A Science for Everyone

Using Science

I noticed a Dilbert cartoon that seemed to epitomize a lot of the comments I’ve seen on Facebook.

The challenge is that there are a lot of folks who believe in science, or at least think they do.  The thing is, science is a method of understanding parts of the world, or universe, around us.  We call it scientific method – and skepticism even toward your own results is an important part.  I too am skeptical of the chipmunk understanding what he heard.

Part of my job description included the expectation of “using science-based information.”  There’s a difference between “science-based” and “evidence-based.”  Court verdicts are based on evidence – and decisions often made based on a jury of reasonable men and women.  Science doesn’t require consensus, agreement, or a majority vote.  It requires formulation and testing of a hypothesis – and if the hypothesis doesn’t meet the test, it is discarded or modified.  If it does meet the test, the hypothesis is tentatively accepted . . . until a better explanation comes along.

Sometimes it’s difficult for scientists to use scientific method in their daily lives – we all have this thing called confirmation bias.  In a meeting on hiring, someone mentioned the high cost of getting a computer background check through the police.  My comment was “Well, we might just require a South Dakota concealed carry permit – that gets the check completed, and only costs $10.”  The reply, from the department head (full professor and  Ph.D) was direct: “I can’t believe that.”  It was the week after my daughter’s 18th birthday – and I had just bought the permit as part of the birthday gifts.  My fact was solid – but there was no space for it in her reality.

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Believing in Science

After last week’s Do you believe in science? I’ve been pondering.

My first reaction was that if you have to believe in science, you’re doing it wrong. Science, on principle, is not a thing to take on faith. It is a field of study that considers doubt to be a virtue.

But here, I define science. Science, as a word, can mean a number of things, among them, the entire body of information humans have learned about the universe. It is also a method, a systematic way to study the universe, what we often refer to as scientific method.

But these definitions are jargon, language used by a specific group of people and not by everyone. I was quite shocked to find that Merriam Webster’s first definition of science was “the state of knowing”.

The idea of believing in science, still remains to a very strange thought to me. But in a sense, there are aspects of science that I do believe. I cannot read every new article that comes out in scientific peer-reviewed journals. I do not always have the ability to read them. A basic knowledge of statistics and the topic is not always quite enough. And, even if I had the ability, it could not be done in a human lifetime.

We live in an age of information, and it is impossible to find the time to keep up on everything. While I can take an individual scientific study, read it, and draw my own conclusions, I cannot do so for all studies. In an age of so much information, there are many things that we must simply take on faith, simply to believe.

‘Do you believe the science?’ is still not the right question. ‘Do you understand the science?’ is better. But the question we really should be asking is ‘Which aspects have you taken the time to understand, and which do you choose to take on faith?’