Day 5: This SCIENCE of which you speak …

Date posted: January 28, 2009
Posted in: 100 Days of Science | Behind the Science
Comments: 6 Comments

 

The comment arrived on Day 2 of my 100-day effort, and I now regret getting so angry that I deleted it. My friend, posing as an anonymous reader, quoted my own line: “The scientific process is robust; its only weakness is human error,” and wrote:

“Yikes, what if we humans erred right at the beginning, in our conception and formation of the scientific method itself?  An important question that I raise here only rhetorically.”

Preposterous, I thought. Ridiculous!

Delete.

You might say I treasure the scientific method. Apparently I stand ready to defend it tooth and nail — or at least with the “delete” key. But why?

It’s a good time to ask the question, since I’ve launched a daily science blog that happens to be tracking, almost to the day, with the first 100 days of the Obama administration. My blog is inspired by Obama, because our new president is challenging us to contribute as much as we can, and because of the mindset that led Obama to say, in his inaugural address, that he wishes to “restore science to its rightful place.” In response,  Scienceblogs.com has put out a query asking scientists to define science’s place. The science-minded blogging community has begun to take up the challenge, with one prolific writer going so far as to say the scientific method should provide a framework for how governmental decisions are made.

Science informing the very structure of government? But … what about the radical Biblical adherents, the conspiracy theorists, and the bleeding-heart environmentalists who have no use for science? Who believe some of their tenets defy scientific explanation? This might scare those camps. But it shouldn’t. Part of putting science into its rightful place is realizing what it is not. Science is not, as some anti-evolution camps like to pretend, a blind dogma.  It is a process, a way of exploring the world that is always, by its very nature, open to new input and, ultimately, new interpretations. As a process, it is guileless and perfect.

1. Make an observation

2. Form a hypothesis, or a tentative explanation, to explain the observation

3. Perform an experiment to test your hypothesis

The scientific method is explained in various ways because people try to add details to help it make sense. For example, some people feel the need to point out that previous studies should be reviewed in forming a hypothesis, or that data at the end of the experimental phase should be analyzed and reported. But that’s it, really, in its birthday suit: notice, try to explain, and test. It’s a respectable process, weak only when human bias intervenes. But, because the scientific culture is cautious — often performing experiment, after experiment, after experiment to test hypotheses — weak links in the chain are often rooted out by scientists themselves. Hypotheses that withstand multiple investigations, like evolution, are elevated to the status of theories. No self-respecting scientist claims to “prove” anything. Experiments can support existing theories, sure. But certainties are rare. Science is progressive and self-correcting.

Because of eight years under an administration which disrespected science, I’m still a little raw – which is probably why I reacted so poorly to my friend’s question. People who would like to exempt their beliefs from scientific inquiry have turned science into a sort of opposing team, attacking both its tested theories and its inherent open-mindedness. The Bush administration made end-runs around scientific research about climate change. Just last week, scientific classrooms escaped another attempt to place an untested and untestable theory — Biblical creation — into science classrooms. These attacks are ignorant. They fail to recognize that science is not a political position, and scientists are not playing on an opposing sports team. 

For the record, I believe in God and His role in creation. I believe evolution is a God-inspired process, and I am grateful to Him for giving humans the curiosity, ability and willingness to do science. But the Bible belongs in the religion classroom, not the science lab.

What’s the rightful place of science? Science belongs in the curious mind of every single citizen of this country, and it should inform every decision we make. Science is a valid and important method of inquiry and discovery; that’s all. It is tested and it is true. Use it alongside your feelings and non-scientific convictions if you wish, but don’t try to fight science, manipulate science or cover it up. How much more smoothly would our conversations go, how much collective mental and emotional energy would we save if, instead of attacking science, we said things like: “The science shows A, but I choose to do B, and that’s because I have faith, or because I’m choosing to value my emotions over the data.” Fine; no problem. Just be honest about it.

6 Responses to “Day 5: This SCIENCE of which you speak …”

  1. M on January 28th, 2009 8:32 am

    Well-put. Informed by emotion, too, which I like.

  2. John DeRussy on January 28th, 2009 7:59 pm

    I really liked what you shared here. Very inspired and thought provoking! As you put it, “Science is progressive and self-correcting.” With progress things always improve and get better. And since I too am a person that believes in God, I see that curiosity we have as humans to learn only will continue to see progressive and positive results and maybe the general world belief could some day link Science and God as inter-related, I know some that already believe that. Thse are my thoughts coming from a non-science person.

  3. Grahamps on January 28th, 2009 11:12 pm

    While I am left struggling with an image of a naked scientific method, I am inspired by your activity here. It’s the dance marathon of science reporting and I am looking forward to the highs and lows and the victory on the other side. This article was an excellent, good time.

  4. abb3w on January 29th, 2009 10:12 am

    Mathematically, there’s a bit more to the scientific method. Most importantly: hypotheses must be compared to each other for how well they describe the observation (including experiment results).

  5. Arctic Kitty on January 30th, 2009 1:06 pm

    I feel it is blatant hypocrisy to describe the scientific method as you do, and then still apparently buy into the global warming CO2 scam. Noone in their right mind wants to pollute the environment. But blindly believing in and pushing an obvious hoax polarizes the masses and ends up hurting any progress on real issues more than it helps. Nice site and well written posts.

  6. Notagod on February 5th, 2009 2:17 pm

    This is basically what W did:
    “The science shows A, but I choose to do B, and that’s because I have faith,
    or because I’m choosing to value my emotions over the data.”

    He certainly didn’t do this (or maybe he did from a christian view of honesty):
    Fine; no problem. Just be honest about it.

    But I fail to understand how that would have ensured a significantly different result. Although it might have made it easier to review and understand what caused the problem. Maybe if christians were as honest as you are suggesting, I suppose if all of them were honest, maybe it would be a workable situation. However, I note that your statement seems to give equal weight to science and faith in a decision making process. But one of the real purposes of science is to remove the error prone process of making decisions based on faith. It is understandable to choose ‘B’ (faith) over ‘A’ (facts) for personal decisions but, when the decision affects many other people I don’t think ‘B’ is enough. It seems to me that if you have faith that ‘A’ is not correct the responsible action would be to find out why, not simply to push ‘A’ aside.

    Historically, both faith based decisions and science based decisions have produced erroneous results. When science based decisions are wrong we can go back and examine the process, find out what errors were made, correct the process and produce better results the next time. When faith based decisions are wrong we can pray more and hope that god-idea produces a better result next time.