A little while back I posted a quote from Carl Sagan about how we live in a world dependent on science and technology, but yet few people know very much about science and technology. I wanted to say some more about the importance of science to kind of address some of the other things that worry me in regards to the attitude about science I’ve encountered in people.
First let me say that science is difficult but it is natural. From a very young age we clearly have scientific principles within us that guide our learning. You can watch young children play and manipulate objects and see that they are simply learning how those objects move, sound, feel, etc. This is at the heart of experimentation. Of course science in practice is far more sophisticated, but every child is a little scientist. Of course every child is also a believer. A defenseless life form who is trying to survive and doesn’t know that it has the luxury of taking its time to think about things, the luxury to reason. For even as safe as the world might be for some young humans it doesn’t know that. And keep in mind for many humans even today it is not that safe. So we have this scientific side that demands we pause, reflect, test and make conclusions based on this evidence. Then there is the side of us that takes on face value what our parents or other authority figures tell us, we tuck it away and move on to something else. Believing has evolutionary advantages because it’s quite simply faster. Both types of thinking have their value up to a point, but in many ways the believer is most valuable to the self, where as the scientist is perhaps most valuable to the larger population and over a longer span of time.
Of course you actually don’t need to learn about science to survive. One could argue that you don’t need to learn about science as a member of society if you simply accept that scientists are as right as they can be, based on the evidence that the community analyzes and thus trust the decisions and recommendations that they make. This would work, except that, at least in the US, everybody still has an opinion about scientific issues and feel that it is of equal value to that of the scientist even when they are illiterate about the subject material and how science works. No issue makes this clearer than when you look at the attitude of many towards climate change. Though almost every researcher in the natural sciences find evidence of man-made climate change there are many who find the issue to be one of belief, bias and conspiracy. So it’s not only a problem that few people know about science, but that many of these uninformed people will form an opinion based on pseudoscience, pundits, or even in some cases intellectuals who are not scientists, and then not support legislation that is based on the recommendation of the scientific community. The issue of evolution in this country is another example, and it bothers me when people say the phrase “believe in evolution”, because evolution does not require belief. It only requires an objective analysis of evidence and this is the natural conclusion that anyone would come to based on that evidence.
I have even learned that there are many people who don’t understand what evidence is. What they consider evidence for something is not evidence and this is where math comes into the equation. No pun intended. Part of the reason why science is difficult is because math is at the heart of science. And I don’t mean just complicated equations although sometimes to really understand a certain area of science it helps to understand some complicated equation. The heart of math is logic. Math is in fact cold, unemotional, and doesn’t care one iota about your passions. This makes mathematics actually quite unique in our world which is actually why I’m passionate about it. Math doesn’t care what you want, it’s there to tell you what is. When you try to have a debate with someone about an issue you can see that most people don’t know how to make logical arguments. Hey I make plenty of mistakes too, and logic, reasoning, math requires us also to be humble. When someone points at an error in your logic it can be a blow to the ego. Math may be perfect, but we are not. It’s something you have to get over if you want to continue to learn and grow in this world. You are going to make mistakes, but you need to keep trying to understand where flaws in your reasoning might lie. Often this is because you are missing pertinent information. Logic is also dangerous because entire logical frameworks can be built on faulty premises. The example I always use is the logical argument:
All A are B
All B are C
Therefore all A are C.
Few can argue here as this is a logical truth. But let’s put actual information in there now. All cats are black. All black things are hats. Therefore all cats are hats. This is a silly example of course, but logic can lead us down a road when the premises we use to draw our conclusions are faulty. However, we can test the truth of “All black things are hats” and “all cats are black” through careful observation and science. As silly as this argument sounds it could be that any individual might come up with this conclusion if they really had not seen anything black other than a cat. An authority figure in their life tells them now that “all black things are hats”. You’ve never seen a hat, but you trust this adult. So your brain makes the logical conclusion that all cats must also be hats. The error is not your conclusion, but rather that you A) have seen only a small portion of the things that are black, and that you took at face value what the authority figure said about black things and hats. Thus what the example actually shows is how easy it is to draw incorrect logical conclusions through having incomplete information about the world. This person may even begin to argue with other people on the nature of cats and black things, but always remember to be humble and realize that you may not know as much as somebody else in regards to a particular subject. This extreme example also demonstrates why religion fails to explain how the world works effectively because it generally suppresses the investigation into the truth of promises and relies heavily on simply trusting in what an authority figure as truth. This is why religious texts have numerous contradictions and outdated information. Any community which purports a text or set of guidelines that are not open to question, scrutiny, and testing that is a dangerous community. That community is the exact opposite of a scientific community.
Any individual scientist can also fall victim to his/her own gospel and this is of course why I don’t advocate that a society simply trust what scientists have to say, but rather is educated about science themselves. Questions are what drive scientists, and any one scientist would easily admit that they may not have seen all the evidence, interpreted it correctly, or may be subject to bias. This is where the value of community comes in. The greater the volume of scientific literacy in a community the more likely we are to arrive at correct answers about how the world works and most likely more quickly. Any researcher always faces some criticism from others in their field. People who disagree with them and ask them questions that they may not have considered, which eventually makes them more careful researchers in the future. Scientists make use of peer-review for their research, as well as the fact that numerous scientists may be working on a particular problem independently but attempting different methods at solving the problem. This can reveal holes in an individual scientist’s research and this is extremely valuable because once again we can save time and energy by learning which methodologies are inefficient, which question shouldn’t be asked, and which questions we should ask.
Science is most successful when both old questions are re-asked, and new questions are asked. A continued investigation of old questions that are attacked from new angles and with new information allow us to make sure the foundation in which we tackle new scientific problems are sound. Science does this all the time, which is why occasionally you find out that something you learned in school may not be true anymore. Science makes mistakes, but continually marches forward self-correcting along the way. If you start trying to move forward on a faulty premise you find that you hit a wall. Forward progress can sometimes stall, sometimes even by the ego of a big scientist in the field, but eventually something that isn’t right will fail.
And even if you become scientifically literate are all your problems solved? Certainly not. There are a lot of things to know in the world and it is time consuming to be knowledgeable about the all. There are plenty of areas of science I know little about. Microbiology, organic chemistry, atomic physics are just a few. So when I read something that a community of those scientists has said, I have two choices. I can trust them. Knowing how scientists work I can feel pretty confident that within their own community they are doing exhaustive and rigorous research to come to the conclusions they have. However if I’m not satisfied, I can start learning. I can start reading. There is a lot of information on the web now so even the simplest of terms in a particular field I can find definitions for. I could read a few books of course too. All this takes time. But perhaps it is worth it. What seems surprising to me though is all the people who would argue against something like climate change having very little understanding of the subject and spouting off incorrect information from articles which actually prey on the scientific illiteracy of the reader to convince them to a certain point of view.
We live in an age of information. But as a consequence there is also a lot of misinformation out there. Science can be most powerful in just helping you understand the quality of the information that you are being given, and help you separate the bad from the good. I see many people getting their information from terrible sources. As a scientist here are some of the steps I take when trying to learn about something (this is also how good research is done):
- Look for consensus. Try to find independent sources that say similar things. This can be hard on the internet as sometimes one person’s words get republished (and uncredited) on other sites. But usually the wording will be very similar.
- Try to find the author. Who is he or she? Do they even have a degree in the area of science they are writing about? Many critics of something like climate change do not come from people who actually are knowledgeable about the physics that apply to climate.
- Does that author publish journal articles on their findings? Before any science becomes mainstream it always first or at least simultaneously published in a journal. But also important is the nature of that journal. Does that journal have anonymous peer-review? Does that journal seem to fit the subject of the article? Is the journal regional, national, or international? Many weaker studies that represent bad science or relatively inconclusive findings will be published in small journals, journals without peer-review or in journals only loosely related to the subject area to avoid it being reviewed by other appropriate experts.
- The best sources of information often site numerous studies and try to culminate those findings to build a logical narrative.
Finally it doesn’t hurt to try and read other contradictory articles, provided that those articles meet some or all of the criteria mentioned above.
A democracy is only effective when its people are intelligent and well informed, and there are plenty of issues that are important to our future and future generation. Climate change is only one of them. Learn about biochemistry and understand more about vaccinations, diseases, stem cell research, genetically modified foods. Learn about Earth Science and understand more about water quality, soil and water conservation, climate change, natural disasters, and pollution. Learn about physics and understand important issues related to radiation, heating and cooling, lasers, and of course physics is such a fundamental science that it is the root for understand many other scientific disciplines. Learn about biology and understand how life works such as: the similarities and differences among species, the human body, wildlife conservation, and evolution. And don’t forget that scientific investigation is used to try to answer many questions in the social science. Fields like sociology, psychology, education and communication. For instance we can learn with science that if we want abortions to happen less and less than imposing one group’s morality is less effective than education, good health care, and easier access to birth control. Learn about math and statistics so that you can understand when numbers are significant, what probabilities mean, and what uncertainties might be associated with a particular finding.
To conclude I would be remiss if I left out all the other amazing things that add color to this world. In your quest for scientific literacy don’t forget about the humanities and arts. Get lost in those things that inspire and excite the imagination. Tell stories and listen to stories because there is insight interwoven into the narrative. Learn about history and understand the process of discovery through the ages, learn about change, and the rise and fall of civilization so that we can learn well the lessons of the past for a better future. Lose yourself in music, whether it is by dancing or just letting your mind and heart get carried away by the melody, or even just singing at the top of your lungs in the car. I don’t expect everyone to get their sense of wonder from science, so make sure you are doing things that keep making you wonder about the world.