Do we have a word in English to the effect “totally having the very same things in mind while writing the article about understanding science, but there was no way I could express my points as eloquently. I mean, dude!” Well, we should. So I humbly nominate the word ‘to yong’ for that purpose, after ScienceBlogs blogger Ed Yong with his site Not Exactly Rocket Science, as I felt very much yonged (smoothest transition from coinage to the loss of scare quotes ever) after reading his recent article, what’s science’s rightful place? That’s a question put forward by the same ScienceBlogs in the form of The Rightful Place Project, in response to Obama’s inaugural address and his promise to ‘restore science to its rightful place’. A scientifically inclined politician, it turns out, is not contradiction in terms.. Who knew?
But where is this rightful place? Yong’s answer to that in his article is very much in the spirit of what I wrote, and then some. He distinguishes principles of science from the details of science and he argues that the former is deeply essential to our progress while the latter is important but incidental. To cope with the picture of reality put forward by science, we have to be affiliated by its methods. We have to learn the value of evidence and reason, we have to learn to think in statistical terms, we have to internalize the ability to change our minds if it’s due. And scientific approach takes these concepts pretty much as given. So acquaintance with these principles, he argues, is much more important than acquaintance with its epiphenomenal and fleeting details. His point is aptly summarised with this: “But underneath all of the detail lie some basic principles that science is built upon and these, I feel, ought to be more mainstream than they perhaps are.” which is precisely my point. Free inquiry, rational deductions from observed data, disrespect to authority, unyielding dedication to facts, wherever they may lead us; a society lacking these notions is bound to lose sight of what it truly means to be human. And, he further argues, as I too argued in my post, it’s not that we are incapable of getting these notions up and running, it’s not that critical thinking is an acquired taste for us, they are second nature to us in the vast majority of the things we do. Their application is what makes us human: to seek causal patterns and evalute them in a way that makes optimum explanatory sense. “The principles are a way of thinking, whether people think about it or not, and they are everywhere.” And their proper application is what’s going to make us a better society. Scientists are simply better equiped in using them than you and I, but our difference is not a qualitative one.
We happen to have a word for critically examining the nature at large: science. But we may as well not have, because that word denotes nothing more than “the long history of learning how to not fool ourselves”, as the physicist Richard Feynman used to say. Science is simply the enhancement and purification of that mental appetite we humans, by our species’ very definition (remember? Sapiens?), all along have sought to fulfill. And not fooling ourselves was always the point of this ball game, wasn’t it?