised of 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen. This is true all of water, everywhere. It is scientific fact.

Where we, as a society, run into trouble is when we encounter someone who believes differently. Maybe this person thinks that water is HO2. Or maybe they think something crazy like H2S. No matter how much you try to explain that water is, in fact, H2O, they don't believe you. They employ their arsenal of logical fallacies and they stoutly and resolutely reject the truth with a determination that is sadly admirable. You can't help but admire their conviction, however misguided it may be.

But here's the other part of the problem; scientists themselves. As a PhD student I consider myself one of them, so this next part applies to me very much. Every scientist that I've ever met or read about or conversed with in any way has two major character flaws. 1) We are intensely curious people. We want to know everything. We learn as much as we can about as many things as we can. We read, a lot. We read non-fiction. While the rest of the world is watching American Idol or reading Game of Thrones, we are reading books on thermonuclear dynamics and astrophysics and contemplating the nature of the universe. This is kind of what compels us to do research and become scientists; an insatiable drive to know and to learn, to understand. But, this leads us directly to our other flaw: 2) We have a need to share, to teach, and to enlighten. We completely fall prey to the social bias, projection bias, where we assume that everyone must also share our love of learning and knowledge. To scientists, the idea that anyone would not want know the truth seems incredulous. Therefore, whenever we encounter someone who has a belief that doesn't fit with what we know to be accurate, scientifically speaking, then we are compelled to enlighten that person. This isn't done out of malice or hate. It's certainly not an attack on the person or their intelligence. After all, if we as scientists didn't think that you were intellectually capable of comprehending the information, it would be a futile endeavor to try to explain it to you in the first place. But, most scientists have the same problem as I do; the deep-seated compulsion to stamp out incorrect information. The problem is that not everyone wants that incorrect information stamped out, and that concept is so completely foreign to scientists that they can only react by trying harder to make you understand. It's a vicious cycle. It's not that scientists are trying to bully anyone. If you asked any scientist, I would wager large sums of money that they would say that they are simply trying to impart the gift of knowledge.

Some scientists are getting a little better about this and realizing that sometimes it's just better to leave well enough alone. But, sometimes these people who have such strongly held convictions that their belief is right and science is wrong are also very outspoken. The result of this is that other people begin to believe them and what started out as one person having a crazy notion snowballs into a movement, one that stands in the way of progress and scientific advancement. Scientists try to react to these movements by pointing out that it doesn't make sense or by demonstrating that they actually don't know that much about science. That's how we end up with satirical sites like this one that explains the dangers of water:

For me, my hope for the world is that everyone would be a little more open to the evidence and would actually critique their opinions and their beliefs and be okay with the idea that their belief might be wrong. Scientists do this frequently. They often publish retractions or corrections, such as when Dr. Stephen Hawking, published that he might have been wrong about black holes recently.