Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Not amused this time, Mr Clarkson...

I was reading Jeremy Clarkson's thoughts on science and, as distasteful as I find them, I am forced to acknowledge that how he feels about science is not far off from the general public (mis)conception of science, which boils down to a woeful inability to answer these two questions:

What is science?


Why is science important?

I have devoted much of my readings in this life towards understanding the sciences, so the answers to such questions have been a part of me for a very long time. To be brutally honest, I cannot help but feel a twinge of anger at those with no understanding of such questions, and smugly blow them off with those most loathsome words: "Ignorance is bliss". I have vented most furiously on this blog at such people, and more. But then I have to remind myself that such thinking from those versed in the sciences is yet another reason why people get intimidated into the monstrous trap of anti-intellectualism in the first place. Anyway, it's good to reflect every so often on whether I myself have fallen into the trap of blindly adoring science.

So, my answers to the above questions, laid out in the simplest terms I can muster, are as follows:

What is science? - The most common error people (including Mr Clarkson) make regarding this question is mistaking science for technology. Handphones, digital watches, the Porsche Carrera GT and peach defuzzers are technology, though you are free to argue that the Porsche Carrera GT is art. Science, simply put, is the process of gaining knowledge through empirical* means. It is embodied in the scientific method, which is:

  1. Query -Identify the phenomenon that needs explaining.
  2. Hypothesis - Formulate a hypothesis explaining said phenomenon.
  3. Experiment - Devise an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  4. Theory - Based on experimental results, formulate a theory governing the behaviour of said phenomenon. (If you're lucky, clever, or both, your hypothesis at Step 2 won't be far off.)
  5. Testing - Test the theory against the phenomenon.
The thing to bear in mind here is that Step 5 never stops. We keep our eyes and minds open, and if something should crop up proving the theory wrong, the theory must be revised, or even thrown out in it's entirety, making way for new theories to be devised, and perhaps edging a few steps closer to the truth.

Thus, science is a means by which our knowledge of the universe is gained and constantly refined, that is, evolves. Of course, the reality of it isn't quite so perfectly hunky dory, but, as any decent engineer knows, you learn more from your mistakes.

Why is science important? - The answer to this question is twofold.

The first part of the answer is very mundane, but nonetheless extremely important and it is simply that science works. Science, by virtue of it's self-correcting nature, is an unstoppable juggernaught, an ever growing snowball of knowledge. As mentioned above, errors are not an issue, they are a learning opportunity.

The second part of the answer is that science represents an ideal. One might as well ask: Why is truth important? It is the child of humanity's noblest intellectual passions. It is the unflinching, unwavering desire to learn and understand. It is fearlessness in the face of the unknown. It is tearing down the barriers of delusion and reaching out to grasp reality. It is the humility and courage required to admit and learn from your mistakes. It is a shield against the hypocrites, snake-oil salesmen and bullshit-mongers of this world.

Search for and protect truth. Question everything. Hold nothing sacred. And expose falsehood without remorse. It is a powerful, and sometimes harsh, ideal to live up to, and I would be terribly naive to think it to be the reality of the scientific community. Scientists are human, too! But then is that not the point of an ideal? To be a distant star for us to reach for, even though we know we may never attain it? In science we find an ideal with real benefits for humanity. Knowledge. Understanding. These are real. Not childish promises of a blessed afterlife, but let's not drift in that direction.

Anyway, there you have it. My answers to 2 questions which are close to my heart. I should state now that even I don't think science is the be-all and end-all to healthy living, but a small measure of understanding of science** most certainly helps.

Why does kitty always pick this point in my blog posts to forcefully remind me she wants to be stroked?

* The Japanese/Chinese version of this word is actually very descriptive: 経験主義 (Keiken shugi). A literal translation into English yields "experience ideology ".

** Of which, if the Angels & Demons movie is any indication, Dan Brown has none whatsoever.

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