On Explaining Science…

earth-climateby John Berg

As a scientist, I was astounded  when I read this comment in the Vanguard this week:

“Humans practice science.  Humans are flawed, therefore science is flawed.  Apply that to capitalism, math, democracy…”

The beauty of science and mathematics is that the truths discovered do not depend on the flaws of individual humans.  I won’t comment on capitalism or democracy, since the metrics are completely different.  But science and mathematics rest on a foundation of centuries of thought and experimentation, and do not depend on the flaws of any one person.  They are products of thousands, even millions of individuals, some of whom contributed greatly (one of my personal heroes is Priestly, who discovered the role of oxygen).

Consider the periodic table, which is my Rosetta Stone, as a chemist.  It is not yet perfect, but it is for all intents and purposes absolute.  It constitutes the basis for the entire Universe.  There is nothing political or flawed about the periodic table as it currently exists, but we are still learning more and more about the structure of matter represented in it.

Similarly, mathematics is used to explain and predict myriad features in astronomy, chemistry, physics, biology, finance, and even social sciences.  Calculus is a powerful tool – I was initially overwhelmed at my first attempt to learn it, but as I figured out its language, it became a beautiful way of seeing the world.  The concepts of integration and derivatives changed the way I see many things now.  And that was just the beginning – it opened the door for understanding of quantum chemistry and physics, and indeed, eventually climate change, which is real, and can be explained by physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

And that’s my final point – to many people, science can be political, disruptive, and unclear.  But the primary goal of science is to determine truth.  And no one scientist is responsible for that truth.  Science is a collaborative project, where many trained people interact, criticize each other, and finally agree on the evidence, while realizing that future discoveries may affect the understanding of that evidence.  Human flaws do not affect reality.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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16 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    “The beauty of science and mathematics is that the truths discovered do not depend on the flaws of individual humans.  ”

    for the most part this is true – we can run tests, experiments, computer models and our work is peer reviewed.

    1. rwx

      Science can be flawed — polywater, cold fusion, for example — but science is eventually able to fix the errors.  Requirements like reproducible experiments and mathematical consistency provide a self-correcting mechanism.  In science we clean up our own messes.  The politicians perpetuate their own messes  — public pensions, for example.

      1. quielo

        “reproducible experiments” somewhat of a hot button these days with the lack of reproducibility in many journals. Eventually, it corrects however.

      2. jrberg

        I would argue that in the case of polywater and cold fusion, it wasn’t the science that was flawed…it was the hypotheses.  Both of these interesting theories proved to be irreproducible, even though many laboratories tried to confirm the initial results, which is exactly the way science is supposed to work.  Wayne Green, the publisher of 73 Magazine (ham radio) pushed cold fusion for decades, but not being scientifically trained, could not recognize the flaws, nor could he verify the results.  Technically, though, his magazine was pretty good in spite of his fantasies.

         

  2. wdf1

    “Humans practice science.  Humans are flawed, therefore science is flawed.  Apply that to capitalism, math, democracy…”

    I wrote that.  I should have added clarification that I viewed it as a summary of flawed logic that another poster, Frankly, was using, in accusing scientists as having a political bias and agenda, which therefore meant that whatever those scientists were proposing as professionals was suspect because of their political bias.

    If science is to be viewed that way, then the absurdity can be demonstrated if you applied it to math and capitalism or any other human activity.  i.e., if mathematicians have a political bias, then their results should be viewed with suspicion.  For the record, I am a scientist by profession, and I personally don’t view science as flawed in the way I wrote.

    It was late, I had other stuff to do, I was in a hurry to write a response and I didn’t add those important clarifications.

    1. Biddlin

      ” I should have added clarification that I viewed it as a summary of flawed logic that another poster, Frankly, was using, in accusing scientists as having a political bias and agenda, which therefore meant that whatever those scientists were proposing as professionals was suspect because of their political bias.”

      But flawed seems to be the best he (and a good many others) can seem to cobble together….

      Thanks for your efforts to condense it. There is no short term financial gain to be made from moderating our ravenuous farming and manufacturing practices. For Frankly and too many other business folk, that is sufficient reason to ignore and intentionally distort scientific data. The loss of habitat for humans and other species in vast parts of Asia and Africa has accelerated beyond almost anyones’ expectations.

      1. Frankly

        For Biddlin and too many other anti-business folk, that is sufficient reason to ignore and intentionally distort scientific data. The loss of economic opportunity for humans throughout the world result from the global warming alarmist environmental policies , including vast parts of Asia and Africa, will accelerated beyond almost anyones’ expectations.

        1. Biddlin

          I’m in business. I’m in a business that requires rare wood species. My family has been in the logging and lumber business for a couple of centuries. I know about life science and business.

  3. Nancy Price

    Let’s see….yes there is great beauty in science and mathematics, but there are many past examples when, perhaps, the science/math was not flawed, but in the context of the politics and religion of the day, the science/math was condemned as flawed and scientists or mathematicians often had a hell of a time avoiding condemnation, imprisonment or death.  Today, we have climate (science/math) deniers or we have “science” that many question and with good science backing up their skepticism,  yet many would argue questionable results of that science pushed into the market place for profit.  New “gods” smash old gods and belief can trump science no matter the age we live in.

  4. Marina Kalugin

    let’s see…..for many eons “scientists” of the time KNEW the earth was flat…and those who dared go against the majority theory lost their lives..

    so much for purity of science and math….

    in more recent times, the carb pushers villified fat and espoused the “high carb, low/no fat” diet….and boy, they had so much fake science that most MDs, and many adults bought into that nonsense….but the real evidence proved otherwise….oh well….so much for the truth and sanctity of “science”..

    research at most universities is designed to “prove” a theory, no matter how incorrect it may be….

    much of it is funded by special interests, who have their own agenda, which may or may not be to “find a cure” or to “learn the truth”…….

    those brilliant scientists, who dare to find evidence that their “peers” are incorrect, run the risk of having future funding disappear…

    that is life in academia, each and every day….

    1. Barack Palin

      those brilliant scientists, who dare to find evidence that their “peers” are incorrect, run the risk of having future funding disappear…

      There you said it, follow the money.

      for many eons “scientists” of the time KNEW the earth was flat

      Until a few days ago if you had told someone that flossing your teeth didn’t do any good they would’ve looked at you like you were crazy.

       

  5. Marina Kalugin

    every day, BP, people not only look at me like I am crazy, I get told that many times each and every day for some years now….

    do I care, no…I am old and I am retiring and really, this is kinda fun to tweak the status quo…he he

  6. Tia Will

    “the truth and sanctity of science”

    I know many, many scientists and I have never heard a single one claim that there is “truth and sanctity” in science. Every scientist I know will freely admit that science is a process, not a gospel. It is a way of viewing , analyzing and serially changing our understanding of the world. The fact that there is money to be made off of “science” and that there will always be those that will exploit this possibility does not change the inherent nature of the process of investigation that is science.

    1. quielo

      I do not agree that money is the main motivation for the problems in science. Money usually means due diligence and that is scary. However if you have spent twenty years writing papers on the moon’s green cheese based structure you may not be welcoming of the new creme brulee theory.

  7. Marina Kalugin

    obviously, ms will, you have not run into “age discrimination” yet, when ones science starts going against the “peer review” majority opinion….and so on….it gets very ugly very fast….unfortunately, I have seen that happen way too often in more recent years….and some just retire, rather than press on…while others somehow hold on and struggle to keep their research afloat…

    you sure seem to grab onto a few words here and there and miss the point of the paragraph….I’ve heard it said in an old and tired phrase…one can miss the forest for the trees…or some such…

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