While we recover from the fallout of New York’s Senate appointment, while we try to change channels faster than Illinois Governor Ron Blagojevich can appear on them, while we wait for the President’s new cabinet appointees (and the Senator from Minnesota) to be confirmed and seated, while we curse the snow and sleet, the higher property taxes, the cuts in service and mid-winter misery in general, let us now stop to sing the praises of science.
I wasn’t a science kid. I didn’t watch Mr. Wizard on Saturday mornings or beg my folks for a home chemistry set. I preferred language and music to theorems and equations. A generally good student, my only truly bad grade was in freshman college earth science. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I began to realize just how much I value the process by which science and scientists seek to learn what is true.
“The scientific method is something all of us use all of the time. In fact, engaging in the basic activities that make up the scientific method — being curious, asking questions, seeking answers — is a natural part of being human.” So says the author of an article on the subject on a wonderful site called “How Stuff Works.” Put in such accessible terms, it makes sense. Yet in the last decade, science has been regarded in certain circles as an authoritarian, unyielding, unfeeling practice that stubbornly asserts it has incontrovertible answers to everything. One reason may be related to a widespread misunderstanding about the word “theory”. As Wikipedia points out, “In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation… In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time.” By mixing up the two meanings and by ignoring the process by which scientific theories are developed, it’s easy to decide science is guesswork dressed up to look like fact.
The fact is , good science – like good thinking – is open-minded. Sure, we might say we know something for certain, based on provable and testable information; for example, we’re pretty sure the world is round at this point. But the value of science isn’t in its insistence it has every answer, only that it has a method for looking and a willingness to reconsider earlier positions. As Dennis Overbye pointed out in the Science section of yesterday’s New York Times,“Science is not a monument of received Truth but something people do to look for truth.” Overbye went on to point out the parallels between science and democracy, both of them “willing to embrace debate and respect one another…”
How cool is that?
I doubt I’ll ever memorize the periodic tables or the geological ages of the earth but I have taken to reading more articles about earth science, life sciences and physical sciences. I’m interested in whether science finds a cure for cancer or arthritis or whether certain foods can positively alter brain chemistry, especially in the dead of winter. Mostly, though, I say hooray for President Obama’s promise to restore science to its rightful place. I certainly want to support debate, discussion, and inquiry – in short, any process that celebrates the pursuit of answers rather than the certainty anyone has them all.