During a recent meeting with students I was hearing a lot of good discussion about limitations of science, problems with research findings and a lot of healthy skepticism. And since this is nothing new, I thought I would address it in writing in my blog.
As a college professor and researcher, I am often confronted with the question of what science is. When this question comes up, its often from sources who don’t quite subscribe to the idea of rigor in knowledge acquisition and immediately start with skepticism. The skepticism of anti-scientists is actually pretty ironic because science is about skepticism. So, I have decided to explain what I think science is and from here on just refer people to this piece.
There are two parts to science: Data and making sense of data. We often confuse one for the other. Data is all around us whether we see it or not. We use data daily without even thinking. In fact, our entire perceptual existence is based on data processing. But our system is biased, heavily. Only about 1% of all information is available to our sense. For instance, the electromagnetic field, of which visible light is only a tiny portion of, surrounds us and constitutes literally all we can see. Similarly, a vast majority of auditory and tactile input is not within the sensory threshold of our body so we don’t even sense them. Of the data which our sense are capable of picking up, we eliminate about 90% in order to preserve our sanity, maintain our equilibrium and make sense of the world around us. When we say we “know” something, we don’t. We barely know a miniscule amount of what we think, confidently, we know.
So, we invented science to counter our inherent insensitivity and bias. We developed techniques to “see” more of the electromagnetic wavelength, hear a broader range of sounds, feel tinier vibrations, etc. All of this in the service of our intense curiosity and the fundamental and seemingly irrational belief that there is more to things. I say irrational because technically if we can’t see or hear things, we shouldn’t think there is more there to discover and find ways to find it. Technically, given our limitations, we should just have let things be. The it-is what-it-is mind set should have prevailed and like animals who have forever been pretty much the same we should still be doing what we did hundreds of thousands of years ago. But our imagination and creativity said otherwise. We started with “what if” and moved to figuring out how to get to the answer. So, science is a process of building what we imagine.
Speaking of building, I like to think of science as a building. Any building is at first just an idea. When we think of a building we have to think of its function and uses. A factory, for instance, is very different from an office building and from a house. Each have different characteristics, take different forms, and accommodate different functions. Once we have the idea clear, we move to design. How do we go about the process of building it? What materials and expertise do we need? Where should we locate this building? For our analogy let’s start building a home.
In the design process we have to consider the size of the house, the plot plan, elevations, environmental factors, budget, permits, etc. Scientific research starts with that too. Where are we going to get the money to conduct this research? The funding determines, often, the size and scope of our research project and with that we need to get permissions, manage legal and ethical considerations and think through the process and create timelines.
To build a house, we need nails, screws, wire, 2x4s, plywood, and on and on. In research we need to gather several bits of information from a variety of sources. But just getting this information and throwing it in a pile does not make a house. The way we use the material and to the extent we stick to the original plan determines if the house will be done right. Gathering more material than we need is both inefficient, costly and cumbersome to the process.
In research, the material needed for this home is the raw data equivalent in research. For instance, when we have a sample of people to conduct research on, we take their age, height, weight, cultural background, and other relevant information into account and use them to begin to build our ideas. But throwing this data in a pile and calling it the day does not add anything to our knowledge. This data needs to be sorted, coordinated, categorized and used in a particular sequence and pattern to actually form knowledge. Data is not knowledge. For those of you who just love random facts and hoard them like a hoarder hoards old papers, you are not intelligent, you are dataholic.
For a building, once we have the design and the materials, we need to lay a foundation for the house to build the research process. And if halfway through the building process you run out of money, well, either get more money or change the design and build a smaller house. That is the same as putting together the procedures for research and scheduling the process. And if you have ever build a home or experienced a renovation project, your timelines and budget are never accurate and the process is delayed by multiple factors outside your control. The same is true with research.
Each bit of data is like a bit of information we gather, then every part of the research that uses this data is like workers driving a nail. If the nail is driven in with too much force it misses its mark. If the nail is hammered at an angle it bends and does not fully connect the pieces of material togethe). Some material has to be cut to size to fit our purpose. You can’t use the standard 8-foot long 2x4 in every application. In the same way if a researcher has a particularly strong desire to prove his/her hypothesis, they will hammer that nail too hard and miss the mark. If a researcher has a bias and drives the data with that angle, the data is bent and useless, and researchers, like builders, throw out a lot of data that they gather and don’t use.
I often hear anti-science folks rely on the bent nails and faulty material as a way to discredit the process. But, when we build a building and bend a nail, we don’t throw out the whole building, we use another nail, next to the bent one, to continue building a solid structure. When a builder cuts a piece of plywood too short or too long they gather more wood and do it right (hopefully). A researcher too will gather more data or different data to accomplish the mission of the research project. This is not a shortcoming, it’s a strength of science. The ability and willingness to do things right makes the building of science stand strong. There is a lot of bad research but each of those are the bend nails or not quite straight walls. No house is perfect but unless a house is ready to fall over on top of you, even the imperfect house creates a better shelter than none at all. Bad science, like dangerous homes, is made by either scientists who don’t know anything about what they are doing or are trying to cheat. Thankfully, there are lots of good scientists who make sure the structure of science keeps getting corrected. The scientific process is about this perpetual self-examination and self-correction.
As a result, science is constantly changing. I therefore often hear that if science is continuously changing then how can we rely on it. It is true that the scientific process constantly outmodes certain past findings and presents us with new ones but isn’t that what we do with buildings? Don’t we renovate, change building codes which require improvements in safety and functionality, repair old and broken parts to make sure the structure doesn’t fall down? Don’t we add rooms as we need expanded capacity or find obsolete stuff (like phone wires) in homes--stuff that was once essential and not has no use? We don’t’ discount the utility and purpose or value of a house because it was renovated. We actually increase its value.
The same is true with science. Limitations in materials, knowledge and capacity makes certain findings of science obsolete. But without those discoveries as a foundation, we would not have what we have today and in a generation what we have today is going to look so outdated. Remember plaid furniture? Orange shag rugs? Those were once the quintessential aspect of modern living. Remember IBM mainframes the size of your living room? That was once the epidemy of computer technology. You owe you I-Phone to that bit of historical relic. So, when skeptics say they don’t believe science because science changes its mind all the time, I say simply YES. This process of renovation change IS the core of science. And thank goodness for that because otherwise we would still be living in caves which was once the best of the best when it came to shelter.
A home has to have different parts to be useful. You have to have a bathroom, a kitchen, bedrooms, etc. Each of these sections are distinctly different. Some parts can function for multiple purposes and others have a more singular use. But these are connected parts and you should be able to go from one to the other easily. I have studies architectural design and one of the first rules of architecture is access. That is, do the rooms/spaces that were drawn have a way of being accessed? I can’t tell you how many designs I have seen where people forgot about a door. A good architectural design accounts for the relatability of individual spaces within a structure—that is, how well do these parts work together. If you have to go through a living room and a bedroom to get to the kitchen from the garage...well, not a good design.
Like a house with various rooms and functions, science has disciplines too. Most, if not all, are interconnected and move in and out of each other. Some are more singularly focused while others are multi-functional. But the beauty of science is that its parts have an elegant relationship with one another. Medicine needs physics, physics needs chemistry and as does cellular biology. These relationships are critical to the vitality and completeness of science and just as certain parts of a house become obsolete and give way to other uses—think of the bedroom of a child who has moved out and is not transformed to a sewing room. Astrology was once a science; it has given way to astrophysics as we have gained better understanding of the universe.
Science is neither a thing not an outcome. It’s a process that is un-ending. So perpetual change, adaptation, questioning, and discarding of beliefs IS science. Skepticism is science. And, interestingly, at the core of science is the belief that we do not know of which we speak, fully. All science starts with a guess based on observation. Science is a methodic way of wonderment leading to exploration and discovery and then systematic methods of creating something only to lead to more wonderment, exploration and discovery. Science is a tessellation pattern of knowns and unknowns, each with equal weight imbedded into one another. It’s a fractal pattern that draws us deeper and deeper only to show us more and reveal more questions. Indeed, that is why science is based solely on RE-Search. We search and again rethinking our ideas and
Science is a human artifact and as such subject to all human failings including significant bias. But, just like a human mind, it recognizes its own bias and attempts to ward against it. That process too is biased, and on it goes. And as with all things human, science starts with a guess, leads to observation and perpetual discovery in which we keep adding, throwing out, fixing, and connecting dots.
One of these human tendencies is the God Complex. When we make anything into something we worship we give it powers it does not have. The power of science is not in its existence, it is in its process. I often hear people “believe” in a scientific finding. That is a faulty way of thinking about science. Facts and findings change constantly—because of science. We can only believe facts for their life span and all facts have a life span depending on science. Facts are not always arrived at with good science or unbiased science. Who pays for the scientific inquiry, what a scientist’s biases, known and unknown, are and the technology and predeterminant knowledge available based on which the new facts are discovered all affect the life span or validity of facts. So, believing in science is actually about withholding judgement on any particular fact and taking a broader, more difficult, position of acknowledging what we know alongside what we do not. When factuality becomes a religion then science dies.
Finally, at the onset of our analogy I said we are going to build a home. And I then proceeded to talk about building a house. A house is only a structure, a home is that structure plus humans to which it provides the benefit of shelter, comfort, security and joy. Science too is a structure but how it is used, whether it benefits humanity, gives humanity joy, comfort and security is what makes is valuable. We have seen throughout history misuse of science. We have seen so many people use knowledge to hurt people, animals and plants. Like a building, science can be used for bad things too. What makes science, and let me include technology as a tool of science, worth having is its marriage to the arts, to humanity, to philosophy and ethics.
Science gave us an automobile, art helped us design it for our use, ethics gave us the rules by which to operate it so as to not harm others. When we detach science from humanity it is no longer an invaluable attribute of human existence. It is just an abandoned structure which overtime will be destroyed through the forces of nature.
I welcome your questions and comments as well as ratings on this blog. What would you like me to write about next?