Blog 77. Science—what it is, what it isn’t

Along with our cultural distrust of government, American society doesn’t trust science, whether the scientific information is about climate, vaccines, evolution, or toothpaste.  What’s going on?  Why can’t we sort the valid information from the advertising?  Perhaps our children get too many hours of TV and too few hours of science class.

A National Science Foundation survey indicates that one-fourth of Americans do not know that the earth goes around the sun.  Furthermore, 23% of Americans believe that depictions of scientists as “dangerous people” are accurate, while 53% likewise believe depictions of scientists as “powerful.”  Scientists find it difficult to offer good information when so many think they are dangerous and/or powerful.

So how is science different from any other way of knowing?

Science is a reliable means for organizing information about the physical world.  Only that, nothing else.

Science is not a political conspiracy, although scientists themselves exhibit all the vagaries of other people.  The scientific process is a belief system only in its regard that experiment and observation form the ultimate authority regarding the physical universe.  Science assumes that physical things operate according to reliable principles.  So far, that assumption has proved valid.

Isn’t theory just another opinion?

Scientific theory, when established and tested, is the structure that organizes as much data as possible, just as a catalog organizes clothing by shirts, pants, and sizes.  A theory enables prediction of the results of any future test, like a catalog enables prediction of a purchase.  Even an established theory is always being tested just as gravity is tested whenever something falls.  For example, Einstein published the theory of general relativity a hundred years ago.  It is still being tested indirectly by research in astronomy, and verified even by the gps locator on your cell phone.  If the theory were wrong, you gps would give bad information.

The theory of evolution is particularly misunderstood by those who try to eliminate it from textbooks or biology classes.  Evolution is a way—the best way found so far—to organize the data regarding the propagation of species, spanning time from the fossil record to current observed genetic changes in laboratory fruit flies.  To eliminate the theory of evolution, you would need to discard most of the structure of biological science.

Because a scientific structure is always subject to testing, it might appear that scientific conclusions change with every test.  That’s not true.  Unfortunately, premature hypotheses—untested pieces of proposed theory—appear in the news as scientific fact.  For example, a new medication might relieve the symptoms in 20% of the cases in an initial test.  The news media might describe a miracle cure, and then later announce a reverse of scientific opinion when a more extensive investigation demonstrates that only 10% of cases are helped.  A cruel example was one investigator’s false announcement that vaccination caused autism.  Many people now refuse to vaccinate their children, thereby promoting spread of diseases.

In social rumors, blind belief replaces rational judgement.  Unfortunately, the hard facts—particularly negative findings–are often insufficiently spectacular to be featured by the news media  Belief spreads as one believer enrolls other people into supporting his position.

Belief is in a different realm from science.  If you believe that the logical structure of evolution was divinely created, or if you believe that all supporting data were created yesterday, there is no conflict of belief with science.  Good science does not replace or threaten belief, so long as that belief is in concert with the physical world.  Science can only organize data and predict outcomes of tests.  Nothing more.  It can’t tell you what is valuable; it can’t tell you how to live; it can’t distinguish what is morally good from what is morally bad.  Such decisions must be made by belief.

Why do people not “believe” in global climate change?

It isn’t a matter of belief.  Science can tell you with great certainty that adding CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels will increase temperatures on earth, because the processes of radiative heating and cooling have been tested.  However, the magnitudes of the temperature rise and ocean acidity develop within the complex system that is weather, so technical estimates vary.  Almost all estimates predict catastrophe.  The warming process is fact; what you choose do about it is a political debate fueled by money.

So what can you do?

Note that the words of the science wars are expressed in belief statements, such as “I (do or don’t) believe in (global warming, vaccination, evil scientists …).  To sort fact from fiction, look for the structure that provides logical organization of processes.  Look for the theory that links medication to disease and health; look for the explanation that links gases to heat transfer and climate.

The evaluation you must do yourself.  It’s something Congress seems to avoid.

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