Friday, December 12, 2014

Science is for Everyone

In the previous post, I explained that science is suitable for investigating all matters. Pursuing a similar theme, I want now to discuss how science is for all people, not just bearded academics with white lab coats. (Pardon the stereotype, and let me emphasize that there is no good reason why 50% of all scientists should not be women.)

I mentioned something in that last post that is also central to this discussion: scientific method is a graded affair - not black or white. Whatever we can learn by implementing a low level of scientific rigour, we can learn a little more, in a little more detail, and with a little more confidence, by applying a slightly more systematic procedure.

It is simply not the case that one goes to university to study for a degree in science, passes one's exams, then receives a degree certificate, inscribed with the words, 'Now you are imbued with the power of science. All your future endeavours will be fully scientific. None without this certificate will possess the sacred scientific touch.'

Understanding of and ability to implement scientific method is something that is built up and refined over many years. I have three degree in physics, with a couple of years of postdoctoral experience, and I'm still learning - much to my perpetual delight!

But this is by no means to claim that those without my kind of training are barred from joining the party. The basic principles of scientific thought are really pretty simple, and can be grasped quite easily. There are good reasons for this. The thing that ultimately makes science so special is: it works! And the thing about humans, as organisms evolved through natural selection, is that we come equipped with brains that, for the most part, also work. Thus, scientific method and human brains can readily form an easy, comfortable partnership. Scientific method is just cultivated common sense.

Popularizers of science often draw on the purely curiosity-driven aspects of science. Glamourous, big-science instruments, such as the Hubble space telescope and the large hadron collider play a prominent part. This is good, but it is not enough. We also need to draw particular attention to the extraordinary practical advantages of being able to figure stuff out. Knowing things (forming rationally supportable high levels of confidence) means being able to make very effective decisions.

And no matter what level of scientific rigour you are currently working at, you can always achieve infinitesimally more robust conclusions, and hence infinitesimally more effective decisions, by applying an infinitesimally more scientific approach. You don't have to be a rocket surgeon to use and benefit from a little scientific optimization.

As long as you are a decision-making entity with values (an intelligent being), then you desire to be able to make effective decisions (see Is rationality desirable?). No matter what question is relevant to your pursuit of value, whether it is how to make good bread, or how to judge the merits of newspaper stories, scientific method can get you the answer most efficiently.

A couple of nights ago, in the wee small hours, I was sitting in a nuclear research facility near Tokyo, blasting a detector with some extremely frisky atomic nuclei, when the conversation with my boss (while we fought off the urge to sleep) turned to the topic of science-fair projects. Having been educated in Ireland, I didn't grow up with the science-fair tradition, which is a big shame, though I did do plenty of exciting experiments with my dad, which probably played a big part in forming my eventual disposition as an adult.

My boss recalled that of all that projects that his kids had done, the one that they most enjoyed and remembered most vividly was one for which they tested a range of electric batteries to find out which would last longest in their toys. The reason they enjoyed it, of course, was that they really wanted to know the answer. It was a serious practical question. I think this is a fantastic lesson for a child to learn: not only does it encourage fascination and familiarity with the scientific process, but it also conveys the practical advantages of systematic investigation.

Familiarity with fundamentals of experimental design, such as control and randomization, and awareness of basic data collection and reduction techniques, coupled with a willingness to use them (and to constantly improve one's use of them!) is an immensely powerful thing.

Beyond that, a moderate interest in technical topics, such as medical research, can help one to understand research results reported in the media, and so make better informed decisions concerning ones use of and attitude towards various technologies. This convenient NHS guide to understanding medical research stories, is a good place to start, if you're interested in that particular thing, but also introduces several general concepts in the field of estimating the merits of evidence. 

Ultimately, a society in which individuals value science becomes a society that collectively values science, and a society that is better equipped to face its many challenges. Science is for scientists. Science is also for the common man and woman (not that there is anything uncommon about scientists!). Science is also for the politicians, who have to design a mutually beneficial path through the difficult territory of being human. Democratically elected politicians will continue to ignore evidence in favour of their personal agenda, as long as the voting public continue telling them that this is OK.

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