Class Warfare Blog

May 30, 2012

Two Cultures Getting Farther Apart?

Filed under: Education,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:50 pm
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I spent several hours in my car with two friends and it struck me from our conversations that the gap between the scientific literate and those not so literate is widening. Even though I have been an educator all of my life I am not one of those who insist that everyone needs extensive knowledge of science. What I would like, though, is that almost everyone have a fair grasp on how science works.

Everyone of us in the car was college educated but one seemed to have no clear idea of how science works. Many citizens are in this category. They say things like, “I don’t know if I can trust scientists as they have got things wrong in the past” or “I don’t think everything can be known.”

Scientists are people; they get things wrong. I think we can all agree on that. But scientists are required to publish their work, under their own name. In addition, they need to tell everyone not only what they have done, but how they did it, and what they believe happened. This is somewhat scary. Can you imagine if business people had to do the same? Or politicians. Lay their actions out for everyone to see and, most importantly, to check up on.

The basic understanding is that science is “operator independent.” What that means is if I do an experiment, I should get the same results as if you were do it. In fact scientists won’t spend much effort getting worked up about something until other scientists have replicated that something and gotten the same results. Once that is done, then the arguments about why what happened happened begin in earnest. A noted example recently is the “discovery” that there were particles moving faster than the speed of light. Please note this wasn’t a discovery. It was experimental data with a seemingly rational interpretation that those particles were moving that fast. Scientists acknowledge their humanity by telling everyone what they have done so that others can do the same to see if they get the same results. If they don’t, somebody has made a mistake. Having all of one’s mistakes made public is not pleasant, but it is necessary.

Yes, scientists have been wrong. And, over time the things that are wrong are corrected and made less wrong. Whether they are “right” is rarely established. Scientists are not only leery of thinking they are “right,” but they have a healthy respect for the fact that all knowledge is uncertain.

Conflicting with this is the perception that scientists behave as if they know the “right” answers. And they, we, always seem so certain of themselves. And they seem to want to “know everything.” Let’s look at this.

Is there any way a person could know that “everything” wasn’t knowable? Only if one claimed to be a god, I think. Scientists, on the other hand, are always looking to see “what we can find out.” They are not trying to know everything; in fact no one scientist knows even 5% of the knowledge in his/her field of specialty. Since I was trained in college in my subject field, chemistry, the total amount of chemical knowledge has double, doubled again, and doubled again. In other words, I learned a tiny fraction of all of the chemical knowledge there was and then since then the amount of chemical knowledge has increased eight times! Every scientist knows they not only don’t know everything but they could not. The human mind has great capacity, but information is being discovered at a faster rate than any one person can learn, so each of us is falling further and further behind. We just do our bit to add to the total.

As for sounding like we are right, I will admit that there are quantities of arrogance mixed into the general sea of humility, but in order to speak forcefully, you had better know what you are talking about and, in general, scientists only speak forcefully when they do know what they are talking about. The consequences of doing otherwise are dire. The extreme case of faking data to prove a point, often results in ostracism of that scientist, such that they never work in that field again. There is no second chance for such people. They are done.

 I do not recommend we try to create a “you can trust scientists” attitude,
as we don’t even trust one another. 

In this country, there is currently a clash between some religious folks and scientists about the theory of evolution. Apparently the U.S. is the only country where this is happening extensively but we are exporting the “anti-evolution” movement to other countries now. I do know religious people do not like to have scientific findings contradict their religious teachings, but throughout history there has never been a case in which religion has triumphed over science in a contest over reality. In addition, most of those who are against evolution apparently do not understand it and this is anathema to a scientist. Scientists would never claim something is wrong without first understanding it very, very well. I am trained as a chemist, so evolution is not in my field but I am a student of the history of ideas and this is what I see: Charles Darwin proposed the Theory of Evolution based on his observations of the natural world. He could not prove anything as he had no mechanism that could explain how it was that minute changes in creatures could result in substantive changes over long periods of time. Along came Mendel creating the field of Genetics. Here was such a mechanism and, lo and behold, nothing in Genetics undermines Darwin’s Theory in the least. In the last century, DNA was discovered, genes were mapped, and we now have an exact chemical framework that explains genetics . . . and evolution. That and piles and piles and piles of experiments and data supporting the Theory of Evolution, so I would say that such a theory was quite “robust.” (We don’t use words like “true.”) Even though a theory reaches the point where it is quite unimaginable that it be contradicted, e.g. the theory of gravitation, it is still called a “theory,” which some common folk equate to “it still may be wrong.” This is an incorrect interpretation of what a theory is, but I will grant that errors will show up and they will be small and, by and large, the theory will be corrected. To say the whole thing is rubbish, well, that is like saying “I am willing to step off of this cliff because the theory of gravitation is “just a theory” and it may be wrong. This is not a good bet.

Asking every citizen to know enough science to be able to evaluate the work of millions of scientists around the world is ridiculous, but in school, could we not teach the history of scientific ideas, show how things were got wrong and then were corrected. (I suggest starting with the history of the measurement of the speed of light as the ancient Greeks recorded some of their experiments.)

I do not recommend we try to create a “you can trust scientists” attitude, as we don’t even trust one another. Scientist have to prove every claim they make, not just to me, but to everybody who cares to consider the topic. Occasionally, even this process breaks down but that is relatively rare and, when found out, is made public.

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4 Comments »

  1. We should include this post in the required reading in school.

    Like

    Comment by List of X — May 30, 2012 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

    • Damn,
      Do you ever leave your computer? ;o)

      Thanks for the nice comment. I have been enjoying your blog, too!
      Steve

      Like

      Comment by stephenpruis — May 30, 2012 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

      • Thank you. I am away from my computer a lot, if you can believe it 🙂

        Like

        Comment by List of X — May 30, 2012 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  2. I love your line about the battle between science and religion “throughout history there has never been a case in which religion has triumphed over science in a contest over reality.”

    It am constantly amazed that religious groups feel that they should have a say about what is taught in a science class or what is printed in a science textbook. I wonder how many of them would be willing to let scientists have a say about what is in a religious text.

    In his essay “The Two Cultures” CP Snow equated an understanding of the scientific process with being able to read. It is a basic skill everyone should have. Yet so many people today seem to be scientifically ‘illiterate. ‘

    Great article.

    Like

    Comment by A. Herkenhoff — June 17, 2012 @ 10:34 am | Reply


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