Thursday, September 4, 2014

I love science [no expletive needed].

Coming to terms with "Science."

I really do love science. This might surprise some people. Students and faculty members alike have heard my stock answer when confronted with any number of empirical arguments: "I'm not a scientist." And I am not. I am a professor. Some people might even call me a "researcher" although I much prefer the term "scholar." When I hear the former term I imagine a person in a white coat running frantically through a lab adjusting instruments and possibly laughing maniacally. When I hear the latter I imagine a person indulging in a snifter of cognac and a cigar in a cushioned chair surrounded by books, possibly chuckling pedantically. I don't smoke and only ever tasted cognac once many years ago (it was good, I think), but I identify more with the "scholar" archetype. Even if a person were to appellate me as a "researcher," no reasonably educated person would say my work is "scientific." It is decidedly philosophical, humanistic, and subjective and I like it that way.
Eduard Grutzner (1846-1925)
A Monk in the Library
Oil On Canvas

My love of science is an on again, off again. As a kid, I loved science because I saw vast potential for super powers and interstellar adventures. I didn't love science when I was in college because I believe Zoology, the first of two lab classes I was required to take, was taught incorrectly at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in the late 1990's. When I say that it was taught "incorrectly," I am not saying that the professor lied to us. I think he shared with us the latest concepts in Zoology, probably even at a freshman-level understanding. Still, I'd say he taught us "incorrectly" because I think he used poor pedagogy and because while he told us all about grasshopper's tympanic membranes, how we know that or why we care never entered into the discussion. He taught facts, not process. I was tested on taxonomy and little else.

That is exactly what an Ohio legislator wants to be required. He wants the students to be taught "facts" without explaining the process by which they arrived at them. He wants this so that he can limit "prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another." This sounds like an admirable goal. It would be an admirable goal if a common misconception about science were to be believed. That misconception is that scientific rhetoric somehow sits in a vacuum outside the political and religious discussions of its time and place. The misconception exists that science can somehow be "objective" and "unbiased." It is sort of an idolatry of science that makes it the all seeing, all knowing, god which is no respecter of persons, places or ideas.
I have no idea where this piece originally came from or
who created it. I wish I did

There were a couple things that brought me back to a love of science. One was reading Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That book taught me a great deal about science, real science. See, science is not really about "facts" at all. What scientific "facts" even exist are always held tenuously. Science offers answers to questions, but the answers are always tenuous, qualified, and recognize that they are the answer for now, but are open to being proved wrong later. It was Kuhn's book which popularized the term "paradigm" and "paradigm shift." Science works within paradigms. As long as those paradigms work, they keep using them. When they stop working, a new scientific revolution takes place. Things go crazy. A new paradigm is found. Through Kuhn I discovered a science that was fumbling towards truth. That was something that resonated with the philosophical work that I'd already begun as an undergraduate.

The second thing that brought back my love for science was a mistake in advising or more likely in my understanding at the end of undergraduate school. I thought I had graduated. Then I got a letter saying I needed more science. So, I went back and took one summer class. I would have taken any class that met the science requirement, but the only one left was Physics. I remember groaning. Physics, I knew. was hard and boring. Probably, I assumed, even more hard and boring than Zoology had been.

It was awesome. Sure, I had to learn formulas and calculations, but the professor always explained them in context. In a lot of ways, it was as much a history class as a physics class, although the history was non-linear, which would be an odd way to teach history. The professor was an "old" man. I don't know how old, but he was gray and balding and to me that meant old. He was clearly excited about the stuff. My favorite thing was when I'd ask him a question and he didn't know the answer off hand. He didn't reply with the standard "Let me find out and get back to you." Instead he'd say, "I don't know, let's find out." I remember stringing together a full hallway of parallel lights so that we could measure just how many we could put on the battery before we saw a measurable decrease, and then figuring out from there how many we'd need to overwhelm the battery altogether. Why did we do this? Because I asked how many. He didn't know. We made a big mess. Then we knew. I don't remember the answer a bit, but I sure remember the process.
See, that's what is interesting about science. That's what's fun about science. That's what's interesting about science. Science is process. Scientific facts are silly. In fact, in my life (and I'm not old) I've seen scientific facts change. Pluto was a planet, now it's not one. Pandas were "actually not bears, but a kind of raccoon" and now they're bears. Eggs were really bad for you because they raised cholesterol levels. Now they're good for you because the cholesterol they raise is good. We were told to stay away from Ritz crackers because they contained coconut oil, which was HORRIBLE. Now, it's good. Whatever. The facts change as the process develops but it is the process that matters. 
That's why the Ohio law is so very bad. Facts don't matter. Facts are just landmarks on the way to truth. They are not the truth itself. Science is not the truth either. Science is one of the ways that we are all fumbling towards truth. It's not the only way (that might be a blog for another time), but it is one way. Lastly, I want to point out the dumbest thing about the Ohio Republican's reasoning. He wants the facts without the process because he doesn't want political ideology to enter. Specifically, he'd like to avoid evolution and global warming discussions. Here's the thing, however. What he's arguing is the exact opposite of what makes those scientific "facts," which makes every scientific fact, debatable. That is that while the vast majority of scientists would agree that climate change is being caused by the use of fossil fuels and that all life evolved via natural selection from a single celled organism, they all know that a new discovery could change this over night. Science is meant to be wrong. If it weren't wrong, we'd never discover anything new. So, if you believe that you have a revealed truth that is higher than what scientists believe, you might  very well be right. If that is the case, however, teaching facts without process moves people further from your point of view (if it is truth). 

No comments:

Post a Comment