Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why does science fail in the popularity contest?

A few years ago, when visiting with the parents, my mother complained that science was one day reporting that coffee was bad and then changing it another day.  I told her that science is a work in progress and that as we know more we might have to revise what we previously knew.  She seemed disappointed and unconvinced.

What disappointed my mother is precisely what always excites me about science.  A refreshing feeling that we don't know and we are trying our best to find out.  What we know now is incredibly more than what people knew only a few generations ago.  And there is a good chance that quote a bit of what we now know will be overthrown in a couple of generations.  It is awesome.

But, we humans like a clear story, a story that does not keep changing.  We like narratives that provide us with a sense of certainty.  Religions offer that comforting feeling of certainty.  "Where did we humans come from?  God created us" is a simpler narrative with a remarkable sense of certainty.  To answer that question with "we evolved from apes, and in fact we could even be separate category of apes.  We are still searching for the missing links in the evolution. But then these are recent stories.  We have no idea where this universe came from" are not the answers that provide any certainty at all.

Writing about this incremental progress that science offers, David Barash, who is "an evolutionary biologist and Professor of Psychology and Biology at the University of Washington" notes:
The capacity for self-correction is the source of science’s immense strength, but the public is unnerved by the fact that scientific wisdom isn’t immutable. Scientific knowledge changes with great speed and frequency – as it should – yet public opinion drags with reluctance to be modified once established. And the rapid ebb and flow of scientific ‘wisdom’ has left many people feeling jerked around, confused, and increasingly resistant to science itself.
Exactly.  That's what my mother's question/comment was all about.
Perhaps we mourn the loss of certainty, of the sort that most religions offer to their followers. Perhaps it’s more a search for authority, of the sort once provided by our parents. Or a universal yearning for any reliable port – even if conceptual rather than maritime – in the storms of life’s unknowns. Whatever the underlying cause, people have difficulty accepting the unstable, shifting, impermanent reality of how the world is put together. And this difficulty, in turn, renders us uncomfortable with precisely the only stability and certainty that science offers: that paradigms come and go.
Paradigms come, and paradigms go.  That is how science works.
The loss of paradigms might be painful, but it is testimony to the vibrancy of science, and to the regular, unstoppable enhancement of human understanding as we approach an increasingly accurate grasp of how our world works.
I often mention in my classes about the increasingly accurate understanding, which is why I am confident that a couple of generations from now, humans will have that much better an understanding of this universe than we now have--unfortunately, I won't be around at that time! ;)
Denied the comforting blanket of illusory permanence and absolute truth, we have the opportunity and obligation to do something extraordinary: to see the world as it is, and to understand and appreciate that our images will keep changing, not because they are fundamentally flawed, but because we keep providing ourselves with better lenses. Our reality hasn’t become unstable; it’s just that our understanding of reality is of necessity a work in progress.
A work in progress, unlike the well-defined and unchanging holy word of god that the faithful believe in.
Science is a process, which, unlike ideology, is distinguished by intellectual flexibility, by a graceful, grateful (albeit sometimes grudging) acceptance of the need to change our minds, as our understanding of the world evolves. Most people aren’t revolutionaries, scientific or otherwise. But anyone aspiring to be well-informed needs to understand not only the most important scientific findings, but also their provisional nature, and the need to avoid hardening of the categories: to know when it is time to lose an existing paradigm and replace it with a new one. What is more, they need to see this transition as progress rather than a sign of weakness, which is more difficult than one might think. 
I suppose we have quite a bit of work ahead of us then.


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