Monday, 27 January 2014

An index of possibilities: defining science at a personal level

"If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?" - T.H. Huxley

With a sense of revitalisation following the start of a new year - and since the number of misconceived notions of the scientific method are legion - I thought I should put my cards on the table and delineate my personal ideas of what I believe science to be.

I suppose you could say it's a self-learning exercise as much as anything. Most people consider science the least comprehensible of all disciplines, removed from every day experience and only accessible by a select few (a.k.a. an intellectual elite), albeit at the loss of the creativity that drives so many other aspects of our lives. But hopefully the incredible popularity of British physicist Brian Cox and other photogenic scientist-cum-science-communicators is more than a passing fad and will help in the long term to break down this damaging myth. Science is both part and parcel of our existence and will only increase in importance as we try to resolve such vital issues as environmental degradation whilst still providing enough food and water for an ever-increasing population (fingers very much crossed on that one, folks!)

So here goes: my interpretation of the scientific method in ten bite-size, easy-to-swallow, chunks.
  1. A large amount of science is not difficult to comprehend
    Granted, theoretical high-energy physics is one of several areas of science difficult to describe meaningfully in a few, short sound bites. But amidst the more obtuse volumes aimed at a popular readership there are some gems that break down the concepts to a level that retains the essential details without resorting to advanced mathematics. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould noted that the fear of incompetence put many intelligent enthusiasts off learning science as a leisure activity, but with the enormity of these popular science sections in many bookstores - there are over 840,000 books in's science section - there is no longer an excuse for not dipping a toe. Leaving physics aside, there are plenty of areas of science that are easy to understand too, especially in the 'historical' disciplines such as palaeontology (more on that later).
  2. Science is not a collection of facts but a way of exploring reality
    This is still one of the most difficult things to convey. Bill Bryson's prize-winning best seller A Short History of Nearly Everything reminds me of the genre of boy's own bumper book of true facts that was still around when I was a child: Victorian-style progress with a capital 'P' and science just a compilation of theories and facts akin to say, history. The reality is of course rather more complicated. The scientific method is a way of examining nature via testable questions that can be resolved to a high degree of certainty by simplified models, either by practical experiments (both repeatable and under 'laboratory conditions') - and including these days, computer simulations - or via mathematics.
  3. Science requires creativity, not just rigor
    The stereotype of scientists as rational, unemotional beings has been broken down over the past thirty years or so, but many non-scientists still have little idea of the creative thinking that can be involved in science, particularly in cutting-edge theorising. From Einstein's thought experiments such as what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light to the development of string theory - which has little likelihood of experimental evidence in the near future - scientists need to utilise creative thought at least as much as data collation and hard mathematics.
  4. Scientists are only human
    Scientists are far from immune to conditioned paths of thought ingrained via their social and cultural background. Therefore, rather than all scientists being equally adept at developing particular hypotheses, they are subject to the same whims and sense of normality as everyone else. In addition, individual idiosyncrasies can hinder their career. I've discussed previously how Einstein (who famously said his contempt of authority was punished by him becoming an authority himself) refused to accept some of the aspects of quantum theory long after his contemporaries had.
    Scientists could be said then to follow the stereotype visible elsewhere, namely that young radicals frequently evolve into old conservatives.
  5. If there's no proof, is it still science?
    Thomas Henry Huxley (a.k.a. Darwin's Bulldog) once said that the 'deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence'. Yet scientific hypotheses are sometimes formed prior to any support from nature or real-world experimentation. Although Charles Darwin had plenty of the evidence revealing artificial selection when he wrote On the Origin of Species, the fossil record at the time was extremely patchy and he had no knowledge of Mendelian inheritance. In addition, the most prominent physicists of his day were unaware of nuclear fusion and so their theories of how stars shone implied a solar system far too young for natural selection to be the primary mechanism of evolution. By sticking to his ideas in spite of these issues, did this make Darwin a poor scientist? Or is it feasible that many key advances require a leap of faith - a term unlikely to please Richard Dawkins - due to lack of solid, physical evidence?
  6. Are there two schools of science?
    New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford once disparagingly remarked something along the lines of physics being the only real science, and that other so-called scientific disciplines are just stamp collecting. I prefer to think of science as being composed of historical and non-historical disciplines, only occasionally overlapping. For instance, cutting-edge technological application of physics required repeatable and falsifiable experiments, hence the deemed failure of cold fusion, whilst the likes of meteorology, evolutionary biology, and palaeontology are composed of innumerable historical events and/or subject to the complexities of chaos theory and as such are unlikely to provide duplicate circumstances for testing or even capable of being broken down into simplified models that can be accurately tested.
  7. An accepted theory is not necessarily final
    A theory doesn't have to be the absolute end of a quest. For example, Newton's law of universal gravitation had to wait over two centuries for Einstein's general theory of relativity to explain the mechanism behind the phenomenon. Although quantum mechanics is the most accurate theory ever developed (in terms of the match between theory and experimental results), the root cause is yet to be understood, with wildly varying interpretations offered instead. The obvious problem with this approach is that a hypothesis may fit the facts but without an explanatory mechanism, scientists may reject it as untenable. A well-known instance of this scientific conservatism (albeit for good reasons) involved Alfred Wegener's hypothesis of continental drift, which only achieved orthodoxy decades later once plate tectonics was discovered.
  8. Scientific advance rarely proceeds by eureka moments
    Science is a collaborative effort. Few scientists work in a vacuum (except astronauts, of course!) Even the greatest of 'solo' theories such as universal gravitation was on the cards during Newton's lifetime, with contemporaries such as Edmond Halley working along similar lines. Unfortunately, our predilection for simple stories with identifiable heroes means that team leaders and thesis supervisors often receive the credit when many researchers have worked towards a goal. In addition, the priority rule is based on first publication, not when a scientist formulated the idea. Therefore many theories are named after scientists who may not have been the earliest discoverer or formulator. The work of unsung researchers is frequently neglected in favour of this simplified approach that glorifies the work of one pioneer at the expense of many others.
  9. Science is restricted by the necessity of using language to describe it
    Richard Dawkins has often railed against Plato's idealism (a.k.a. Essentialism), using the phrase 'the tyranny of the discontinuous mind'. I recall a primary example of this as a child, whilst contemplating a plastic model kit I had of a Neanderthal. I wondered how the human race had evolved: specifically, how could parents of a predecessor hominid species give birth to a modern human, i.e. a child of a different species? Of course, such discontinuity is nonsense, but it is surprising how frequently our mind interprets the world in this format of neat boundaries. A large part of the problem is how do we define transitional states as the norm, since our language is bound up with intrinsic categories? In addition, we rely on metaphor and analogy to describe aspects of the universe that do not conform to everyday experience, the nature of quantum probability being an obvious example. As with the previous point on our innate need for heroes, we are always constructing narratives, thus restricting our ability to understand nature at a fundamental level.
  10. Science does not include a moral dimension
    Science, like nature, is neither moral nor immoral and cannot provide a framework for human behaviour. Of course, this doesn't prevent scientists from being greedy or stupid, or even just naïve: witness British evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane who recommended the use of poison gas as a war weapon due to it being more humane than conventional weapons (in terms of the ratio of deaths to temporarily incapacitation). This suggests that non-scientists should be involved in the decision-making process for the funding of some science projects, especially those with clear applications in mind. But in order for this to be tenable, the public needs to be considerably more scientifically literate than at present. Otherwise the appalling scare-mongering engendered by the likes of the British tabloid press - think genetically modified crops labelled as 'Frankenstein foods' - will only make matters far worse. GM crops themselves are a perfect example of why the Hollywood approach for clear-cut heroes and villains fails with most of science. Reality is rarely black or white but requires careful analysis of the myriad shades of grey.
In conclusion, it might be said that there are as many variants of science as there are human beings. Contrary to many other disciplines, mistakes and ignorance are clear strengths: as Darwin stated in The Descent of Man, 'Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.' Above all, there are aspects of science that are part and parcel of our everyday experience and as such, we shouldn't just consider it as something to save for special occasions.