Guest Curmudgeon: Words and Their Meanings: Science
This week, we welcome back one of our favorite guest complainants, Neil Ramsay, who has come to explain something to the dolts in our midst. TWC
I’d like to talk about something that is, I fear, much-maligned and misunderstood in our modern era of twenty-four-hour shopping and YouTube celebrities: science. More specifically, I’d like to discuss what science is, what it isn’t, and why any of that is important.
To begin with, I take issue with a great many of today’s “I love science” websites and movements that do nothing to distinguish between science as a discipline and the fruits of that discipline. If one were to quibble (and let us be honest, I am most certainly quibbling), the application of science is technology. There’s a certain homage that technology pays to its scientific progenitor that leads many to feel they need to declare their deep fondness for the discipline of science because their latest flash-bang gizmo has them enraptured with the number of flashes and bangs it can produce. There is perhaps a smaller but no less vocal number of people who will declare science to be evil and dangerous because of the potential hazards or misuses of that very same gizmo.
Both of these views are valid, but they are both also distinctly wrong. Technology is merely the end product of science in the same way that muscles are the end product of constant weightlifting. One generally doesn’t look upon a handsome, muscular specimen and say, “I love weightlifting.” And yet, technology is so frequently mistaken for science that there is a world of people out there who will fondly fondle their smartphone, cooing gently into its microphone about how much they love science. Science is, at its core, far less sexy.
What, then, is science? Science is the discipline of discovery through rigorous testing, exhaustive examination of results, and failure. “Failure?” you ask, unwilling to think of that smartwatch as anything other than a pure and perfect success, built upon the successes of years before. But failure is what truly drives the world of science. And it is what has led to every technological advance mankind has made.
The scientific principle seems filled with jargon and inscrutable concepts that have often made many think it’s a cult of secrecy and likely evil influence, designed to separate the faithful from the deceivers. But this is not the case. While religion gives you an answer and tells you not to question its source or its meaning, science gives you nothing but questions, and tells you to go out and find answers. The answers you find may be wrong. Or you may spend your lifetime searching and never discovering the answers you seek. But as long as you’ve kept careful notes, someone else will pick up where you left off and continue the search.
The principle of science, in layman’s terms, always starts by noticing something. In science, it’s called an observation, but for the most part, it’s just happening to notice something and letting it stick in your brain. You may look at the leaves on a tree as they change color in autumn and think, “Something about autumn makes the leaves change colour.” That’s your observation. The non-scientific-minded would then go back to their movie marathon on television, never curious as to why the leaves are changing colour. But the scientist then moves on from there to the most important part of science—the question: Why do leaves change colour in autumn? The next step from there is to form an idea to answer this question based on informed guesswork. That idea is called a hypothesis in science lingo, but it’s still just an idea. Perhaps your idea is that leaves change colour in autumn because it gets colder. It seems all rather logical. But is it right? Who knows? How does one know?
And thus begins the least sexy part of science, but the most important: testing one’s hypothesis—one’s idea—to see if it’s correct. When people say they love science, it’s very likely they do not, in fact, love the idea of setting up experiment after experiment to test things, tabulating data in spreadsheets galore, poring over it on the weekends while everyone else is enjoying the beautiful leaves, all to try and find the right answer. It is not a glorious, gleaming, beautiful thing. It’s math, and time, and work, and long hours, and a lot of generally being wrong about things, being lambasted by peers about being wrong about things, and trying to find a decent job when all your resume says is that you were, indeed, that fellow who was very wrong about things, until one final day, after multiple failures, figuring out what’s right.
But I will tell you this: it is one of the most important things we as a species have ever done. It is what separates us from the likely more content beasts out there on the planet: the dolphins in their frolic and the birds in their ignorant twittering. Without those long hours and continual disillusionment, we would never have all the fruits of that science—the vaccines that keep us from dying, the televisions that entertain us with long hours of shows about other people living their lives, the phones that let us do everything except make a phone call. None of that would be possible without the science that came before.
And so the next time someone says to you, after watching a robot fold laundry or an obscenely rich person buy a ticket to space, how much he or she loves science, you can be content to know that they probably do not have the faintest clue as to the process that made those things possible. And when that very same person then tells you that they can’t possibly believe the science about such and such hot political topic because the information keeps changing, know that your mere observation of how that person is so obtusely, mind-bogglingly unaware of what science even is, is in itself part of the scientific process. A valid hypothesis might even involve the number of times he or she was dropped on his or her head as a small child, or the number of missing brain cells from college binge drinking while everyone else was studying. But before you waste hours of time testing this hypothesis and studying the data, may I suggest you just accept that some things are inscrutable, and find more erudite people to be around.