10 March 2007

So really. What IS science? Mere miracles?

PZ Myers, recently challenged to answer the question What is science?, wrote several definitions. This is the one that I think sums up science best.

#3: Science is a process. It is a method for exploring the natural world by making observations, drawing inferences, and testing those inferences with further experimentation and observation. It isn't so much the data generated as it is a way of thinking critically about the universe and our own interpretations of it.
Yet, in the same century, same language, this is being said:
Finally, notice that professor Dawkins and his fellow evolutionists offer no proof at all for any of their speculations, for the simple reason that there is no way to prove them. One might as plausibly speculate that the sun was originally blue when the earth was formed; no one can disprove it. Because they are “scientists,” we are required to take their word for it. - Thomas E. Brewton, Rational Evolutionary Hypothesis? Intellectual Conservative

What a neatly convoluted argument. Does the author know that no scientist worth the term 'scientist' would say the sun was originally blue unless there was an observation made, and then a process followed that led to that postulation? Or does the author work on the assumption that people think that scientists are declaratorians — clerics in white coats? And is there a good reason for the author to assume this?

Science, good science, despite the way it's often portrayed as 'ask the experts' and can come across as smug, never purports to know definitively; never has the assurance that nevadamistermom, one of the comment-posters displays in agreement with Brewton's essay: "I have yet to find questions that creationists cannot answer."

Nevadamistermom says: The problem boils down to this: evolutionists simply can’t get past the fundamental premise made by creationists; namely, that there is an uncreated Being who designed everything. However, once you accept this premise, the evidence for a Designer rather than random mutation is really quite overwhelming. All the observable data “fits” the creationist model much better than the evolutionist model.

There's certainly been a lot of evolution in answer-creation since I was in the US back in 1995, when I was invited to speak about Australia at an elementary school. I showed slides of the bush — kangaroo tracks, old-man banksias — and a beach with a rockshelf thick with fossils. "These lived back in the time of the dinosaurs," I said to the class of six-year olds. After that class and before the next, I was pulled aside by the principal. "Everybody loved your talk," she said, "but please don't talk about dinosaurs."

Since that question has now been settled so well that it got a letter in Nature, I will skip to other questions—questions that science has failed to answer.

1.Did God put reproductive organs and nipples on man because He has them, too?

2. What does He do with His?

3. If God made Adam like a Ken doll, and then added these items, did He fashion them during the operation in which He took Adam's rib? This would be efficient, so it seems the most intelligent time.

4. Why, despite the Book of Genesis, have scientists gotten away with the propaganda for hundreds of years, that men and women have the same number of ribs?

I look forward to the answers, but in the meantime, I'll stick my neck out and say what I think is so confusing, and wrong, with science today: too often, science is told in the language of religion.

David Sinclair believes resveratrol is a miracle drug.

That is the first line of a recent 'news' story. (A votre santé: now in pill form? by Erika Check, Nature news, 2 November 2006)

Later we read, if we bother, that he doesn't have enough evidence to show that it works in humans, but that after a series of experiments, he and his team were able to show a finding that . . .

News stories are usually written without the explanation. The miracle is the message, and if it's not the cure, there's the inevitable let-down, and more confusion as to what is science, what is mumbo-jumbo, or Lourdes-based cure.

Sense About Science has garnered quite a bit of coverage, and its motives could be pure, but if so, I don't understand why the organisation doesn't put its 'answers' online, and why it isn't more transparent. SAS fosters more of the illusion amongst the public that science is answer-based and not a continual process of questions that are tentatively answered, only to have those answers over-ridden by what often seem to be downright fiendish 'surprises'. In topics such as xenotransplantation, for instance, scientists are quite split amongst those who say that the science (and evolution itself) is ignored when it comes to zoonoses, and those who some might say are dazzled by possibilities in the short term (the Sense About scientists?) but call themselves pragmatists and the others junk-science fear-mongers. They say that science is above all, a constant weighing of possibilities: risks against benefits—and that they have assessed the risks with 'real science'. Scientists were not on one side only when it came to BSE-CJD, but the early public assurances in the name of science were as all-knowingly faith-based as Nevadamistermom's, in her little old book.

Today, more than any time in our history, the public needs to know not only what science is, but what scientists are capable of. Today, as scientists can do more in and to the natural world than anything humans have done before, we need to assess cause and effect. We need to fully discuss implications, but to do that, we need to be able to have a broader knowledge of not only what is possible in the life sciences, but what the magic and miracles of life and the natural world are. Otherwise, xenotransplantation and work on retroviruses are just more black boxes, or stories that are written about in the media only in terms that religious 'ethicists' pick, or 'trust me. I'm a scientist (but don't ask questions)', or even worse: the ugh or cool labels that 'breakthroughs' and 'research' wear when they appear as 'news'.

We are capable of change beyond what we can change, though we act as if the world is infinitely conquerable. We've got a 19th century mentality still, even down to using up the 'miracle' of antibiotics within a generation and playing now with viruses as if they and not we, have the brains. Wherever there is a chance to do exciting work, there is an arrogance, especially when it comes to the natural world. Many scientists have called for a measured approach to discovery when there is danger on a species scale. We have so many evolution-given gifts. I hope that we as humans, progress to the stage of using them, though the evidence at the moment shows that so far . . . Its solution: lab workers “will be trained to stop breathing”.

Uncertain Science . . . Uncertain World by Henry N. Pollack (Cambridge University Press, 2003) is an excellent book for explaining science — the full contradictory world of science, all its tensions in expectations and perceptions. Above all, it stresses the core of science, the excitement of the unknown, the excitement of the search, the lack of any point as end, and the lack of any reason to want to reach that point. I recommend the whole book, but will quote just a little here.

When scientists acknowledge that they do not know everything about a complex natural phenomenon such as the spread of disease through an ecosystem, the public sometimes translates that to mean that scientists do not know anything about the subject. That, in turn, leads to a loss of public credibility in the capabilities of the scientific community. A byproduct of the loss of credibility is an all-too-frequent willingness of the general public to entertain flimsy pronouncements from kooks, charlatans, and marginal skeptics. With an air of scientific authority and certainty, these pseudo-scientists make assertions that have never been subjected to the rigorous probing that is the foundation of genuine science . . .

The problems with understanding science begin very early, with some inadequacies in the educational system. In a very important sense, children are born as natural scientists. They emerge into a strange world and are curious about everything surrounding them. They look, they touch, they listen, smell and taste. They make observations of this new world, and they process and evaluate the stream of information coming at them from every direction. They explore, experiment, and learn from their mistakes. Then they go to school . . . science in school is, more often than not, presented as a recitation of accomplishment rather than as a process of inquiry.

So science is confusing. Students are taught science as catechism, and its achievements are explained to the public, even to scientists, in religious terms — miracles, magic, black box.

No wonder then, that there's confusion explaining the world of the unexplained arcane. The funny thing, though, is that while 'science news' is miracles, the most common 'science' that people come upon is in consumer packaging, from sweet and soft drink labels to cosmetics.

And there, in ageing especially, people have learnt that miracles don't happen.

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1 comment:

KooKee said...

Hello Anna,Never liked the term
"Scientist". "Observer" would fit,
then connecting the dots of what's observed.The old saying of fooling some of the people all of the time....ect. until someone looks behind the curtain,sometimes it just takes a long time for that to happen.