Science: Our Best Defense against BS
If this march is a call to arms, it must be a call on us to embrace the idea of scientific thinking. What does that mean? It means we need to leave behind the idea that science is a source of TRUTH, in capital letters. What science is really good for is a way to identify BS, or as Carl Sagan would say, baloney. Why focus on BS, because the power of science has led much current BS to be couched in scientific terms. We need a weapon that enables us to identify BS – to distinguish what is hype, noise, and lies, from what is worth considering seriously. What can be established scientifically and what cannot, and the limits of that understanding.
Science is an attempt to build a working model of how the universe behaves. As such it often boils down to identifying errors in our thinking about the world. But when science is presented to the public, this critical aspect is often downplayed or ignored. In the world of working scientists, we spend much of our time trying to detect errors in our thinking, and the thinking of others. Reviewers read papers to determine if the data reported makes sense, whether it contradicts what is already known, and the degree to which it supports, or contradicts, various conclusions. Addressing reviewers’ concerns, comments, and calls for more or better data can take years – that said, it is really only the first step in the scientific process.>
Once an observation is reported, the question becomes whether it can be reproduced and whether the ideas reported serve as a useful jumping off point for further studies, for new experiments, and new insights. More often than not, the answer is NO. The observation cannot be reproduced or is a conceptual dead end.
When Fleischman & Pons first reported cold fusion, in 1989, other researchers were inspired. If their findings were reproducible, the world would have been transformed – companies, countries, and a range of politico-economic interactions would have been destabilized. No such luck. In contrast, the CRISPR genetic engineering method was unveiled around 2010 – it has quickly transformed how we do molecular genetics, so much so that we now use the method in an undergraduate research lab at CU.
Both the debunking of cold fusion and the application of CRISPR are examples of science at its best, based on the rigorous testing of ideas and their implications. BUT science cannot guarantee that tomorrow a new observation won’t force us to revise or extend our model(s) of the universe. What we can be sure of is that perfect knowledge, TRUTH, is unattainable. This can be considered annoying or liberating, your choice.
those doing science and those seeking TRUTH is profound. Humans have a tendency to seek certainty, we often divide the world into good and bad, right and wrong, us and them. But the world is more complicated than that and science tells us – dishearteningly or joyfully, depending on your perspective – that certainty is unattainable. A scientific perspective, rigorously applied, speaks for tolerance and caution. Science enables us to place claims in context, to take them with a grain of salt – claims for the end of the world or the extinction of humanity can be dismissed as hype, often made to gain attention rather than to constructively address a problem. They are made to unbalance the discussion – if our existence is at stake, opposition is inadmissible and inappropriate. In a wide range of social, political, economic, and inter-personal discussions there is no right or wrong side, their are real conflicting interests. Whenever people pretend to use science to resolve such conflicts, their claims must be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. A scientific perspective enables us to recognize and take seriously the various sides of such conflicts, since neither side is completely right or wrong, good or bad – both sides have reasonable justifications for their positions, and for every technological fix there are likely to be unwanted and unforeseen consequences.>
In sum, the scientific enterprise is valuable not only because it expands our working knowledge but because it enables us to identify BS and teaches us humility and caution. What science cannot do is determine what we should do, these are moral and ethical decisions.
The world is characterized by a range of conflicts, conflicts that are often innate. Only an appreciation and tolerance of uncertainty, a trait displayed by science at its best, can help us come to the working and humane compromises necessary for our peaceful co-existence.