We live in a world increasingly dominated by science. And that’s fine. I became a science writer because I think science is the most exciting, dynamic, consequential part of human culture, and I wanted to be a part of that. Also, I have two college-age kids, and I’d be thrilled if they pursued careers in science, engineering or medicine. I certainly want them to learn as much science and math as they can, because those skills can help you get a great job.
But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.
The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.
But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing–in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.
It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.
If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.
On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.
Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.
The Anti-Science Left: Equal Opportunity Science Denial
We know that far-right Republicans have a long-running reputation for, well … not exactly embracing good science when it comes to things like climate or evolution. This doesn’t mean that all Republicans deny science, or that any of them are “dumb” or “stupid” (because very intelligent Republicans deny very good science).
But just as no one has a monopoly on truth, no one has a monopoly on untruth. The far left can be just as unscientific in their own ways. There is equal opportunity science denial out there, whether it’s vaccines causing autism or wind farms causing cancer or the blanket dismissal of GMO foods.
If you’re looking for something that might challenge your preconceived notions of what it means to be a science denier, take some time and watch this hour of great conversation.
Those of us trying to fight for science shouldn’t succumb to the labels and polarization that create an “us vs. them” tribal battle. We should remember that one of humanity’s great talents is being wrong. But that talent is only exceeded by our ability to learn why we are wrong, and figure out what’s right.
Ancient Aliens Debunked
Have you ever wondered about whether the “ancient aliens” theory, and the meme-tastic History Channel show of the same name, holds any water?
Spoiler: It doesn’t.
But we don’t like unsupported claims around here. So here’s some support: Chris White, a former believer of the alien theory, put together this hours-long film that investigates and disproves each alien claim one-by-one. Instead, scientific explanations are offered for everything from Puma Punku to Giza.
We do no favor to the advanced cultures of the past by diminishing their accomplishments via the introduction of alien technologies. The human race is an ingenious one, and modern society is not the birthplace of technology. I prefer the view that humans have been making huge scientific gains for millennia, because it enriches our history instead of cheapens it.
Ancient cultures being awesome? Is such a thing even possible? You bet it is.
Handy Guide to Reading Science News!
Someone very smart once said (paraphrasing here): “Your head should be open to new ideas, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
Keep these tips in mind when you read science news, and beware alarmism. You don’t have to stop feeling amazed and awed to be a little cautious and skeptical. I’ll be posting more tips like this in the future.
(via Double X Science)
Richard Feynman - on scientific method
Feynman really shines in this all-time classic video.
Of course, this is a must-watch video for many obvious reasons. There’s the genius, charm and humor of Richard Feynman. There’s that pleasant nostalgia of 1964 America when the world was black-and-white, although it was unfortunately that way in more ways than one. These were the days when lecture halls had ashtrays and you wore a suit when you went to see someone write on a chalkboard.
But there’s another, less obvious, reason to watch it. During a passage starting at 5:10, Feynman might have uttered the word “muggles” for the first time. He pronounces it a bit oddly, but it would explain his wizardry of physics, no?