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!
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.