What I Love About Science

>> 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.



  • Jeff King

    Mythbusters works for me... haha

  • flit

    oh, how I detest that show! No redeeming value at all that I can find.

  • Roy

    Not having a TV, I've missed Mythbusters. But one of my favorite quotes about science and the scientific method came out of the mass media. I've quoted it here before, but I'll do so again just to refresh everybody's (mine included) memory: "Teal'c, I'm a scientist. When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it's as exciting as if they were correct." (From an episode of Stargate SG-1)

    For me, science is more about the process than the actual results. It's all about discovery, which is something that those who oppose science just don't get; the joy of discovery is a foreign language to them because they sincerely believe that all knowledge was laid down once and for all several millenia ago. Period. End of story. And all I can think when I hear them rave is: "How bleak your life must be, with no discovery in it."

  • Project Savior

    Although Mythbusters does blur the science in favor of entertainment, they do a great job at showing the fun of science.
    What they do well is encourage people (especially kids) look at the actual science behind what they hear everyday and by generating that interest it encourages kids to test science principles for themselves, instead of just reading about them. And that is where a love of science begins. (Experiments are like a gateway drug.)

  • Stephanie B

    The problem is their methods, conclusions, etc. are, um, often desperately wrong. I can't watch the show without yelling at it.

    When I see a Mythbuster's result cited as evidence on Wikipedia or a NASA engineer quote the show as "proving" something, I want to scream.

    Other shows do it, too, particularly anthropology shows, where they see, say, a tomb painting and speculate wildly on some pharoah as a result, beginning their sentences with "we know..."

    It seems harmless - let people see what's fun about science - but it skews people's understanding of what scientists do and what they conclude, give people carte blanche to dismiss work done right and that can get people killed.

    Not that I'm opinionated or anything.

    Thank the Gods the Mythbusters stopped starting their shows with "We're what YOU call experts." No, no they're not.

  • Stephanie B

    I'm not trying to be mean, Project Savior. Science has a catch-22. If we don't make science accessible, no one will be interested in it or understand our conclusions, making people distrust us.

    If we make it accessible, fun, exciting, we stand a good chance of seeing it perverted and going back to a world where science is most likely associated with hucksters and charlatans, while the real legitimate, world-changing, life-saving science is lost.

  • Stephanie B

    I hear you, Roy. Too many out there don't know it's what we DON'T know about science that makes it exciting.

    flit and Jeff, I think you can see how I feel about Mythbusters.

  • The Mother

    I love Mythbusters. Because they use the scientific method AND blow things up, which my boys find WAY COOL.

    (I think there are a number of kids who are attracted to the sciences, by shows like this. So they have their purposes.)

    But it isn't science, or at least not cutting edge science. And you're absolutely right--what the mainstream media gets is proportional to what the mainstream media "gets"--they are journalists, after all, not scientists.

    And even scientists have trouble following the more arcane parts of areas not in their specialty. PZ Myers noted a few weeks ago at the AAI conference that he doesn't really follow cutting edge physics, because that's out of his scope.

    The more subspecialized science gets, the harder it is for the average joe to understand. But that's where real progress happens.

    I think the best thing we can do for the future is to think kids to think CRITICALLY. Or, in other words, to THINK. That way, they're prepared to deal with everything, no matter what direction science takes.

  • Stephanie B

    Agreed on the critical thinking point.

    My husband loves Mythbusters, despite my disdain, but tries not to watch it when I'm around.

    I will admit that I did think the duct-tape sailboat was cool.

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