Monday, 8 September 2014

Your best survival tool : Science.

            The other night someone I know began an vehement rant on the evils of science. As is often the case the problem with this is that they actually had little idea on what science really is and were using “science” when they meant big business, industry, government, the pharmaceutical industry and so forth. I was once required to take a University course on the “Sociology of science” that in practice was a vehicle for some very-hazy left wing concepts and it was obvious most of the tutors had no idea of what science actually was. When they said “science” they always actually meant “industry” or “technology” or “corporate practice”. Ironically their example of “an alternative approach to science” was one of the best examples of structured scientific investigation I had then come across. Apparently it was “alternative” since Chinese “barefoot” doctors had done the work, which seems somewhat racist and condescending!
            For a number of reasons I chose not to argue the issue the other night but it still meant a big chunk of our limited time together was wasted and soured.
            What is science? This is something that many people are unclear on and certain factions deliberately attempt to obscure. The Wikipedia page does a reasonable job at explaining this. Science is a tool. It is one of the most useful tools that you may ever use if you master it. Like any other tool it is neither inherently good nor bad. Science, or rather its products can be used either for good or bad. That is a choice of the user, not science.
           Science is a tool for finding answers. The processes we usually use to achieve this are observation and systematic experimentation. Is an answer gained by science inherently true? Not necessarily! Science tends to give us the most likely answer based on the available data.

           I used to tell my students the fable of the blind men and the elephant as an example of why you had to take multiple observations of a thing and examine it from different angles. If you were examining an event that was a sine wave there is a chance your sample interval matched the frequency and you got the same reading every time, leading you to conclude from the available evidence that the event was a straight line.

            I once heard about a medieval monk who built a flying machine and jumped from the watchtower of an abbey. He broke both legs. I remember this because he is a clear example of someone who is an inventor but not scientific. If he had been scientific he might have tried his machine with a dummy first, or tried from progressively increasing lesser heights.
           The accuracy of a scientific answer depends on the available data. This is why some scientific “truths” become less reliable as new and  additional information becomes available. Science has inherent in it the principle of Fallibilism. It does not say “this is the answer” but “this is the most probable answer, based on the data we have”. If I had something in my pocket and it goes missing the most probable answer is that it fell out. This may not be the actual reason. Someone might have picked my pocket or the item disappeared through a quantum wormhole! I have no evidence to support the latter ideas so the most probably explanation is that I lost it. If someone produces security camera footage of my pocket being picked then we have new evidence and our theory of what has happened is modified.

            Science is a tool for problem solving. One of the greatest fictional examples of a scientist is Sherlock Holmes, who wisely tells us "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." I’d replace “truth” with “most likely explanation” but this quote nicely illustrates that to use science effectively you must be both open-minded and sceptical.

           Scientists are human and thus subject to human weaknesses and failings. Dogma and conservatism sometimes find their way into the scientific community. Occasionally a new finding or idea gets held back because of who proposes it or its potential effect on the reputation of the originator of the theory it displaces. Some ideas do not gain acceptance until the scientist who proposed the current theory has died!

            That scientists cannot explain something does not mean that they ignore it or reject it. It should be a spur to investigate further and attempt new approaches. Science applies to everything. Some fields such as alternative therapy and parapsychology are ignored by conventional scientists yet these are exactly the fields where good science can be used to sort the wheat from the chaff and the bogus from the genuine. Scientific investigation of acupuncture discovered it stimulates endorphin production. The observations and experiments of a scientist discovered many incidences of hauntings can be attributed to infrasound. Radiations other than light were only discovered in the 19th century when we developed means to measure them or observe their interactions. Who knows what else we may discover or disprove once we have the tools?
           True science only rejects what it can disprove, not what it cannot prove.

           Sometimes you find insight in unusual places. The entertaining movie “Frankenweenie” says some interesting things about science.

Mr. Rzykruski: “They like what science gives them, but not the questions, no. Not the questions that science asks.”
            Science is neutral and will sometimes lead us to answers and conclusions that we do not want. This is where science sometimes clashes with some religions. Many religions have dogma, truths you are required to accept as immutable and absolute. Any evidence that may disprove the absolute nature of such ideas must be ignored and rejected. Some religions like to portray science as an alternative belief system or set of dogma but it is not. It is a device for testing assumptions.
           I often wonder if the poor teaching of science I have observed in recent years is because those able to think logically and systematically are poorer consumers. If you are better equipped to see through bullshit it is harder for advertisers, politicians and other controllers.

            Can the knowledge that science produces be exploited for bad purposes? Yes, it can. Any knowledge can be exploited but that produced by science is the most likely to be used since it is verified. Man may use his knowledge to do wrong but science can also be used to prove that such actions have harmful consequences.

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