Thursday, 5 November 2009

REPOST What's wrong with science

Science is my passion. In order the things I passionately care about are: sex, maths, science, freedom, fairness, alternative medicine, religion, tea, radio 4 and astrology. I love science, I dont just mean that I'm interested in a few things about space or evolution or whatever, I mean that I really really love it and get a huge amount of pleasure from it in the most profound way I have ever experienced.

Why am I saying this? I'm saying it because I think other people who feel similarly should say the same thing too. And I think that because there's a danger, not that science will stop happening, but that it will become separate from the real world. Too often I read things in the paper that start with “scientists have announced” or “a world expert in such and such today said that”, I was watching an interview with a scientist, possibly Marcus Chown, and the interviewer described scientists as the new priesthood. This scared me a lot. If this is the way things are going it needs to stop now. Scientists should not be allowed to claim infallibility just for being scientists just as a priest should not be able to claim infallibility for being a priest (whatever the pope says no human is without error).

Why is this a problem? If things go on like this people wont be able to do basic science themselves, everyone will start to assume that Science with an upper-case S is this big holy thing done by people in white robes in special cathedrals of knowledge. And that means that people wont use science in their day to day life, and I believe that this is vital for staying alive in the world. We live in a technological society, things rest on knife edges, if people cant use critical thinking disasters happen. If you give your child a homoeopathic remedy instead of real medicine the child's death is not due to you rationally considering the medical literature and experiments to compare results. It's because you've rejected the cult of science and gone for something that feels better. People who reject science in this way and buy into whatever nonsense seems good to them (watch out for the phrase 'western science') are feeding off this feeling of being rejected or alienated by science. So we need to make sure there is no cult of science for people to be turned off by.

What do I think should happen? I think that everyone, whatever they do and however well educated, can be and should be a scientist. This doesn't mean doing complicated research, it means thinking about the evidence for important beliefs and testing things in some limited way. It means not accepting what experts say because they are experts, but because they have done a good experiment to show they are right. It means not risking your health on the advice of people living centuries ago, but trying to be healthy in the way that the evidence shows is best. In the case of MMR for instance, it is in my opinion immoral for someone to make a decision about whether their child should get this jab without using science, few people have the time to analyse the research done for sure, but everyone has time to go to their doctor and ask him what the research says. And if he doesn't know, get a new doctor, medics who dont follow research on important topics like this should not be trusted.

What stops everyone being a scientist in this way? Society makes it so damned hard! Newspapers never publish examples of experiments, so much is done on what one or other group of scientists say, their word is taken as evidence. Why? Because science is hard, nobody wants to try and do it because it makes your head hurt. This is a double failure, of society and of education. Science classes that I have been to are massively unfit for purpose, pupils are made to spend years memorising facts without the faintest idea where they come from. We all learn at school that science means labelling a diagram of an eye, with little understanding of why the various fluids are there, we learn that chemistry is about manipulating horrid chemical equations without really understanding why the reactions happen, we are told that f=GmM/d^2 but are never told how this was found out. This makes science seem like it is a dry complicated academic mess, and so the media tells us that it's far too hard for us and so tells us something it thinks we can understand, irrespective of whether this is true or not.

My final point is that there is no need for science to be like this. Science as a method is easy, you look at some event, generalise what you see, predict from this something you haven't seen yet and then see if that happens. If so the generalisation survives this round, but if not we find a new one. There is no reason for this to be hard to do. In every day situations: if you think that crystals make your plants grow well, try it out, put two identical plants next to each other, one with a crystal and one with out, simple things like this mean either that you can confidently harness the power of the crystals knowing they work, or that you can stop wasting money on useless ornaments. But even in the profound things there is still a lot of science people dont get exposed to. A lot of deep science can, with a bit of thought, be said in such a way that you keep all the ideas, but make it seem much easier. I'd be prepared to bet that there would be far fewer “debates” on evolution if everyone were told that “there is a species of bacteria that eats, and can only eat, a by-product of nylon, as nylon was invented in the 40s, bacteria like this could not have lived before then, so they must have gradually come into existence since as the descendants of a very similar bacterium that ate something else” and yet if this is presented anywhere it is either written in such a dumbed down way “scientists say bacteria can eat plastic” or in the full horrors of a stream of incomprehensible Latin words so that nobody really understands why it is important. Science is easy, there's no reason why you should do something important without testing your ideas, and there's no reason why you should believe experts without testing their reliability.

Just a quick question: is anyone at all interested in this essay? I just wrote it because I've been irritated recently and wanted this idea off my chest, if nobody wants it feel free to say so and I'll write them but not publish in future.

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