Science is Not an Exact Science
There’s really no problem with science as defined by this definition, “….the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” There’s a problem with our societal perception of science but that makes for a title that’s a little long and complex.
The World Is Flat
We learned in grade school that in days of Christopher Columbus, he was branded a heretic when he suggested the world was round. He had challenged the current views and norms of the scientists and religious leaders of his day. The prevailing scientists labeled him a dangerous lunatic; the religious leaders, a heretic. Today, in doing some quick Internet research (and what could possibly go wrong with that) it appears Columbus may not have been the only one to question the idea of a flat world. Undoubtedly, many of the skeptics were afraid to speak up. Even though Columbus was lost and didn’t know where he was when he landed on what would become the Americas, he didn’t fall off the edge of the world as many thought would happen.
The Heavens Revolve Around the Earth
Curiously enough, when Columbus “sailed the ocean blue in 1492,” prevailing science thought the heavens revolved around the earth. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus detailed his radical theory of the Universe in which the Earth, along with the other planets, rotated around the Sun. His theory took more than a century to become widely accepted. He died later that same year, in 1543, likely still ridiculed and even excoriated by the scientists and religious leaders of his day.
There’s a pattern here that still exists today. Many conventional scientists are not tolerant, at all, of any opposing views or questions about their theories. In the old days, it was religious leaders that joined with conventional scientists in ridiculing and discrediting any dissenters. Today, the religious leaders have largely been replaced by our political leaders. In the old days, communication was difficult. Today, communication is instant, but we have big tech companies that somehow think they should be the authority in choosing which “science” is right and shutting down communication from anyone who dares to challenge the norm.
Complex World and Universe
We live in an incredibly wonderful and complex world and universe. Real scientists research and experiment in areas where the outcomes are not known and have learned a lot over the centuries about how things work. However, we still don’t understand it all. The problem comes when certain scientists don’t fully disclose the fact that they are using a theory or a projection model to explain or predict something. Sometimes they forget to say their explanation or prediction is based on theory and they don’t know for sure what is going to happen.
I love watching the science channel. The other night, they were talking about new theories about black holes and exploding stars. Basically, they were saying the previous black hole theories are probably all wrong, but now we think this is the way black holes work. I chuckled because it reminded me of the Kevin Nealon character in “Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update sketches where he would launch into telling you facts. Then, he would stop himself and say “You know what, that is all wrong. This is the way it really is.” He would go through that cycle several times in a way that was really funny.
Many in Society Know Little Science
We live in a society that by and large the person on the street has little working knowledge of science and how the physical and natural world works. (There are people who still think the sun revolves around the earth.) So last year, when a scientist said their model predicted that 2 million people would die in the pandemic, many people just accepted it as fact and went into hysteria. Often the scientists don’t mention that their model is made up of 100 assumptions, essentially sophisticated guesses, that introduce a huge variability in their predicted outcome. Some scientists are good about being humble and outrightly stating that “this is what we believe may be true, but we just don’t know.” Many imply that what they are telling you is true and that if you don’t believe them you don’t believe in science.
Science is Not an Exact Science
We certainly can’t ignore science or the scientists, but we have to understand that science is not an exact science. A better approach would be to sharpen our critical thinking skills and gather information from multiple sources before sizing up any situation.
Critical thinking skills are difficult if not impossible to teach directly but we can instill critical thinking indirectly. When we talk about increasing our youth’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) it is usually with an eye toward getting more of them into science and technology careers. However, even if they do something else with their life’s work, providing opportunities to observe and experiment at an early age will make them better critical thinkers in the complex society of their future.
Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at www.fablabicc.org.