02 September 2010


For those who seek easy, concrete, immutable answers to life's questions -- where did we come from? how do migrating birds and butterflies know where they are going? why do some people have brown eyes, and others blue? where does that mysterious sock disappear to, when I do laundry? -- the answers can varously be tentative, inconclusive, reassuring or enlightening, when they come from science. Why is this? Doesn't the very word "science" mean "knowledge"? Why does it take so long to figure things out?

The answer lies in how science is conducted. When confronted with a question, the scientific method (click on image above to enlarge) requires that an investigator form a hypothesis (potential explanation), gather and analyze data through observation and experimentation, determine whether the empirical results support the hypothesis, and then publish the study's results for peer review. Results must be (A) replicable by other researchers, and (B) falsifiable. No leaps of faith are allowed. If a given hypothesis yields the same testing results reliably and repeatedly, over time it gains the force of credibility and is re-labeled as a scientific theory. Further testing and time may elevate the theory to a scientific law.

All of this takes time, and because of the requirement of falsifiability, something that has long been held to be true, may later be proven false. Case in point -- for centuries, largely under pressure from the Catholic church, people believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, with the sun, planets and stars revolving around it. To propose otherwise was heresy, as Galileo learned the hard way. Yet the impulse toward truth is ultimately stronger than the impulse toward superstition, and science came to accept the reality that the earth revolves about the sun, which is only a moderately-sized star located midway out along one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, one of tens of billions of galaxies in the known universe. Our homocentric view of things took a well-deserved cosmological thrashing, but we emerged better (and smarter) for it.

In good science, all sorts of avenues of inquiry are pursued, challenged, debated, settled, and revisited later on. A perfect example from the field of animal and human behavior concerns the notion of altruism, helping others with no personal gain, or helping others at one's own expense. In 1964, biologist William Hamilton advanced an explanation which appeared to explain altruism as an alternative avenue for prolonging one's own genes in the population. His hypothesis was generally accepted until quite recently, when a team of prominent evolutionary biologists at Harvard (including the redoubtable E.O. Wilson) published a paper in the journal Nature, disputing Hamilton's explanation.

This is the meat of science -- rigorous debate, evidence advanced and challenged, results confirmed or refuted. Fifty years ago, human knowledge was doubling every ten years. Now it doubles every five or six years. With so much learned, and so much remaining to learn, it's hardly surprising that if we want certainty in our views of ourselves and our surroundings -- and if we insist on more than a blind leap of faith to reach that certainty -- then we have to be willing to exercise patience, a healthy and informed skepticism, and an open mind. There is a word for such a rigorous mindset. It's called progress. Anything less is gossip, superstition or ignorance.

In a completely unrelated article, Jonathan Parkinson suggests with tongue-in-cheek "Got a physics question? Ask a stripper." It turns out that some women pursuing advanced degrees in the sciences find that they can support the costs of their education by working on the side as lap dancers, strippers, and even a few as hookers. The money is good, and job satisfaction is reported to be generally high. And none of these enterprising academics has to ask her clients, "Would you like fries with that?"

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