>> Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I love when someone all science-y says something I was saying (even if it surprises others). In this case, it was an evolutionary biologist (Olivia Judson) who writes a blog for the NY Times.
What did she say? Well, you can read it yourself, but she basically gave herself permission to say, "what if," reminded us that science was more than a set of facts and data and presumed theories that made sense of said data, but also involve speculation.
Personally, playing "what if" is what I think is the second coolest part of science (with the actual investigation and testing of that speculation ringing in at number one, but I rarely get to generate data myself - just look over other people's). Heck, most of my writing is a direct result of playing "what if," but I've mentioned all this before.
What it got me to thinking about, though, is why this is such a hard concept for people. There are whole groups of people (including many engineers and some scientists) who think that science is all about facts, facts, facts and that speculation is anti-science. There are other people, largely laymen, who think science is all speculation or that all speculations are created equal.
Both are wrong.
Without imagination and curiosity, we might still be in the dark ages. Without challenging established thinking, existing theories, we'd still be confused about gravity and having a solar system (as opposed to thinking our world was the center of the universe). Most of our big scientific breakthroughs have been the result of challenging conventional thinking or going down a different scientific path, even rampant speculation. Why? Because when people fall in love with a notion, whether they got it through scientific means or by channeling messages from aliens, they tend to discard any and all data that doesn't fit with "reality." And, yes, it happens to scientists, too, but not so much the good ones (in my opinion).
But speculations are not all created equal. In order for speculation to fit with science it needs three things - it has to explain some piece of data (often new), it can't violate existing data, and the limitations of the speculation (i.e. that it is speculation as opposed to existing theory or fact) must be clear. That means speculating that vaccinations cause autism (which has conclusively been proven otherwise) does not count as science. As an example.
Part of the problem for scientists, in my opinion, is that so much of the science regular people get comes from mass media. Mass media, when they pass along speculation or possible conclusions, don't include those limitations, those caveats or, in fact, the important distinction that the "conclusions" are speculation as opposed to facts. No matter how meticulous your statements, no matter how exact and caveated, once the media has it, it is no longer yours.
The other part, in my opinion, is that many "science shows" on science-touting channels (which I would otherwise love) are going for drama to make science more exciting and frequently have scientists (or those that play them on TV) blurring and erasing those distinctions and further confusing the general public. When people confuse Mythbusters with the scientific process, there's something seriously wrong.