I’d like to tell you about a smashing website, but not before a longish digression that is this post. Try to bear with me.

 

My overall view of humanity, as stated prominently on the right hand side of this page, is bleak. It’s not because I think we are not capable of doing good, that’s manifestly false. But rather because a) I don’t think mainstream goodness is a stable equilibrium, it is vulnerable to be exploited by badness. We must either all be good or else, b) as a species, we are not, nor has ever been (for good evolutionary reasons), in a mindset that’s striving to maximize total sum of human happiness, ‘quite the contrary’ would be an understatement, and this isn’t likely to change any time soon, not with a forceful and well, bleak, wake up call anyway, c) our escalating technologies are making all the more easier for badness to occur. These are just some of the reasons of my conclusion, from off-the-top-of-my-head variety, as I’d merely like to use them as a segue to something related, to our collective attitude to one of our most valuable institutions (no, not church).

 

To me, one of the most curious aspects of modern human condition is how alien we all are to science and its methods, how esoteric a doctrine it’s perceived by masses (could it be because people who like science tend to use obscure words like ‘esoteric’?). I think much of the evil in the world directly follows from people’s having false answers to questions like ‘who/what am  I?’, ‘what is the world made of?’ and science offers answers that are tried and tested antidotes to those falsehoods. So even a basic internalization of science bound to make a huge impact on humanity, but this is hardly ever the case. There are many causes and symptoms that one could mention regarding this, and I’d like try and tackle a few of them.

 

It’s a common impression among people that science ought to be treated as something detached and isolated from our day-to-day lives, or better yet, it’s simply one of the ways of acquiring knowledge. The latter is epitomized under the postmodern name of ‘cultural relativism’ which claims that no one doctrine is any better for understanding the world around us than any other. Therefore we shouldn’t let science hijack the claims about ‘reality’ and ‘truth’, an African tribe’s virtues are just as, if not more, real and true. These claims usually stem from the assertion (as it’s simply asserted not demonstrated. That’s the price you have to pay if you are willing to undermine the demonstration methods that actually, you know, demonstrate) that ‘there are no objective truths, knowledge is merely an opinion’. Well, the standart retort to this cute ‘opinion’ is along the lines of ‘If gravity is merely opinion, how come no one is ever in a mindset to disobey it?’ Gravity is a force. It pervades the fabric of spacetime and has measurable effects on you and me, and it’s there whether you and I opine in its favour or not. If this (gravitation) isn’t an objective fact, I have no idea what an ‘objective fact’ would look like. Since the opposition has no way of ‘demonstrating’ me of one, I will humbly consider his point conceded.

 

Now cultural relativism could have been true. If, upon investigation, it turned out to be the case that total chaos was reigning our beloved universe, if no causal rule was ever found that would allow one specified initial condition to necessitate another one, we could have concluded that objectivity didn’t have much room in our descriptions and that we might as well conclude that there are no objective truths. It’s difficult to imagine how a sentient being capable of appreciating these findings could evolve in such a palpably un-sentient-friendly universe, but hey I’m trying to bend over backwards here, cut me some slack. But, unfortunatly for some, we have been investigating our cherished universe for quite a while now and it acts exactly as if it actually contains some objective truths in it, some set of descriptions that fit our picture of realiy better than an African tribe’s descriptions. Weird, ha? So, maybe, just maybe, if the entire reality is looking like a duck, walking like a duck and quacking like a duck, why maybe it is, objectively, regardless of your or my opinion, indeed a duck. Or as Richard Dawkins likes to say in River out of Eden:

 

Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes are built according to scientific principles and they work. They stay aloft and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications such as the dummy planes of the Cargo cults in jungle clearings or the bees-waxed wings of Icarus don’t.

 

I can dimly see why a tenured professor of literature should advocate these ludicrous claims of relativism, but for someone without a vested intellectual interest to entertain them is, to me, reminiscent of pathology, rather than philosophy.

 

The former, however, the claim that science has its place in an ivory tower of some kind of elitist society and can be of no use to people at large, is much more common among the commons (and my labels aren’t helping either). But the truth couldn’t be further away from this. And I’m not simply talking about all those gadgets science has provided us (TV, internet, computers, etc). To be sure, all these gadgets shape our lives profoundly (try living without a cell phone for a day), but my point is not about the results of science, but the tools that it uses to achieve those results. The way it approaches unsolved problems and renders them solved is most emphatically not just something only scientists get to enjoy. We all use scientific way of thinking every day. As biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (aka. Darwin’s bulldog) once told:

 

Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only as far as the guardsman’s cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club.

 

Now, how can this be? How can science be to directly analogous to common sense? Let’s tackle that with an example.

 

Let’s say you want to buy a car, what do you do? First, you explore the variables involved and the interecations between those variables (in scientific terms, you make observations, or even more scientifically, you form a phenomenology), how much money you’ve got, how much of it are you willing to invest on the car, what brand or model cars are acceptable for you, which qualities do you want it to have, how flexible are you about the trade offs between these qualities (which are indespensible for you and which are not), are you looking for a cheap car with high milage per tank, or a slightly expensive one with low milage per tank (and, again, what is the optimal ratio for you between the two. would you settle for a car that will pay itself off in 5 years), does the car’s socially percieved value matter to you, do you care about the availability of its spare parts, how about tax cuts or insurance payments. You tentatively catalogue these and other variables to make a coherent picture of the car you want to buy, which is called a hypothesis. But you can always readjust your catalogue (and hence your hypothesis) along the way, if new observations come your way. For instance if you won the lottery, that would make one hell of an impact to your hypothesis, and every single variable in it, other than ‘how much of it are you willing to spend?’, would be rendered ‘neutral element’, so you wouldn’t need to bother to form a hypothesis that includes them, because you are now so bloody rich. This is somewhat analogous to God’s descending from heavens and whispering to a physicist working on string theory, ‘you know, I made the universe this way’. Were that to happen, we would still be left with a proper explanation about string theory, but we would be so bloody ‘rich’ that there would be little point in continuing string theory research, bosonic or otherwise.

 

With your hypothesis, based on and formulated upon vigorous observations, firmly in mind, you move on to the next stage and actually look for a car that matches your descriptions. If your phenomenology (things that need to be explained about certain phenomena, or in our analogy’s case, things that you require from a car) is not too unrealistic with regard to actual cars in the actual world, there’s a good chance that you will find more than one that suits your fancy (and if they are too unrealistic, you’ll just have to go back to square one and revisit your variables). If you find one, then what do you do? Well, you test it of course. Actually, as anyone who has ever bought a car will testify, observing and testing often occur simultaneously in real life, and that’s where our analogy stretches a bit, but let’s play along. First and foremost, you test the claims its seller is making. Is it really the car they are claiming it to be? Has it ever been involved in accident? Does the seller look and sound trustworthy? You kick the tires or something (it’s rather unfortunate and ironic that my understanding about cars are next to none), take it out for a test drive, ask a knowledgable friend’s advice, take it to a nearby mechanic and let him diagnose. You apply this to a lot of cars, and things start to get clearer and clearer. Now what you have in your hands, observation+test, is a theory. The strongest tool in a scientist’s toolbox. Eventually, after sufficient number of tests, one of your theories (there cannot be many) should prove to be the winner, and you should be the proud owner of a brand new car. Using scientific method all the way. Or put better, using the most sensible and straightforward method all the way, that scientists, some 400 hundred years ago, simply took up and perfected. And if your car (your theory) doesn’t fulfill your expectations (doesn’t fit recent observations and/or tests) you would simply have to return it to its former owner (have to discard your theory) or trade it with yet another new car (make necessary adjustments to your theory). If you decide to return it (discard it), that will probably be sad and painful on your part but that’s life (that’s science). And that retractability and encouregment of retraction of wrong ideas is precisely what gives science its progressive power (and our stretched anology is finally blown to smithereens at this point, for no one enjoys returning a car), scientists actually recieve kudos for changing their minds. That sounds too good to be real, but here are two typical demonstrations of this assertion, first one from Dawkins, second one from Carl Sagan:

 

I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artifact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said –with passion– ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red.

 

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that has happened in politics or religion. It’s very rare that a senator, say, replies, “That’s a good argument. I will now change by political affiliation.”

 

So you see, even this rather mundane and simplistic example shows us that, scientific way of thinking is actually second nature to all of us, we put emphasis on observation, evidence and reason to solve problems and assess situations every single day of our lives. This is usually done unconsciously and with no regard to their theoretical underpinning (that is to say, their methods) but it’s there. When we buy watermelon we tap on it, so that we hear a certain noise that will confirm our previous experiences and observations that it’s a nice and juicy watermelon. That’s science, at its most basic. If we have a crush on someone, we act according to some set of principles that we think would maximize our chances to be with that person, which is a nice example of the scientific parsimony. We can occasionally be mistaken just what this set of principles is (and who hasn’t?) but this doesn’t change the fact that we follow some sort of methodology and do risk assessments that we deem to be correct. (Some may disagree by saying ‘well but surely love isn’t scientific, what do you say to that?’ My initial response would be ‘nice assertion, you got any proof to back that up?’ Then I might go on citing some natural explanations of love, like its evolutinary rationale. But I wouldn’t pursue them becuase they are beside to point. Even if science has nothing to say about love (which is a gigantic if) it’s irrelevant to what I’m saying and my point remains. Here I’m not trying to map every single human activity to a certain scientific explanation, rather trying to convince you that science is not as esoteric and removed from our everyday lives than you may be thinking it is). In a court room evidence and causation is revered, indicating that these are the notions that we would ultimately like to be governed with. And somehow we lose that sense of reverence when scientists carry and excel those notions to their conclusions. In order to function properly in life, we observe our surrondings and we collect relevant evidence, we seek and often find rational explanations that tie things and we deduce reason-driven conclusions from them. And that is what science, in a nutshell, essentially is. It only differs from our every day experience, as Huxley put succinctly, with its strict rules and regulations. Other than that, the two are perfectly analogous, and people’s indifference or even hostility to science is simply unjustified and uncalled for, and a good case can be made that these misgivings are among the top threats facing our modern societies.

 

So you can see why this site, Understanding Science, is true music to my positivist ears. Hot on the heels of their superb series of ‘Understanding Evolution’ (which is translated to at least one language), University of California, Berkeley decided that they loved the concept and this time they took a shot at explaining, in layperson’s terms, what science is and isn’t. The subtitle reads ‘how science really works’ and even an iota of this ‘reality’ can be made mainstream, I have no doubt that much of our problems can be reduced significantly. Be sure to check it out, I am now off to cross-check whether there are inaccuracies in the picture of scientific method that I’ve drawn for you. I’ll let you know if there is. And if I change my mind accordingly, I expect your virtual hands to get all red from clapping.