Unless you are a Republican congressman for whom the declaration that “I am not a scientist,” seems like a sad badge of honour, most people think they have a grasp on basic science. After all you can’t get through high school without at least one science credit. Back in the day, you even needed one to get your Bachelor of Arts – just as science guys like me needed at least one arts course. Still, I suspect most of my peers got no more grasp of science from their Biology 101 than I understood world history from my Plato to NATO survey course.
As they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The average North American gets by on very little information. Most, I suspect would flunk a grade ten general science quiz.
The people I tend to spend most of my time with – policy analysts and science fiction writers – tend to do a little better. Some of them even have degrees in one science discipline or another. But even we can make colossal blunders when we forget the basics tenets of the reasoning system that underpins most of modern civilization.
Perhaps no one can be blamed for losing track – there is after all more science out there every day, a lot of it reported in simplified memes or grotesque news headlines. And then we have the image of the scientist portrayed in fiction and the movies. Few get it right. Even The Martian, which was better than most films at portraying science, got it wrong in a way. When the hero says he is going to ‘science the shit’ out things, he’s really talking mostly about using technology.
There is a huge gap between those who use tools and those who actually make them and an even bigger gap to those who figure out the processes that make those tools work.
But we live in a sea of technology. I’m typing on a laptop while my smart phone counts down the ten minutes. I live in a building with thermostats and air circulation systems that would have seemed like magic two hundred years ago. Outside my windows, people are driving cars with more sophisticated computers than those that landed on the moon.
But science is not technology and, moreover, science is not done in isolation by single people working in labs or in front of whiteboards filled with math. Science is not about Eureka moments or brilliant men or women overturning the laws of nature in one fell swoop.
Science is a slow tedious process, mostly consisting of running the same experiment over and over again until you get consistent results, of reading and analyzing other people’s work rather than doing your own. It consists of endless calculations and often frustrating consideration of what results mean.
But that’s not very exciting and not very conducive to funny memes.
To many people, a theory is nothing more than a guess; to a scientist it is a rigorous set of proposals based on extensive evidence and used to make predictions about the world. Theories get strong if those predictions work out in reality and are weakened or even disproven if they don’t. It is a slow iterative process but the longer a theory has been around and more often it has been tested the stronger and more useful it becomes. The process is collaborative and tentative.
All too often we lose sight of that and leap on some reported result that hasn’t been repeated – that has in fact been refuted. I made that mistake earlier this week when I jumped the gun on the science of the Zika virus. And that’s how we misunderstand the world – whether it is climate change or vaccines: by selecting only those results that confirm our own prior beliefs. But that’s not science, that’s religion.
And this is a little more than ten minutes.