Science

A few years ago I was at a party, and I was talking to a guy I’d met a few times before. “I don’t believe in X,” he said (I have no recollection what X was), just like I don’t believe in relativity.”

I was young, and perhaps naïve, but I didn’t think relativity was a candidate to be part of a belief system. “What do you mean, you don’t believe in relativity?” I asked. Here was a chance, I thought, to explain the principle to someone who didn’t understand it.

I failed. I failed and got very frustrated, angry at myself for not explaining things better. Angry that I had not even put doubt into the non-believer. It went like this: He explained something he called “the inertia problem.” I assumed he’d picked it up from a book by some ‘rogue’ physicist (more on them later). He described the inertia problem. It was nonsensical and even if you helped it along a bit with incorrect terminology, it still had absolutely nothing to do with relativity.

In retrospect, I enumerated a few options how to proceed:

  • Ask, “What does that have to do with relativity?” and address the incorrect linkages specifically.
  • Say, “Look, relativity has been measured over and over, in different ways, from the orbit of Mercury to clocks in the Apollo capsules. The work my own father does would simply break without it.”
  • Ask “Do you believe in gravity? Because that’s a hell of a lot more mysterious than relativity.”
  • Say, “Fortunately, relativity doesn’t need your faith to work.”
  • I could treat the “inertia problem” as a credible theory, work my ass of to recast it in terms that actually meant something, then demonstrate that my construct was, in fact, not in disagreement with relativity.

I think you can guess which course I took. Perhaps all of the above would have failed (more on that later, too), but just mentioning personal experience and giving a taste of the enormous pile of things that have verified relativity in the past century might have provided enough skepticism that at least the Unbeliever would not spread his Unfaith as fervently. (I wonder if he uses a GPS now? I wonder if he knows he’s using relativity?)

This guy thought of himself as a skeptic, as someone who didn’t just believe what everyone else did. In fact, he was not a skeptic at all. He was Rogue wanna-be. The way to convince him of something was to start with, “The establishment doesn’t want me to say…” and then say something that implies special knowledge that no one else has. Some idiot whose concept of physics is mired in the 1850’s writes a book saying that relativity is bogus, and members of the Rebel Dalliance hoist him on their shoulders. Stick it to the man! Believe a quack for no other reason than he says the establishment is wrong!

There’s never been a moon landing! Never mind that the junk is up there, in plain sight. For some reason Russia and China continue to cooperate with the US to perpetuate a hoax forty years later. Why do people believe that? Because it’s fun to style oneself as a rogue. As long as you only talk to other members of the Rebel Dalliance, you don’t have to discover that you’re an idiot.

Which brings me to evolution. Lots of people in this country don’t believe in it. As I could have said to the guy who didn’t believe in relativity, evolution doesn’t require their faith to work. The part that sticks in my craw is the large number of anti-evolution salesmen who claim that there are other scientifically-viable theories. Intelligent design and whatnot. A handful of ‘rogue’ scientists have done well for themselves proposing plausible-sounding stories and selling them as science. People will pay you to tell them what they want to hear.

Those theories are not science. In fact, they’re not even theories. A better name for ‘rogue scientist’ is ‘salesman’. Anyone who claims to be a scientist must always be ready to listen to more evidence and modify or scrap his favorite theory. It happens. But in science, even the guys who are wrong are improving the process, bringing up proposals and, most importantly, new tests to challenge the status quo. Sometimes (well, often) pride gets tangled up in things, but even then they are not rogues, they are stubborn scientists.

Science is about letting go. People who say science is messed up because people used to believe one thing but now believe something else are in fact demonstrating the strength of science. We learn. We grow. We change.

“I believe God made Adam from clay,” is perfectly all right with me. I have no difficulty with faith; it’s about the unknowable, about the places science can’t reach. Just don’t try to clothe faith in science and wedge it into the science curriculum at my local school.

If your theory can’t be tested, it’s not science. This is currently a hot topic at the most esoteric level of physics. The math works, but it’s hard to test without exploding suns to get the energy required. There are a lot of folks, promoters and skeptics alike, searching for planet-earth size experiments to test the math.

So, scientific theories have to be testable. Even that’s not enough, though. How many times have you started a sentence with “A study showed that…?” A bunch of times, right? Me, too. And I will again. Some of those studies are pretty crazy. But while you do it, remember this: A study has never shown anything. Ever. A single study is so vulnerable to mistakes and misinterpretation that you can never draw broad conclusions. The study has to be replicated, by someone else, using methods that answer questions raised by outsiders about the first study.

Remember cold fusion? Some guys were so excited about the result of their experiment that they bypassed normal science channels and went mainstream. The economic implications of their study were so world-changing that the entire scientific community dropped what they were doing to try to replicate that experiment in a hundred different ways. Turns out, the original experiment was flawed. (Somewhere, there’s a ROGUE SCIENTIST selling books telling of the coverup of cold fusion.)

Scientific evidence has to be repeatable. Predictably repeatable. Every measurement has to have an estimate of the likelihood that it’s wrong.

The biggest problem with teaching creationism alongside evolution in schools is that it clouds what science even is. Creationism as an ‘alternate theory’ totally confuses the definition of ‘theory’. When discussing science, creationism is most certainly not a theory. It can’t be tested. I don’t care what you think about dinosaurs; you could leave them out of the curriculum and I wouldn’t mind that much (the kids will supplement their own education on that score), but please, please, teach what science is, and even more importantly, what it isn’t.

Sooner or later our government will be filled with people who don’t even understand the nature of science, its strengths and weaknesses, yet they will be making critical decisions based on science. Ah, shit. That’s happened already.

If we all knew what science was, then when some oil-company-funded pundit comes on TV to ‘debunk’ global warming with feel-good talk about economic growth, the token scientist in studio to rebut could simply say, “that’s not science,” and the nation would nod and disregard the previous bloviations. “Now,” the anchor will say, “We can get to the real debate: what to do about it.”

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4 thoughts on “Science

  1. I believe that was “Doctor Joey” who didn’t believe in relativity and received the “Fortunately, relativity doesn’t need your faith to work” response. Nobody else cares, but wow — Dr. Joey. I’d thank you for the trip down memory lane, but really… he’s a waste of synaptic connections.

    • Actually it wasn’t Dr. Joey; I wouldn’t have bothered discussing it with him. Had I engaged him at all on the subject, I would have gone with a pithy statement and left it at that, much to the relief of all around us. My memories of him are probably rosier since for me he was an occasional sideshow, not a roommate.

      I was trying to remember the name of The Guy Who Didn’t Believe In Relativity, but that knowledge is lost, now.

  2. I didn’t even get three paragraphs in before I hit the sweet button. Great post. A neat criticism I saw recently pointed out that alternate “theories” to evolution don’t support each other. And the skeptics say, “Aha! What about A, and if not A, then B, and if not B then C…” Meanwhile the evidence for evolution has many independent strains, that all support the whole thing.
    I’m also getting tired of the whole “appeal to authority” diatribe. Why yes, I do believe the authority of physicists because they are smart. Really smart. Way smarter than you mister skeptic, and I am comfortable not knowing how my GPS works, but knowing that it does, and it depends on relativity.
    However, I will say, you’re wrong about gravity. Gravity is just a conspiracy meant to keep us down. /rimshot

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