Science Needs A Celebrity Makeover

It in the last few days I’ve had two startling, and somewhat depressing, conversations.

In both instances, I had a debate with people I admire, for their intelligence and intellectual rigour, about the merit of the scientific method. In both cases, my opponents made claims which felt unscientific to me. When I challenged their thinking on the subject, it lead to a conversation which went something like this:

THEM: “I don’t think science is the only way to know the truth.”

ME: “ORLY? What alternative method do you propose?”

THEM: “Well I don’t have an alternative. I just think there are things that science doesn’t know.”

ME: “Of course, there is plenty that science doesn’t know. But the list of things which *might* be true are infintesmal. Only a sub-set of those ideas can *actually* be true. If we don’t use the scientific method (hypothesis, testing, evidence, conclusions, consensus) to determine which of those ideas are *actually* true, what alternative method do you propose?”

Now at this point, people usually start dithering about “well, I don’t have an alternative, I just… well I… it just seems to me that science isn’t the only way… I… well…”.

I am appalled. I mean, I expect that kind of response from people addicted to mythological cults that train you to ignore facts – Christianity, Scientology, etc. But neither of the people I was talking to are religious in a traditional sense. Both are extremely articulate, deep thinkers, and self-confident about their own intellect and opinions. So, unlike when I get into these debates with cultists, I’m sure they didn’t feel threatened by my somewhat aggressive approach to the determination of ‘truth’.

And yet, for some reason which remains unclear to me, they subscribe to this meme that “science isn’t the only way”, even though they are completely unable to articulate an alternative.

How did we get here? How can it possibly be that at the dawn of the 21st century, there are people who are educated, intelligent, free from infection by mythological dogma, yet who still refuse to accept an evidence-based approach to determining fact from fiction?

It strikes me that science – that is, the scientific method – needs a celebrity makeover.

The human race needs a serious dose of education about what the scientific method entails and why it is – without any rational argument that I’m aware of – the superior process for determining what is true and what is false.

Perhaps we need a complete overhaul – we need to dramatically improve how science is taught in school, at university and how it is portrayed by the media. We need big budget Hollywood (and Bollywood) films made which portray science in a positive light, which re-iterate WHAT the scientific method is and WHY it is the best way we’ve come up with (so far) for determining the truth about how the universe works.

6 thoughts on “Science Needs A Celebrity Makeover

  1. Great point, if depressing. Finding a way to make brilliance palatable — and re-generating excitement — may be the only way to keep innovation alive. At the moment it feels like we’re consumers, not producers, of innovation; maybe because we don’t appreciate it, for all the reasons you mention.

  2. God! Here we go again.
    I don’t think it’s about “Science is the only way to know to the truth”, more that how we hypothesise could be wider than what we currently know. And if you hypothesise and can’t prove it (yet!) that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!!

    The best pointer to all this is Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method(go read his Wikipedia entry). “He objected to any single prescriptive scientific method on the grounds that any such method would limit the activities of scientists, and hence restrict scientific progress. In his view, science would benefit most from a “dose” of theoretical anarchism. He also thought that theoretical anarchism was desirable because it was more humanitarian than other systems of organization, by not imposing rigid rules on scientists.”

    He’s not against science, more that it should be expanded in it’s thinking. If all current science can prove the Earth is flat, then it’s bloody difficult to come along and prove the Earth is round.

  3. Tony, you’re spouting the same arguments I hear from people all the time, the one I am concerned about.

    Here’s where I think you are wrong:

    1. Of course if we cannot prove something doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. However, if we have no evidence to support the theory that something exists, then why believe it does? In the complete absence of evidence, there is NO reason to believe something exists in the first place! In fact, believing something exists, in the complete absence of evidence, is close to the definition of insanity. Having a THEORY that it exists is a different thing. There are an unlimited number of things which “could” exists, but only a sub-set of those actually *do* exist. And the only way to tell which exist is to look for evidence. If there is no evidence… then there is no evidence. It goes into the very large pile of “things that might exist but for which we have zero evidence”, like fairies, UFOs and Jesus.

    2. This whole idea that scientists get caught up in a particular viewpoint of what exists and therefore refuse or fail to see anything outside of that spectrum is just STUPID. Think about it – if you’re a scientist, what’s your great dream going to be? Discovering something NEW. BREAKING NEW GROUND – that’s what you win grants and Nobel Prizes for, not just repeating what someone said before you. Scientists are constantly trying to overthrow old ideas – which is one reason why the “earth is flat” meme that people use to demonstrate the flaws of science is so incredibly stupid – it is the scientific method we have to thank for proving that the earth is ROUND. That is a *good* thing, not a bad thing. The other reason why the whole earth is flat argument is stupid is that it wasn’t scientists who were saying it was flat in the first place. No educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century BCE onward believed that the earth was flat.

  4. I possess Master degree in Math, so I know a bit about science, but I would not dare to be so arrogant as to claim that “science is the only way to know the truth.” Really, get over yourself.

    P.S: I am not a Christian, nor a Scientologist. 😉

  5. It’s not “myself” that I’m interested in Peter, it’s how we determine “truth”, so let’s stick to that conversation if we can.

    So tell me – what are the other ways of determining truth that don’t rely on the scientific method?

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