Sunday, 17 February 2013

Why do science at all?

This year is the centenary of the death of the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace.  Less well known to the general public than Charles Darwin, Wallace certainly ought to come out somewhere in those polls of the top 100 scientists (I'd like to see a BBC3 programme along those lines, linked by Robert Webb and with all the usual talking heads - ie comedians who you don't really see much on the tele normally, newsreaders, children's presenters and someone who actually does know something about the subject and, for the smallest fee because they don't really have an agent, has been pursuaded to appear), somewhere in the top half.

Or the bottom half, because Wallace got natural selection so right then held on to the idea that the human brain wasn't the product of evolution therefore committing the cardinal sin of a scientist, looking for exceptions to universal laws.  Scientists shouldn't be doing that.  It's bad form.

Perhaps he should have paid attention in school.  A liberal education these days means compulsory science and a good thing that is too.  If science were better understood by the population at large then we might not have execrable publicatons like What Doctors Don't Tell You.  Actually, what doctors don't tell you is to go and waste a few quid in Smith's or Tesco's buying this tosh because they believe in evidence based medicine (most of them anyway) because that way we can find out what makes you better and what doesn't, and as we know from this previous post, anecdotes do not make a scientific case.  Human beings are terribly fallible, terribly prone to getting attached to ideas and making the evidence fit them rather than throwing the idea out when the evidence doesn't actually fit it.  Evidence is important.  It is what makes science a dispiriting affair for some children because their opinion doesn't matter.  Science is not child centred in that respect.  It isn't people centred.  We remember some great scientists - Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Faraday, Galileo... - not so much for their ideas but for the fact that they had those ideas.  Einstein showed how wrong Newton was on gravity, for instance, but we don't disregard Newton as a result.
Member of public (all right, parliament) carrying out non-scientific experiment on food safety (note, no control group)

The public wants answers from scientists and usually gets conditional responses.  This is what scientists do all day long.  They are not hedging their bets but defining what they understand.  Experiments are extractions of the real world, not a perfect image of the smeary world of unmeasurable factors.  Controlling those factors enables a scientist to make some important observation, description, explanation of what happens when certain factors are allowed to vary.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The public, unfortunately, often get a different picture.  Usually this is the world of journalism's fault.  Sometimes it is the scientists.  In our blurry world, the two overlap in some Faustian Venn diagram because a press release from the University of Stoke Poges (Department of Obvious Research) can fill a column inch otherwise unfilled by some quirky yet amusingly interesting story, and our plucky researcher from said University can now claim to have had a piece of their research brought into the wider world by the Daily Mailograph or similar.  This is especially true of those endless medical breakthroughs which are, sadly, nothing of the kind.  Someone, please tell me if red wine is good or bad for you?   Not me, obviously, since I am teetotal (well, not obviously until you know that latter fact).
Richard Feynman

The easiest person to fool is yourself (Richard Feynman).  He was such an archetypal scientist that he explored and experimented on so many things in his ultra-productive lifetime.  He followed the motion of a spinning plate through the air to discover fundamental things about the Universe at large.  He opened up amazing new vistas through which we could pursue our scant understanding of the quantum world.  He watched himself falling asleep, training himself to be an observer of his own consciousness, so to speak.  An amazing man and yet one who could explicate science in the most direct and wonderful way.  Listen (don't read) any of this lectures that are available on the internet.  Well worth anyone's time.

This post is called why do science at all?  The answers are straightforward.  Here's a list:
1  You'll understand what doctors are telling you, why and how to perceive the truth from the rubbish that is out there on all sorts of medical matters.
2  You'll have a deeper understanding of the world, from what thunder and lightning is to why your neice hasn't got her dad's eye colour and why that doesn't mean your neice's mum wasn't playing around.
3  You'll find it easier not to get ripped off by all sorts of things, from comparison websites to spam emails to double glazing salespeople to politicians, journalists, marketing departments and just about anyone else.  You'll know the value of evidence against the value of opinion and you'll be able to see the difference.  It is called the Delingpole Effect which is slightly ironic when you consider that it is named for someone who relies on using other people's opinions of the evidence to form his own opinion. 
4  You'll be better at exams because once you have developed the critical faculties that make you good at science, you'll also be able to use them in other areas of life.  After all, science is such a brilliant way of finding out about the world that it led to, amongst other things, iPods, digital cameras, mobile phones and who knows what there is waiting to be invented that will make our lives simultaneously richer, easier and more frustrating. 
5  You'll have fun just know that some things are really wonderful because they have been explained.  A lot of people who ought to know better moan that science takes the wonder out of things by explaining them.  Rubbish, say I.  It opens up more and more questions, and, as I am finding out more or less daily at the moment, children learn to ask the why questions before grown ups can make them unlearn them.  The why question is important in science.  Why does that happen?  Why is it like this and not like that?  Like people who never grow out of playing the games of their childhood, or following the same hobby throughout their life (why - there I go - is it considered normal to follow football for a lifetime but not to be interested in trains, or model aircraft or, I could go on), a scientist never stops asking those questions because they are the questions that make science take the next step.  Just like a toddler, science proceeds through faltering steps, tentative ones, building confidence in them, sometimes falling down and abandoning them. 

Science is for grown ups who haven't shed the delight in knowing what the world is like.  My granddaughter loves finding out.  One day the world will not be all shiny and new and filled with wonders unexplored.  It will be familiar and slightly boring.  She may end up cynical and gnarled like a grumpy old man, or she may, I hope, end up delighting in some new, unexplored bit that she has sought out for herself.  And I hope she tries her hardest to understand it, even if it looks as if it is totally inexplicable.

In preparing a lesson once I researched some UFO sightings.  They were all genuine (by which I mean that the stories were not made up, not that they were actually about little green men or equivalent) but there was something I found slightly scary about them.  The people who were reporting these sitings had a level of curiosity that went about as far up the staircase of curiosity as a classic Jon Pertwee era Dalek.  They were saying they had seen something, a strange light in the night sky usually, and contributed their sighting to a website for like-minded people.  They were hoping someone might tell them what it was but I got the sense that they didn't really want to know because if they had, they might have tried to work it out for themselves.  But almost universally there was a lack of crucial detail.  Where precisely were you?  What direction were you facing?  Anything that might actually help. 

The recent meteor incident in Russia has led to an illustrative point.  The meteor clearly (you can see it in the videos) came out of the east.  In the Daily Mail, the direction is given as from the west.  A bit of critical thinking, using the internet to search some reliable sites (eg Bad Astronomy).  Oh well.  Not all journalists paid attention in their science lessons.  And, of course, people will believe what they read in the papers.  Perhaps they should be a little more wary.  In the first Gulf War of 1991, I read two papers each day to ensure that I was getting the right information and not just a slanted view.  One from each end of the political spectrum - a sort of stereo view.  We can't do that all the time but it is an interesting exercise to carry out.

Saturday's paper, which I read at Gatwick Airport, had three bits of astronomy in it.  The meteor, the near miss asteroid and a false colour image of Mercury.  Bravo.  Better that than prima donnas and prancing footballers.  That's what I say, but I would say that.  Wouldn't I?

No comments:

Post a Comment