Category

Science

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I love science. There are few methods of understanding dearer to my heart than the scientific method – it has been responsible for some of the most amazing advances and discoveries in human history, and I look forward to what it has to contribute to us in the future.

That said, we should resist labeling anyone who questions a scientific idea “anti-science.” “Anti-science” is not a scientific term but a political one. So what, then, does it mean to be “anti-science?”

To investigate why labeling people who express skepticism “anti-science” is problematic, it is necessary to start with a few definitions: the scientific method and the difference between scientific hypotheses, theories and laws.

The Scientific Method

I define the scientific method as the following process:

1. Formulation of a question

2. Hypothesis – a guess based on prior knowledge

3. Prediction – determining the logical outcome of the hypothesis

4. Testing – usually an experiment, but always an investigation about whether the real world is in accordance with the hypothesis

5. Analysis – determining the results of the testing and deciding what steps to take next

6. Retesting – repeat steps 1-5 over and over again until you keep coming to the same conclusion almost every time

Scientific Hypotheses, Theories and Laws

Hypotheses, theories and laws are not interchangeable, and each one does not possess the same level of proof.

Hypothesis: An educated guess based on observation. (e.g. If you notice that your iPhone goes missing every time your little cousin comes to visit, you might hypothesize that your cousin steals your iPhone.)

Theory: The summary of a hypothesis or set of hypotheses that have been repeatedly tested and supported (e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution.)

Law: The generalization of a large body of observations that appears to always be true – as of right now, there are no laws with exceptions (e.g. Newton’s Law of Gravity or the Laws of Thermodynamics.)

The Concept of “Anti-Science”

Occasionally, scientists will formulate hypotheses and theories, and other scientists, economists, and people generally will question them. The questioners then become labeled “anti-science” because “the evidence is all there – how can they not agree? If they disagree, they must simply hate science.”

The labelers believe that the questioners are anti-science because, to them, the hypotheses and theories they have formed are so self-evidently true that the questioners might as well be trying to refute laws. For example, scientists will come up with a theory and say that questioners of their theory are akin to questioners of gravity.

Hypotheses and theories are not law. It is one thing to question whether climate simulation models are sufficiently accurate at predicting future weather events and another thing to question the existence of gravity. The models constitute a theory, and gravity constitutes a law. Remember that there are no exceptions to laws and that laws cannot be disproven. Theories, on the other hand, can always be countered by competing theories.

Why the Label Itself is Anti-Scientific

Nothing is more truly anti-science than labeling anyone who doesn’t agree with your hypothesis or theory a pariah. Science is at its best when scientists are constantly questioning and testing each others’ claims. The more rigorous this process of questioning and testing is, the closer our science comes to being true. Science is much better for the existence of competing theories because, without them, we would never approach the middle ground where laws usually lie.

If we really care about science, we ought to be encouraging questioning of methodology, data, and experimental processes, not demonizing it.

I was glancing through my Facebook News Feed the other day, when I saw a meme that my friend posted that said, “When we destroy something created by man, we call it vandalism. When we destroy something created by nature, we call it progress” (by Ed Begley, Jr.).

Why are humans considered separate from nature? Human beings are, at the end of the day, still “animals” in the strictest sense – we are mammals. It is as though many people consider humans “apart from nature,” some kind of rogue element, a parasite, that destroys nature by way of its mere existence. Yet, we don’t treat other animals this way. When humans use wood to build homes and make paper products, they are accused of “cutting down the trees and destroying nature.” Yet, when birds use wood to build nests, that is considered “natural.” Why? The things that bears and beavers build are considered natural, but the things humans build are considered unnatural. That is illogical.

The line between what is “natural” and what is “unnatural” has become somewhat arbitrary. Many people routinely consider chemicals unnatural, but nearly every natural occurrence is the result of a chemical reaction. So, then, why are some chemicals privileged over others? What makes certain chemicals more “natural” than others? In the late 20th century, Greenpeace attempted to ban the element chlorine entirely – but chlorine is part of table salt, it filters our water, it cleans our swimming pools, and it performs a number of other functions that are crucial to society. Banning the existence of a naturally-occurring element on the periodic table seems unnatural.

The idea of “harmony with nature” has both upsides and downsides. Because we exist in a modern industrialized society where we have the privilege of taking for granted our hot water, our instant light-switches, and our internet, we have begun to idealize a pastoral Eden that has never existed. Many people have become seduced by the vision of “humans in harmony with nature,” a picture in which we dance in the woods, live in small homes, and drink water straight from the streams. Yet, that is a utopia – it has never existed.

The reality of nature is more harsh than romantic. Before the late 19th century, when humans actually lived in a more “natural” state, that “natural” state included such horrors as burning wood and dung to make fuel, malaria, tuberculosis, drinking water from streams that contained animal waste, and floods and storms from which we had little shelter or protection. Americans used to boast proudly in the 19th century about taming nature, because it meant that they had overcome such hardships and could live comfortably. When we say that we want to “live in harmony with nature,” what we actually mean is that we want to go camping for about a week (perhaps stay in a log cabin while we are out in the woods), bring modern conveniences with us, and then go back to our heated, weather-resistant homes once that week is over. What we do not mean is that we want to abandon modern civilization entirely and put ourselves at the mercy of natural forces.

We should be willing to consider our industrial achievements part of nature. Since we are part of nature and they are our creations (created from elements found from nature as well), there is no reason they should not be considered part of the environment. Being in “harmony with nature” does not mean recklessly attempting to turn back time – it means charting a more prudent future. So let us build and be proud of what we build – they are as much a part of nature as we are.