The scientific method teaches us that the proper method of inquiry is to develop a hypothesis which we then test through repeated experiments. We revise and we test, revise and test, until at last, we come to a conclusion.
What many people do not seem to realize is that the scientific method is only one of many possible forms of inquiry. There are other ways to think, and to experience the universe. These methods may not always be as orderly as science, but they have a way of taking us to interesting places and unexpected conclusions.
Just lately, I have noticed a strange trend among my some of my friends and co-workers to shout the word “Science” at, what seems to me, only the slightest provocation.
I work in a technology field, dealing with a public who often lack a clear understanding of the principals behind the operation of their personal electronic devices. More than once, I have heard a fellow employee punctuate his or her recollection of a customer interaction with an enthusiastic “Science!” — as if he or she had just demonstrated to the 15th century Catholic Church that the Earth was in orbit around the Sun.
And then there is social media, where (as just the most recent example) a friend’s Facebook update about watching the Perseid meteor shower garnered a reply of “Hell yeah, SCIENCE”.
Maybe I’m confused (or just too particular about meanings of the words I choose) but some people appear to be very confused about what the term ‘science’ actually means.
Science is not a thing, it is a process, a methodology, a filter for observing the world around us.
Science does not make meteors fall from the heavens and burn up in the atmosphere and unless you are using equipment to gauge the trajectory or composition of those falling bodies, you are not conducting science.
A falling meteor is reacting to the forces of inertia, gravitation and friction – not science.
A cellular phone operates through the transmission and reception of a particular frequency of electro-magnetic waves. Those waves may have been discovered by scientists, but dialing a phone is no more an act of science than lighting a fire is an act of sorcery – for surely the first ancients to control fire and put it to use were considered great wizards or holy men by their brethren.
Now where was I? Ah yes, SCIENCE!
As I have begun to notice the growing misuse of that word, the cheesy old Thomas Dolby song has become firmly wedged in my brain.
Unable to successfully dislodge it from my weary mind, I gave in and started looking up facts about the song. I quickly discovered that the old fellow in the video, the one who can be heard shouting “Science” throughout, is (rather was) a famous British scientist by the name of Magnus Pyke.
Think of him as an earlier, British version of ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’. Dr. Pyke was featured in several television programs throughout the 1970’s, becoming a minor media personality.
The interesting thing about his appearance in the Thomas Dolby song is that he came to deeply regret it. For years after it’s release, people would run up to him in public and shout the word “Science” – an unwelcome annoyance, to be sure.
Continuing further down the rabbit hole, I also discovered that, while Dr. Pyke spent years trying to popularize scientific thought and principals, he was also quite dubious about the application of those principals in modern society. In particular, he noted that the creature comforts offered through technology and the applied sciences tend to lure society away from individual freedom and that increased efficiency and productivity have a dehumanizing effect upon the population.
“The main body of the citizenry, the ‘workers’, are kept segregated from the drones … the children, the old and the idle … it has the effect of setting economic effort apart and dividing the day and the week into “work” and “everything else”. This way of thinking has so deranged our minds that we have come to accept that only when we are actually carrying out paid industrial work are we serving our purpose on earth. To minds so deformed, the things that ‘retired’ people do are not considered to be of value. They are empty, merely something to do.”
— Dr. Magnus Pyke
Dr. Pyke went so far as to suggest that certain pre-industrial societies were better suited to integrating scientific thinking into a more holistic worldview than what we have seen in the industrialized west. This is a view I have long shared.
Interesting, is it not, the things we can discover when our search for knowledge is guided by intuition and insight rather than rigorous testing and modeling?
And actually, it sound to me as if the scientific community might not be that far behind.
“…And the trouble with a hypothesis is it’s your own best idea about how something works. And, you know, we all like our ideas so we get invested in them in little ways and then we get invested in them in big ways and pretty soon I think you wind up with a bias in the way you look at the data. I think we have an over-emphasis now on the idea of fact and data and science … we work hard to get data. We work had to get facts, but we all know they’re the most unreliable thing about the whole operation.”
— Stuart Firestein, PhD
The truth is, when you get past all the ‘wannabe science nerds’ that seem to be popping up in droves every time someone airs a rerun of ‘Big Bang Theory’ and talk to the people who are doing the actual science, it becomes clear that the public perception of what science ‘is’ is painfully skewed.
Science is not in the business of proving (or ‘disproving’ anything). Science seeks only to investigate. It is a yard stick that we set against a universe that defies measurement. It can tell us many useful things about the world around us, but not everything, not ever.
One of my co-workers recently mentioned that his sister was suffering from headaches. When he suggested to her that she see a doctor, she replied that she had made an appointment with a chiropractor. He then complained to me that he, “would prefer she do something a little more “science-y”.
The good Dr. Magnus may have spun just a little faster in his grave.
Ah yes, let’s not look for the cause of the ailment. Far better to just treat the symptom, and to place your trust in someone who is likely being paid by a multinational pharmaceutical company to prescribe their latest concoction. Which science, I wanted to ask, was he looking for, Biology, Chemistry, or Economics?
“She blinded me with science!”
They raise science up, the monotheists and the atheists alike, as if she were their goddess. I see the monotheists appealing to her daily, to rationalize their beliefs, to give them some grounding in truth. The atheists appeal to her to sweep away anything that is not based on hard, cold fact.
In Greek mythology, Urania, a daughter of Zeus, is the muse of Astronomy and Mathematics (the disciplines that would eventually become what we think of today as Science). I wonder if she hears their many prayers and if she is puzzled by them.
I have sent many a prayer to her myself over the years, though I did not always know her name.
As a child, I worshipped her as I watched episode after episode of ‘Cosmos’ and ‘NOVA’, while reading ‘National Geographic’ and ‘Popular Science’ and when I spent my nights charting the movements of Jupiter’s moons through my telescope. I worship her still, if a little less fervently than in my youth. The difference, I suppose, is that over the years I have discovered that Urania is just one of the Muses, a single slice of the way in which we humans experience the ultimate mystery of our existence.
The truth, I believe, is that our understanding of the universe can never be complete, unless we embrace all the Muses, equally.
The world around us is more than mere data can define.
“It’s poetry in motion,
When she turned her eyes to me,
As deep as any ocean,
As sweet as any harmony,
Mmm – but she blinded me with science,
She blinded me with science,
And failed me in geometry.”