Wow! How does that work?

Children are imbued with a sense of wonder. Some people maintain this for the rest of their lives. Do you remember science lessons at school? Some of us found them interesting, some fascinating, some boring. But many of us learned wonderful stuff about a world which was for us mysterious. I am one of those who found science lessons fascinating and who are still filled with wonder at the world. It saddens me that many people, especially people of an “alternative” inclination, have become dismissive or cynical about science.

I remember teaching a technique workshop to a group of osteopathic students. Over lunch, among other less weighty and more amusing matters, we talked about the role of science in therapeutic practice. One of the people present, a mature student who was already an experienced practitioner of shiatsu, expressed the following: “I hope scientists don’t discover any more about anything”.

Unfortunately in my view, there are a significant number of people in the general public and in the holistic healing professions who reject science. I can understand the natural human urge to be defensive about something one perceives as threatening. In my field, science can certainly be considered a threat to cherished beliefs. But it seems to me the suspicion goes beyond this, and runs to a basic misunderstanding of science itself and the people who work with it.

Let me look at some popular negative beliefs about science which pervade the minds many people:

  1. “Science says one thing one day and its opposite the next. Therefore it is unreliable, and we shouldn’t pay it much attention.”
    Wrong. Science, unlike religion, doesn’t pretend to give definitive answers, absolute truths. It seeks the nearest approximation with the best practical tools available at the current time. Alternative hypotheses and better tools are being developed all the time, so naturally enough the answers can change. Another point to be made is that many scientific experiments give equivocal results which can be interpreted in different ways, or results which cannot be consistently reproduced. This doesn’t stop newspapers jumping on any preliminary results in areas in which there is public interest, to produce sensationalist headlines beginning, “Scientists discover…..”. To sell newspapers it helps if this week’s headline says the opposite of last week’s. If you are curious about science, my advice is to read the New Scientist, not the Daily Mail.
  2. Science always arrives late at the truth everybody already knew anyway.
    Wrong. In cases where science validates a long-held belief, it is not true to say “everybody already knew”. They didn’t “know”, they believed. And in many cases science disproves or casts serious doubts on long-held beliefs. Then people say, “Science is too reductionist to understand what is going on” (see point 3 below).
  3. Human beings are complex. Scientific method is too simplistic to investigate human phenomena.
    Wrong. People are extremely ingenious, and scientists are clever people. They can certainly develop methods adequate to investigate complex human phenomena. It isn’t easy but it can be done.
  4. Science cannot answer all questions, or give satisfactory explanations for all phenomena, therefore it is worthless.
    Wrong. It is true that science cannot answer every kind of question; it cannot, for example, prove or disprove the existence of a God. Neither can it, for instance, adequately define “water” in qualitative terms satisfying to the human psyche. It cannot satisfactorily answer the question, “What is our life here for?” These things lie outside the scope of scientific investigation. This represents a limit, but that doesn’t make science worthless. It is invaluable within its extremely wide area of applicability.
  5. Science takes away the wonder of the world.
    Wrong. Scientists share with poets a deep appreciation and a sense of marvel at the natural world, much more so than the average person, which often is what has inspired them to know more through their special line of work.

But it is easy for my generation to misunderstand science because actually, in science lessons we didn’t learn much about science! How so? Well, if for example you learn cool stuff like that there was a 12 m long predatory reptile called Tyrannosaurs rex that roamed the Earth 67 million years ago (Wow!), or how eye colour is determined by the genes, or the nature of water, or how one bacterium becomes a hundred million bacteria, or what a clone is, or how a drone flies… you are learning factual information but you are not learning science. Science is not facts, science is a process by which we can find things out.

We didn’t learn too much about that process during school science lessons in the 1970s, we only learned the information that has derived from it. And we didn’t learn that information gained from scientific work isn’t necessarily the same as facts. There were exceptions, but that was the general case. Things may have changed, but judging from what I read and hear from people around me, I think probably not. Not teaching children about the process of science in science lessons is responsible for a wholesale misunderstanding of science in the majority of people, who do not go onto study it at a higher level. And that misunderstanding is responsible for a widespread tendency to be cynical about or dismissive of science.

It is a pity because essentially the scientific process starts and ends with a sense of wonder. It starts with a “Wow… look at that!” and ends with another “Wow!”, which is also another beginning. In between there is some technical stuff. It goes something like this:

  1. Wow! Look at that! I wonder how that works?
  2. Here’s my theory. I think it works like this.
  3. Let’s carry out some sort of test to see if my theory can explain what we observed.
  4. OK. Now we have some information from our test. Hmm… just looks like a chaotic lot of numbers to me. We need to do some kind of maths to sort it out and see if there’s any meaningful pattern there.
  5. Hey! There is a meaningful pattern, and it seems consistent with my theory! Let’s see if when we do the whole thing again it gives the same sort of result. But let’s make the test bigger, including lots more examples of the thing we are investigating. That way we’ll get more reliable information.
  6. Yeah, same result! Now let’s tell people about it and wait and see if others can confirm what we seem to have found out.
  7. Yes, they can! So, let’s say my theory is right unless any further information contradicts it, then we’ll have to look at things again.
  8. Uh, oh. Look at that! My theory can’t explain that. I wonder how that works then! We might have to change my theory, or even ditch it. Let’s try to come up with a better theory.
  9. Come to think of it, think of all the possibilities this opens up. “Wow!” (Back to Nº1).

So, information isn’t facts. It just informs our current understanding of the world. New information might change that. But much of the general public, the press, and politicians think that science is supposed to “discover” and “prove” absolute, unassailable, timeless facts. This is mistaken. Science does not do that and doesn’t say it does that. That is not what is written on the tin. So it is not fair to be upset with science when it fails to do what it is unrealistic to expect it to do. It still does lots of other good things!

And the mistaken belief that information is the same as facts leads to disastrous results: of the general mistrist in science that we have been talking about.  In one thing though, the cynics have a point. And that is that the orthodoxy, guardian of the scientific consensus, may achieve such an inflated view of its own importance and gravity that it is unreasonably dismissive of new ideas which challenge the orthodox view. Scientists are humans too, and sometimes display the very human tendency to defend their big ideas aggressively and against good reason. But this does not mean, that science, used but not misused, is anything other than a wonderful tool for improving our understanding of our wonderful world. It is not the only way to learn about our world, and it has its limitations, but it still is a wonderful tool.

I will continue to walk the world in childlike awe.