Saturday 11 December 2021

Flaxen Saxon having a bit of a Ramble......


What is science? This is a real, meaningful question for today. Although most folk claim they understand 'science' at its base level a quick chat with the average citizen will reveal very little meaningful comprehension. Science literacy is important, even for none scientists, and should, in my opinion, be emphasised at an early stage in our education. Perhaps the science curricular could acquire time slots allotted to ridiculous topics such as 'Gender Studies'. I will send a quick missive to the 'National Education Dept of New Zealand.' I'm sure they will be receptive to my erudite recommendations. Arse.

Even scientists can become confused with the base core that is 'Science'. This is not because, at the fundamental level at least, the principles are overly complex. The problem lies in the fact that the underlying principles of science are never put forth in a coherent way. Even at the university level, there is a deplorable lack of teaching directed to imparting the basic essence of scientific endeavour and practice. It is assumed that these underlying principles will be miraculously absorbed by an undefined method of 'intellectual osmosis'. However, it is well worth the time to formally teach the importance of scientific endeavour, the underpinning principles of science, and methodology at an early stage in a pupil's education.

There has always been folk in society that have eschewed science and scientific principles. A host of reasons can be put forth. Science is often at odds with accepted religious practice and doctrine. Those whose religious will and austerity are unyielding will oft side with their particular brand of religious doctrine/indoctrination to the detriment of their scientific understanding. As a good example, it is worth considering the teaching and societal status of 'Evolutionary Theory' in the United States. The theory of evolution has been around for 170 years and is still considered the best explanation for change and variation within and between species, Nonetheless, fundamentalist Christians dismiss the principle as 'just theory' and incompatible with their religious teachings. Sadly, and according to the latest polls, 40% of the American public believes in creation. This statistic is shocking. This level of scientific ignorance should not belong to a modern industrialised country in the 21st century- but there it stands. Arguments put forth by fundamentalists are laughable and ludicrous. Tis clear that many have not performed their due diligence in reading the primary evolutionary literature. Their comprehension of the topic is obtained from the pulpit and literature from other religious apologists. Their arguments are easy to refute and rebuff thereby exposing their underlying ignorance.

It has to be acknowledged that our paltry human brains have not evolved to deal with the complexity of the natural world. Our brains evolved in a particular environment. An environment full of atavistic danger. We needed to contend with the presence of large predators physically stronger and more adept than us. Disease via microbes assailed our fragile bodies and natural selection favoured a sophisticated and effective immune system. The selective pressures we encountered as a species were not geared to produce a mind capable of comprehending the complexities of our world at the fundamental level, and this shows when we attempt to deduce valid descriptors of reality. Science, by necessity, works with models that approximate or imitate reality. We seek reality but that reality is elusive. Our understanding lurches on as we discover new knowledge that is in accord with our current model of reality. If the observable data doesn't fit, or frankly contradicts our model, then the model requires modification or abandonment. Generally, science progression comes slowly in small packets. It is only rarely that we observe a seismic shift in our understanding. Einstein's theories of relativity supplanted the Newtonian model of reality and today is considered the best model we have to explain time and motion. However, lately, there have been some worrying contradictions suggesting that Einstein's Model is not quite correct. Mayhap will have to await the arrival of another prodigal genius to put forth a more accurate theory.

It is also acknowledged that science doesn't have the answer to all our questions. As stated we can only approximate. This is, of course, manna to the religious. They deal with absolutes. There are no doubts. At least no doubts religious leaders wish to impart to the 'simple believer'. Thus the Iman and the Bishop preach absolutes; there is no room for doubt. Leave doubt to the scientists. The charlatan likewise plays the same game of certainty. Notice that the snake oil peddler is oft to present their product as a 'miracle cure'. In contrast, legitimate medicine rarely makes 'cure-all' claims. For instance, there is no one treatment that is effective against all the cancers that assail our wretched bodies. Yet many will be taken in by chicanery of emotive words, such as 'Natural Products' or 'Lost Ancient Wisdom'. These buzz words fool millions and even the highly intelligent are not immune to such blandishments. Consider the case of Steve Jobs: he was diagnosed with cancer eminently treatable, and with a high cure rate, by conventional medicine alone. Modern Western medicine is based on hundreds of years of accumulated scientific data and knowledge. No arcane wisdom is needed. Anyone can pronounce they have found a cure (insert any disease you desire) on the basis of sound marketing. No empirical clinical trials or painstaking clinical research is necessary. It is often considered a virtue if the elixir of life does not conform to conventional wisdom and contains no synthetic compounds. It is as if the simple mantra, 'natural' is always good and synthetic is always 'bad' is actually meaningful and true. Jobs thought that alternative, so-called 'natural treatment', was the pathway to a cure. He was wrong and he suffered the ultimate penalty as a consequence. Many find these absolutes attractive and comforting. Science can do no such thing. Science raises doubts, not absolutes. Religion and charlatans offer an endpoint; science contemplates a journey. A journey where the destination is largely unknown. Consider the extent of the scientific journey that has been traveled over just the last 200 years. We have come far.

Scientific advancement and the acquisition of meaningful knowledge is a matter of approximating gradations. For instance, the model of the atom we learn at school is not the model contemplated by the professional physicist. Atoms can't be balls of matter and strings of energy at the same time. String theory is perhaps our most complex and intricate model of reality. But scientists, if they are intellectually honest, accept that the model is incorrect. While it unites much of what we know at the quantum and macro level it is becoming clear that it is not consistent with all our observations. Scientists are human after all and like everyone can become irrationally attached to an idea or notion; hubris is universal.

There is much incomprehension and ignorance, by lay-folk, concerning the methodology of the scientific method, its power, and limitations, that I'm tempted to undertake a series of posts, hopefully illustrating and illuminating these important issues. Let me know in the comments whether you think it would be fruitful for the flaxen-haired one to pursue such a course.


  1. I think it might be interesting to do a series on moments of change in scientific thinking. Arguments were not always won simply through facts and logic, but sometimes through rhetorical skill as you know with Darwin:

    1. That's true. Darwin was loathe to enter into debate with doubters and let Thomas Huxley (Darwin's bulldog) do the dirty work.

  2. My comments about Climate Change on another blog, although also reflecting upon scientific methods:

    "I suspect that Climate Change suffers from the same problems that Epidemiology first faced.

    Epidemiology - "the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems". Science is (broadly) the detection and explanation of observed regularities and generally follows a single cause -> single effect model. But epidemiology works to a different model of many causes -> many effects, and draws out commonalities at a population level.

    The commonalities are much harder to 'prove' than single cause and effect regularities. Look how long it took to show how tobacco smoking was generally bad for you, or how leaded petrol was generally bad for you. Had all smokers contracted lung cancer within 5 years of starting to smoke the 'simple' link between smoking and cancer would have been a slam dunk and interested parties couldn't have delayed things.

    Climate science is similar in that there are many causes and many effects, and many of the unconvinced or inconvenienced can find some wiggle room to argue. Similarly Climate Science has been pushed by activists, and that in itself fosters resistance.

    My best guess is that Climate Science will eventually be resolved by analysis of Big Data (just like epidemiological investigation of other complex subjects)."

    Single cause/single effect is straightforward. Multiple causes/multiple effects require statistical analysis.