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.


  1. Science fails the popularity contest because it is often hypocritical. The last 100 years have seen it reshape itself into a religion, complete with doctrines and infallible beings. Remember when a team at CERN thought they may have refuted Einstein's theory that nothing travels faster than C? It was like spitting in the face of a "Jesus of Physics" who was definitely right about everything, and he was vindicated when the team (comprised of some of the greatest living minds in physics) discovered they had made a mistake.

    The theory of evolution is another unapproachable topic, as threatening to counter its narrative has lost many a biologist their career and any respect they had accrued. Studies on feces are rare because it's a topic many find icky, even when it could save millions of lives to look closer at human excretions. Science is quickly becoming a closed pool of thought, where you agree with the leader of your field or you are simply wrong.

  2. Discomfort with the impermanency of scientific finding is two-fold. First is the basic human fondness for certainty, as Barash writes. Second is that decisions are made, actions taken, careers established, legislation championed on scientific findings. When those findings are later determined to be wrong, we are at a loss how to recover. We question not just those decisions, actions, careers and legislation but also everything since then.

    Eggs are terrible for my health; eggs are good for my health; egg whites only are good for my health, etc. Thirty minutes of exercise five to six days a week will keep one healthy; 30 minutes of exercise is worthless if one sits at a desk all day; standing desks are better; standing desks are harmful for knees, ankles and backs, etc. It's enough to send one to the couch with a slice or two of flourless chocolate cake (it's gluten-free!) with caramel sauce. Is it any wonder there is disagreement on the extent of human impact on climate change? There is as much science saying climate change is a normal, cyclic phenomenon (Milankovitch Cycles) as there is saying humans are quickly destroying the earth. How is one to determine?

  3. Scientism can be a problem, yes. Other than recognizing that possibility (which does play out in the real world) I disagree with your views that question everything from the human contribution to climate change to evolution.

    The way science operates, any idea that can be questioned will be questioned, as long as the system is not like a North Korea. Fortunately, in most of the world, scientists are free to pursue the questions they want to pursue, which means that if at some point there is evidence to destroy Einstein's theories then science will throw out Einstein's theories, just like science has jettisoned so many "scientific truths" in the past.

    But, we should not be misled by the scientific process questioning the prevailing wisdom, and think that therefore science and scientists are screwed up.

    The fact that very, very, very few scientists question evolution or the human cause in climate change is not because scientists are a religious cult with their beliefs. Instead, it is because of the evidence.

    I stay away from the rhetoric like "humans are quickly destroying the earth" because there is no way that humans can ever destroy this planet. I worry about climate change not because I want to "save the planet" but because there is enough and more evidence that the climate change is already having terrible consequences for us humans all over the planet and for non-human life forms as well. As far as we know, this pale blue dot is the only ball that floats around in space that supports life. And even if tomorrow we find another ball, we can't even migrate there because we lack the technology to do that. So, we better hold on to what we got here, which means we have to worry about the climate change dimension and the triggers for that coming from human activities. BTW, the latest issue of National Geographic is all about climate change and has awesome materials there.

  4. Your mother, I think, was not objecting to the impermanency of science. I think she was objecting to the selective presentation of facts to prove that there are either good elements or bad elements in coffee. That is not science. If anything that is the opposite of what science ought to be.

    On the more substantive point of your post, I am completely in agreement with you. Science will always reexamine theories and when evidence leads to an alternate conclusion, will docilely go there. What fascinates me is not so much the impermanency, but the willingness to be led solely by facts and evidence and the willingness to say "I was wrong". That's is a human quality of the highest order which, if mankind were to embrace wholeheartedly, would make us an infinitely better race.

  5. I don't think it is any selective presentation of facts. (though, that does happen.) It is just that with something life coffee, there are many different ways in which scientists try to understand the impacts that drinking coffee has on the human biochemistry. And whenever scientists have something new to report, well, it could sound like they are contradicting something from before. It is just that even something as simple as effects of coffee on humans is an investigation under work and far from complete.
    And, yes, wouldn't it be wonderful if we had that kind of an approach to constantly question the phenomena and the explanations ...


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