Do You Have to be a Scientist to Understand?

Molecular biologist Douglas Axe, whose credentials include U.C. Berkeley, Caltech and Cambridge, has written quite the clarion call for us to return to sound science in Undeniable. As the subtitle How Biology Confirms our Intuition that Life is Designed indicates, a central focus is the debate on the successes, or failures, of Darwinian biology to explain life as we know it. Indeed, Axe brings some detailed and technical science to bear on this topic, but he is using that discussion to explain how science is not unreachable or unknowable by the masses. We need not blindly follow experts or celebrity scientists unquestionably. To do this, we first must rid ourselves of flawed views of science.

Axe writes, “Many of us, including me, have bought into the idea that science, though practiced by humans, has managed to rid itself of the human flaws that leave their mark on every other human undertaking…the purity of science is guaranteed by the rigor of ‘the scientific method,’ we think.”  This utopian science does not exist.

Axe mentions how celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson promote this simplistic view of science by saying all is a simple matter of observation, testing and questioning. While on paper the process seems simple, this belies the fact that humans aren’t robots. They come with biases and make mistakes like anyone else. Tyson promotes the accessibility of science, yet has contradictory been known to bemoan “that disputing established scientific facts spells the end of an informed democracy.”

So much for asking questions.

In the end, we often assume that science will be right. But as Axe states, this process can take decades. Why? The human factor. One example is the big bang model in astrophysics. Originally, opposition to this model of the universe’s origin wasn’t because the science was bad, but because it didn’t fit some scientists’ philosophical leanings. Fred Hoyle named it the “big bang” to make fun of it because the theory was too much like the divine origin story, which didn’t agree with his beliefs.

This is why have to discard this elitist view of scientists as if they’re entirely independent of any belief system. Everyone has something, whether it is a philosophy, religion or worldview. Some are better at others than separating themselves from those beliefs, others good at hiding them. That doesn’t mean if your research supports your beliefs that you have done anything wrong, but there are those who will interpret science so it always comes out to agree with those beliefs. That isn’t science when you decide ahead of time what you want to be correct. Nor when one shapes, or selectively chooses, evidence with what they want to be true. Axe writes this in a different way:

Harm comes to science not by people hoping to find a particular result but by people trying to suppress results that go against their hopes. – Douglas Axe

Then there is the problem of scientism, which is when science is held to be “the only legitimate source of truth.” This materialistic corruption of science runs into a few problems. Again, it artificially decides what science must always find. It also undermines any real basis for ethics, law and morals (which I wrote about here). Scientism effectively turns science into a philosophy that quickly runs into dead ends.

Let’s say we agree to rid ourselves of the flawed elitist view of scientists, the problematic utopian view of science, and of scientism. Now what? How can the average person understand and evaluate scientific claims? Or how can someone with a science background understand something outside of their field, since specialization is the rule of the day?

Axe breaks down science into common and technical science. Common science is a “nontechnical argument that stands on its own merits, independent of any technical work.”

Basic science is an integral part of how we live. We are all careful observers of our world. We all make mental notes of what we observe. We all use those notes to build conceptual models of how things work. And we all continually refine these models as needed. Without a doubt, this is science. – Douglas Axe

An example of common science would be explaining special relativity using everyday examples, observations and drawings. Technical science would be working through the mathematical equations of special relativity. Both point to the same conclusion, both must make sense, and each are understandable, and should agree with each other.

We are capable of understanding difficult ideas (or ideas we think are difficult), without necessarily “doing the math.” Everyone can examine, question and evaluate claims without people telling them to just believe it because everyone else does. Believing something just because someone else, or a group of people, says to, isn’t science. Science isn’t decided by consensus, but by robust models and laws.

People who lack formal scientific credentials are nonetheless qualified to speak with authority on matters of common science. – Douglas Axe

Axe isn’t suggesting superficial study of science. Surely, the more we understand the scientific method, logic and rational argumentation, the better we get at understanding and evaluating science (or anything else). Nor should we go to the extreme of discounting all scientists and scientific information. The point is that we live in a time of unprecedented knowledge. With that comes unprecedented levels of noise and bias. You can cut through the chaos. Use wisdom to wield that knowledge and free it of corruption.

Anyone who tells you that you cannot do this, is no friend of science.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Nature | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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