Science has a problem in telling its stories to the world. The problem stems from the way that science is done and the way its discoveries are published in academic journals not known for their mass appeal. In science, seeing something happen once or hearing about an occurrence might lead one to get in the lab and ask a question, but it is never itself acceptable as an answer. Instead, multiple repetitions of an experimental question are asked until consistent results are found under controlled conditions. Compare this to watching the news or reading the paper and you’ll find a drastic difference. Mass media loves the anecdote of ‘one family’s story’ or ‘what happened to my kid.’ Stories appeal to our natural tendency to relate to people and to incorporate the underlying morals or lessons into our broader worldview. He-said-she-said arguments are presented as fair and balanced even when balance is unjustified. With this in mind, consider this story of how the birth of the scientific method changed the world we live in.
The events of the late 15th and early 16th centuries ushered in a new age. Not just in the discovery of new land to be conquered and populated by western civilizations, but also in the way westerners saw the world and their place in it. Suddenly there was half a globe of terra incognita. As Columbus revolutionized our geography, Copernicus and Galileo revolutionized astronomy. But what was good for cartographers and astronomers wasn’t so good for the royalty and the church, who had been comfortably enjoying in the status quo.
At that time, the vast majority of people were ruled by the very few who held their power by divine right. What they said was both fact and law and any who differed in opinion did so at their own peril as autocracy seldom views challenge or change as good.
But cracks were beginning to show.
Between the discovery of the west and the mounting evidence for heliocentricity, came the greatest schism the Christian church has ever seen, hammered home when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany 1517. Within a century a new world was discovered, the earth was shifted from the center of the universe to a body orbiting the sun and even God’s own voice on earth was being challenged due to a poor financial decision granting the sale of indulgences. How unfortunate for those in power that the printing press, which Johannes Gutenburg had introduced a half century earlier, made it so easy for this news to circulate around the globe amongst a newly literate population.
By the middle 17th century, Bacon and Descartes were formalizing the rules of logic and, more specifically, of scientific inquiry. Their texts, Novum Organon and Discourse on Method display a new desire for evidence-based reasoning rather than simply accepting facts ad hominem – even in cases where the hominemis the Pope himself. Bacon wrote, “The logic now in use serves rather to fix and give stability to the errors which have their foundation in commonly received notions than to help the search after truth. So it does more harm than good.” That is, too much effort is being spent defending what we already think is true rather than just following what the data tells us. This is exemplified by Ptolemy’s
complex system of interlocking circles and the complex movements they require in order to explain the wanderings of the planets in the night sky. An excellent demonstration of this backwards logic can be found at http://people.highline.edu/iglozman/classes/astronotes/retrograde.htm
With the upset in worldview brought by the renaissance and its new rigor for asking scientific questions along with a few intervening centuries, one would think that we would be more discerning in our beliefs today. We should be open to new ideas that challenge accepted dogma, and be in possession of tools to discriminate between unfounded speculation and well-supported theories.
Or, perhaps not.
In many ways, we are just as easily swayed by ad hominem arguments, faulty logic and satisfaction with the status quo as we were seven hundred years ago. But it’s not entirely our fault. We’re not built to think critically, rather, we make quick judgments based on what we see in front of us. The ability to make split second decisions were likely required to save our skin in the time of Hobbes’ “state of nature.” While labored, methodical reasoning would reason us right into the lion’s mouth. The difference today is that we are vastly more educated than our forbearers, possibly smarter -if rising IQ scores can be taken at face value- and, frankly, we do have the time to practice methodical reasoning. Rarely do we need to make life saving fight or flight decisions in modern life.
Science has taught us that the universe may not be as we see it. In fact, our senses are fooled all the time. Sticks don’t bend when we put them in water, a continuous tone may appear to change pitch as the source approaches or recedes from the observer and quantum mechanics tell us that all the matter of the world is nothing like what it appears to be. Our senses tell a variety of lies to us, but nature does reveal her laws with careful study.
Understanding scientific method is teaching oneself to remain impartial to results of experiments, to ensure that the tests applied are rigorously designed to disprove – rather than support – your hypothesis, and to rely on the power of statistics to interpret your results rather than being swayed by anecdote or a desire to see a predetermined outcome. None of this comes easily. As I said above, we are a storytelling people, stories are the lenses through which we view the world. It’s a lot easier and exciting to believe an anecdote than it is to understand the truth. But it’s often worth the effort and sometimes there might be an interesting story behind the science too.