It worries me when I see public figures, or aspiring public figures, disparaging scientific work because it is not compatible with their personal positions. The public gets to hear phrases like, “that’s only a theory,” or “that scientific theory has holes in it,” or “it’s not proven, we don’t know for sure yet;” all of which are meant to cast doubt on the validity of one scientific conclusion or another. The problem (and this is, of course, a point of subtlety that often causes proponents of science to look like they have a weaker argument in the public’s eyes) is that all those things are true for scientific findings. The good thing, though, is that none of those statements should be disparaging – if only lay people had a better understanding of the scientific process.
Scientific theories are “only” theories, yes…but “theory” is actually one of the highest terms of honor an idea can attain in the world of science. A “theory” is only accepted as such if it has graduated from the world of hypotheses after rigorous testing. A scientific theory represents the best possible idea humans can conceive of how part of the world works. And if a new theory comes along, in order to be better than the old theory, it still has to explain the same phenomena and fit the same data. Old theories often remain as subsets of new ones, rather than being discarded entirely.
Even then, when a theory represents the best understanding we have of the world, to say that it “has holes” or is “not conclusively proven” is not to say anything at all. Science is not a process of logical argument from immutable premises – it is a process of induction from observable data. We observe new data all the time, and our theories must adapt to that data if they cannot account for new observations. The most fundamental scientific theories still leave some phenomena unexplained, but that does not make them totally invalid. The theories of Newtonian or Einsteinian gravity don’t account for quantum behaviors, but knowing that does not mean that the next time I jump in the air I won’t come down to Earth again. Our best theories cannot be “proven” and cannot be “airtight” – but we can look at their track records to figure out how confident we should be in those theories. Every single time I have jumped in the air, I have fallen downward again. While the amount of observations I have are finite, and I cannot prove with 100% certainty that the next time I jump I won’t fly off into space, the best human understanding of the way the universe works says that I will be disappointed. This sort of thing – a “theory” – is what non-scientists often call a “fact.”
What I see from some public figures these days is a campaign of anti-intellectualism that I think could be extremely damaging to our society. Don’t let those scientists or experts tell you what to do; they don’t know what your problems are! Never mind that they dedicate their entire lives to studying and gaining a more complete understanding of highly specific things…so that you don’t have to. If we as a society tried to solve every problem with “common sense” and common sense alone (assume enough people have common sense to attempt that strategy…) then we would never have invented vaccines, or automobiles, or light bulbs, or computers. We would never have been able to navigate ships, cultivate barren lands, deal with chronic illnesses, or travel to the Moon. (The same thing, by the way, is true for religion.) No, to do those things requires an methodical accumulation of knowledge that stretches beyond a single lifetime…and so our society invented experts. Good thing, too!
Hand in hand with their anti-intellectualism, I see some speakers getting top billing on hungry 24-hour news networks by making intellectually dishonest arguments. The difference between a scientist and an ideologue, as I see it, is this: When a scientist sees a data point that he or she cannot explain with the best scientific theories, then the theory has to be changed to account for all the data, both old and new, because the observations happened the way they did. But when an ideologue sees a data point that he or she cannot explain with his or her best worldview, then the worldview remains immutable and the data point is called into question. In their speech, ideologues make data and observations into matters of belief, so that eventually it sounds like the scientific theories those data support are also matters of belief. Thus, individuals can choose to make up their mind to believe, or not, in climate change, or evolution, or medicine, or gravity, or thermodynamics, or electrons. And somehow, we are to suppose that the universe will bend itself to the worldview that we choose to believe in.
By implying that scientific theories are things we can believe in or not, ideologues accomplish two important goals: first, they make the debate about the existence of the theory or even the existence of the supporting data, instead of about how our society should use or respond to the consequences of the theory; second, they turn the theory into something that they can dismiss in a few words: “oh, I don’t believe in X,” or “I’m waiting for scientists to prove Y,” without having to make a rigorous argument. How much scientific work would it take to prove a theory to an ideologue who doesn’t like its implications? Impossibly much, I think. Continue reading The Science is Real →