Short Series about Science: #1 Key Strengths

Stand Back — I’m Going to Try Science.

Science has — literally — given us the world. I doubt that anyone is hard pressed to find examples of all the benefits science has brought us — enough to eat, cures for diseases, secure housing and transportation, and much more. To quote Ingersoll:

Man must learn to rely upon himself. Reading bibles will not protect him from the blasts of winter, but houses, fires, and clothing will. To prevent famine, one plow is worth a million sermons, and even patent medicines will cure more diseases than all the prayers uttered since the beginning of the world.
“The Gods” by Robert G. Ingersoll, 1872

Science and technology allows us to do that — and more. It allows us to understand the world, make better decisions, and perhaps one day spread to the stars.

One aspect that makes science great is that it corrects itself — or rather, the researchers do. Even if scientific findings are manipulated by some researchers. Colleagues working in the same area check the work (peer review) to improve the work and weed out work that is not up to the high standards of science: from sloppy research, missing arguments, ignored alternative explanations, to plagiarism, data falsification or fabrication.

Personally, I can understand the pressures that lead to sloppy research, but I have no tolerance for scientists who plagiarize, falsify and fabricate. Not only do they hamper scientific progress and waste time and money, clog up journals that could have published other (good quality) papers, they also lead to the strange situation where interest in the plagiarized/falsified/fabricated work is actually bad! After all, this interest could easily lead to the discovery of the fraud. And how can you be proud of this work? It’s like being congratulated for something you did not do:

“You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?”
“You know darn well I placed fourth!”
“Exactly! The prize for the first place is worthless to you … because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it.
“Starship Troopers” by Robert A. Heinlein

So, science leads to better theories and thus to a better understanding of the world. And it makes it okay to be wrong even if you do everything right — because most likely, we all are. Perhaps in the future others will build upon our knowledge and improve it:

“… when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
“The Relativity of Wrong” by Isaac Asimov
(BTW, the Earth is a ellipsoid of rotation — given that it rotates it bulges at the equator, so it’s not a sphere — and yes, the globes you see everywhere are wrong)

The great thing is that with science we can go beyond our human limitations. Humans have a lot of biases when it comes to judgment and decision making. Just trying something out and looking what happens it fraught with errors. You will come to conclusions — no question about that — but the conclusions will be false. Science, with controlled experiments and well-planned studies, can give more valid results. Even counter-intuitive results — there are a lot of experiments in psychology not even experts would have foreseen, and when it comes to some branches of physics, you have to trust the math, not what you think happens.

Of course, science continues to advance and some scientists are left behind. They adhere to their positions even when better theories are available. Or how Max Planck said:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Max Planck


Short Series about Science

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