Bullet points on loving science

By Benjamin Massey

January 31st, 2017

  • What we call “science” is a thought process, not a sacrament. It is better understood as a verb than as a noun. It is seeing a question, coming up with an answer, running fair tests to see if the answer is accurate, and if it is not changing the answer and trying again. So knowledge evolves; it is Lamarckian, not Darwinian. This is the “scientific method,” which is the greatest idea any human minds have ever conceived.

  • There’s nothing about democracy or “consensus.” The idealized scientific question has one perfect answer, but questions and answers alike come from fallible humans. Mistakes are made, biases introduced. At any given time an excellent-seeming theory can be overthrown. This is how scientific progress happens, and when it does it must start with a small number of disciples trying to overturn consensus. Ideas that today seem ludicrously childish, like geocentrism or luminous æther, were believed in their time by people smarter than we are until the doubters won. Our great-grandchildren will say the same of some of our theories, and if we knew which ones were going to be wrong then we wouldn’t hold them in the first place.

    This is why scientific theories are so-called, and why the creationist who says “evolution is just a theory” is right in the wrong way. The word is a confession of imperfection and built-in doubt, not a tell that this idea is dodgier than any other. The possibility—even the certainty—of error, and willingness to correct it, is not so much “the foundation” as “the whole house.”

  • Therefore, saying that science can be “settled” is one of those route-one errors, like thinking Canada is a republic or Brideshead Revisited was by a woman, which reveals such a fundamental misunderstanding that the speaker should never be trusted on the subject again.

  • Yes, there are objective facts. Yes, some of them are as simple as “two and two make four.” But not many. Even real scientists can’t specialize in everything. Everybody gets most of his knowledge, not from dispassionate experiment, nor even from other people’s dispassionate experiments, but at best from a fourth person summarizing a third person’s examination of several experiments that were hopefully dispassionate. “Facts” treated with the infallibility of papal writ came to you by the telephone game, except you don’t know any of the players and half of them don’t really understand the words.

    Under the circumstances, a degree of humility is called for. If somebody interprets the world differently than you, it does not axiomatically follow that he is a more credulous and contemptible sheeple (sherson?). They are marching to a different drummer but you are both marching. The anti-vaccination Roosevelt-did-WTC the-moon-landing-was-faked-by-Jews type tends to better know the details and facts of his obsession than even a conscientious and informed citizen with the “correct” opinion, as you’ll find out in a hurry if you ever try to argue with one. This doesn’t mean they’re right. It does mean you should consider the health of your nice high horse.

  • Given these unavoidable limitations, automatically assuming that any interpretation of reality other than your own (or, as you might call it for brevity, an “alternative fact”) is trying to make two and two equal five reveals more doubts in the accuser than the accused.

  • With the above point in mind of course people lie, argue in bad faith, and act irrationally. Your deeply-held belief is not automatically wrong, and you should stick up for it. None of this, to the slightest degree, kneecaps your ability to argue.

    What matters is that the doubts built into the scientific method are not options to be ignored because you’re really really sure. They are the entire point: without the admitted possibility of error it becomes a less intellectual version of religion. It does not matter how angry you are. It does not matter what bastards they are. The doubt is the purpose.

    Further, it is possible that when somebody disagrees with you, even if you are definitely right, they are not being anti-scientific lunatics. You and your fellow-thinkers are not the only rational people. Even if you are a scientist in your specialist subject, your work is built on others’ and the odds are good there’s another scientist in the same specialist subject with a different opinion. Since you are actually some yahoo reading another yahoo’s blog with opinions on a billion varied subjects, saying your opponents must be committed to ignorance is galactic hubris. To claim a monopoly on truth is to claim the wisdom of God.

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