Since whenever our species or its predecessors began to wonder, the challenge of figuring out ourselves and our surroundings has confronted us daily. We know of the wanderings out of Africa into the Middle East, thence west to Europe and east toward Asia. But we think far less of the powerful questioning that accompanied their wanderings.
To our modern minds the wondering and the eventual learning seem mind-numbingly simple. What are clouds? Why is the sun red just after it wakes up and just before it goes to sleep for the night? Why do people die after eating certain plants? The quandaries grew more complicated. What causes retrograde motion of the “wandering stars”? What or who causes plagues?
Measured against the tens of thousands of years of learning a little at a time–often learning that was mistaken–our species in the recent past finally made giants strides in satisfying the wondering. A way of testing our guesses emerged in the seventeenth century that, along with developments in mathematics and inferential statistics, led to what we came to call the scientific method.
One does not have to be a scientist to use the method, but its application to what became physics, then to other “wonderings” brought almost overnight growth of knowledge, a growth spurt that the previous hundred thousand years had failed to match. Unfortunately, these new fields of study were so successful that the scientific method became associated solely with them. In fact, the findings of these undertakings–that is, the answers they yielded–was first called “natural philosophy,” then later called science. Science to most people now denotes a set of facts discovered by the scientific method rather than a method of uncovering them. Unfortunately, high school science courses taught more the facts than the discipline of discovery that revealed them.
What we missed is that the scientific method is a way of thinking about what we know or think we know. Yes, it is what scientists do, but there is absolutely no reason for it to belong specifically to those we call scientists. It is a way of thinking not only available to us all, but incumbent on us all. Perhaps continuing to call it the scientific method is part of the problem; doing so leaves non-scientists free to wallow in our ignorance, failing to have so powerful a tool at our disposal.
My wife and I had the delight recently to see American media’s most recognizable living scientist, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, lecture an audience of 4,000 on American science illiteracy. He made a convincing case that we are falling behind our erstwhile attainments as well as the advances of other nations. The past few decades have seen a frightening growth of anti-science, in considerable part due to fundamentalist rejection of evolution and conservative blindness toward anthropogenic global climate change.
Facts are not determined by popular vote nor by “fit” with an ideology. The scientific method requires knowing that, just as it requires a grasp of what inferential statistics can do (if not its mathematical intricacies). There is no excuse for these abilities to be absent in normally intelligent adults or missing from the education of our youth. The current flap over vaccinations illustrates what ignorance in the use of data can bring. Politicized obstinacy about global climate change demonstrates the public inability to relate to disputes among scientists. Intelligent design (anti-evolution) advocates talk as if school children are equipped to judge evolution theory. Here are a few quotes from persons whose leadership positions make their ignorance arguably criminal. There are many more.
- “Evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. Scientific data actually shows this is really a young earth….9,000 years old….created in 6 days as we know them. [The Bible] teaches us how to run all the public policy and everything in society. As your congressman I hold the holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, DC.” Paul Collins Broun, Jr., M.D., U.S. Representative, and member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
- “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide.” US Rep. John Boehner, Speaker, US House of Representatives.
- “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is,” former U. S. Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
- “The idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community. It is a hoax. There is no scientific consensus.” U S Rep. Paul Broun, member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
- “Mars is essentially in the same orbit [as Earth] . . . somewhat the same distance from the sun, which is very important. A few have seen pictures where there are canals, I believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.” Dan Quayle, former U S Vice President.
- “I could read [science journals concerning climate change], but I don’t believe it.” Larry Bucshon, US Congressman, member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
- “Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” Former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
- “[Scientists] disagree about what is causing climate change.” Proposed social studies textbook adapted for Texas State Board of Education.
- “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” US Sen. Rand Paul.
- “We have too many deaths on the road, and I believe toughening medical requirements for applicants is fully justified.” Alexander Kotov, director, Professional Drivers Union, in support of new Russian regulations that deny drivers licenses to transgender applicants as accident risks.
- “Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases?” U. S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, when asked whether American climate policy should focus on reducing carbon emissions.
- “It’s not about affecting global temperature and climate change. There’s public commentary out there; that question has been asked and answered, saying ‘no.’” Larry Bucshon, US Representative, member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
- “I am not convinced that the problem of global warming is what the scientists say it is. Particularly in light of the recent research, that demonstrates that there are a lot of shenanigans going on with the data.” Tim Griffin, US Representative, member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
- “When you think about the complexity of a worldwide system and the amount of data you’d have to capture, and how you adjust for a sunspot, and how you adjust for a hurricane and I think it’s incredibly arrogant for the Al Gores of the world to stand up and say the world is coming to an end.” David Schweikert, US Representative.
- “[There are] a lot of contentious facts and claims about global warming and whether it is manmade [however there is] not much unanimity.” Doug Lamborn. US Representative.
- “Here in the state of Colorado as our tree rings demonstrate, we’ve had droughts long before there were very many people here,” and acknowledging that humans can affect the climate is futile because it would “divide America.” Scott Tipton, US Representative.
- “The existing [science] curriculum “propagate[s the idea that] life originated from a ‘primitive cell’ that was set in motion by the ‘Big Bang’.” Marco Feliciano, Assembly of God pastor and member of Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, arguing for requiring creationism to be taught in the Brazil’s public and private schools since “since the creationist doctrine is prevalent throughout our country.”
- “Some of the scientists, I believe, haven’t they been changing their opinion a little bit on global warming? There’s a lot of differing opinions and before we react I think it’s best to have the full accounting, full understanding of what’s taking place.” US President George W. Bush.
- “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” US President Ronald Reagan.
- “In 20 years, when nobody thinks about ‘global warming’ anymore, the leftist-published textbooks will blame ‘corporate conspiracies,’ especially ‘big oil’ and ‘multi-nationals’ for creating the global warming hoax to increase their own profits by getting the taxpayers to subsidize their non-functioning windmill projects and to dupe the public into buying their expensive boutique ‘green’ products.” Charles Krauthammer, political columnist.
Well, ‘nough said. The science ignorance is deplorable and the understanding of what makes the scientific method so valuable is ultimately even worse. The foregoing statements reveal one or another type of misunderstanding, each seemingly missed by the speaker’s ignorance.
But the larger problem is the science ignorance of common folks, the ones who vote for these officials and the ones who must judge their wisdom and performance. It is they who seem unable to see through officials’ misunderstandings and outright partisan treatment of the most effective human method ever developed for separating truth from fiction in the natural world, whether that inability is due to religious dogma, inconvenience, or failure to have been scientifically educated.
Perhaps using the phrase “scientific method” is itself part of the problem, for it distances good thinking from normal life. The scientific method is merely an advance in our ability to think, to discover, and to avoid factual errors.
As one commenter put it, the scientific method exists to correct our tendency to believe what isn’t so.