Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#31 - What Am I Hoping to Accomplish Here?

American Heathen:  aired: 16 March 2013

I find myself wanting to return to the issue of why people should invest a portion of their time in learning about science.  In a previous essay, I mentioned the value of scientific and mathematical methods for problem-solving.  It’s virtually certain that very few people, if any, have suddenly taken an interest in science as a result of that essay.  Can I realistically hope to change anyone’s mind about the value of learning science with these essays?  It seems rather unlikely that I could be very successful at changing people’s attitudes in any essay posted here.

So what am I hoping to accomplish?  I look at the irrational nonsense that comes from the mouths of politicians and pseudo-pundits when discussing matters where science is involved, such as the creationism vs. evolution “debate” or the “controversy” regarding global climate change – and I despair.  The chatter in the media swirls about in random eddies that mostly manage to miss the basic elements of a logical, scientific argument.  Some people jabber on endlessly without saying much that has any scientific basis, and many people nod their heads in agreement with what amounts to pure nonsense, unable to tell science from hogwash.  Is there any way I can hope to change that substantially?  Probably not.

It’s widely believed that scientists operate from a position of cold, dispassionate objectivity, collecting facts rather like someone collecting arrowheads in a wilderness.  Science is supposedly constructed from these factual “discoveries” as if we were assembling those arrowheads in a display case and that display somehow would represent science.  A collection of facts is not science!!

Science just isn’t done this way.  It’s not done by people who are totally “objective” in their approach.  Objectivity is way overrated as a viewpoint, and likely is never characteristic of any real human being.  We’re all biased in our perspectives, scientists and non-scientists alike.  The mindset that puts scientists in a different class from non-scientists is a virtually universal acceptance (among scientists) of the principle that we’re not discovering truths – rather, we’re investigating ideas that we’ve created in our heads, but in a way that seeks to disprove them!  We scientists try to remain skeptical regarding our own ideas (and those of others, of course), and we try to find evidence - not to support our ideas, but to determine which ideas can survive a rigorous test.  If the idea can’t be tested, it’s not yet science.

Unlike many other modes of thought, science is intimately aware of its failures and limitations.  When ideas have successfully negotiated many difficult challenges - and part of the art of science is to dream up new and innovative ways to test our ideas in such a way that those ideas could actually fail those tests - then we can apply them in the real world.  New scientific ideas like the Higgs boson become useful only to the extent that they fit the evidence.  If new evidence accumulates to the point where current ideas are becoming suspect, new ideas must be developed to fit the new evidence, and the preceding ideas must be discarded, not matter how much we might cherish them.

How many modes of thought do you know where the most basic ideas are at most considered provisional?  How many disciplines other than science have no sacred ideas and accept no arguments by authority?  The compelling aspect of science is that this seemingly fragile and constantly-changing way to think about the natural world has helped us put men on the Moon, to cure many heretofore incurable diseases, to connect the world in a network of technological capability, to understand how stars work, to probe into the deepest depths of space and also to the unimaginably strange world of the very small where quantum physics operates, and so on.  We’ve come a long way in the few hundred years that science as we know it has been operating. 

Among other things, it’s now an established scientific fact that clueless people are quite unlikely to realize they’re clueless.  This has been tested and fits the evidence!  Brainwashed people don’t know they’ve been brainwashed.  Therefore, they dispute vigorously anything that might shatter their delusions and illusions – they sound like this.  It’s definitely possible that my “reality” can differ from that of someone else, but we scientists aren’t free to substitute just any version of “reality” – we’re duty bound to make our understanding of reality as consistent with evidence as possible.  If there’s no evidence to support some version of reality, then we must decline to accept that as even provisional truth.  Without evidence, it’s most likely nothing more than a product of someone’s imagination – or, possibly, an idea that would allow the originator to control the lives of others for personal gain.

The essential key to a science-based worldview is that science makes no claim to absolute truth.  Anyone who claims to speak for a deity, to be a deity (!), or to be in possession of absolute truth is certain to be a deceiver, consciously nor not.  The deluded and brainwashed followers of irrational worldviews are fed a steady stream of assurances from their leaders that those leaders know exactly what is good for them, encouraging them to accept the magic without question.  Many have been indoctrinated by their parents to become slaves to a system that has no logical or rational basis, and have been threatened with terrible punishment should they stray from the rest of the flock, and tempted by the promise of an eternal life of bliss in return for their loyalty.

Accepting as truth something for which there’s no credible evidence can be thought of as “magical thinking” and adherents to a magical version of reality are evidently entirely free to pursue that to whatever ends they choose, without any constraint to match real-world evidence.  Such a worldview is inherently dangerous to the rest of the world that doesn’t accept that particular “reality”.  That danger is apparent to anyone who follows the news.  If magical thinking can’t be validated by credible evidence, then to what extent can actions based on those thoughts be justified?  The validity of such actions must be accepted on faith (i.e., without evidence), and anytime the ideas upon which those actions are based are questioned, the magical thinkers eschew logic, evidence and reason in their defense.  Mysterious ways, indeed!

I have no hopes for “converting” magical thinkers.  Perhaps a few will eventually have their moment of doubt that ultimately will cause them to reject that belief system.  Such a moment would almost certainly not be motivated by my words, but rather by their own experiences.  Most magical thinkers won’t stray from their magical thinking, preferring the false security and empty comfort of their irrational worldview.  So why am I going through all this?

Learning the ways of science is a very helpful path to enlightenment, even if you have no intention of being a scientist yourself.   Science breaks the chains of magical thinking and shows people how to think for themselves and how to form their own conclusions about the world.  Science provides one with ways to recognize illogical and erroneous arguments.  Science seeks to replace ignorance with verifiable understanding, not articles of faith.  But science also has a genuine humility, fueled by a deep, even quantitative understanding of its limitations and our limitations as its practitioners.  Finally, science retains a sense of mystery and wonder at what science doesn’t know.  Rediscover the joy of learning as much as possible about our world and how it works!

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.