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Want to know the reason science is hard? The real reason?

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It requires humility.

I stumbled across this article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry on The Week,. Despite a bombastic linkbait title there are some doozies in it:

“So let me explain what science actually is. Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.”

Hmmm… sound familiar? I think I recall that from 4th grade.

“In other words — and this is the key thing — when people say “science”, what they really mean is magic or truth.”

Ah hah! Yes. I’ve noticed. “Science” is practiced by these really smart people in lab coats who speak in a language you can’t understand and are like wizards or alchemists, right? And how has that taken hold?

“Countless academic disciplines have been wrecked by professors’ urges to look “more scientific” by, like a cargo cult, adopting the externals of Baconian science (math, impenetrable jargon, peer-reviewed journals) without the substance and hoping it will produce better knowledge.”

So, basically marketing, careerism, and self-regard, then. The usual suspects. What else?

“This is how you get the phenomenon of philistines like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne thinking science has made God irrelevant, even though, by definition, religion concerns the ultimate causes of things and, again, by definition, science cannot tell you about them.”

I actually know a scientist — a real one. Someone asked her about God. She demurred, saying she only dealt with the verifiable. Some chuckled, thinking it was her way of repudiating of the existence of God (which to me is about as feasible as repudiating the existence of triangles, but we won’t go there in this article). Actually, the people who chuckled didn’t hear what she said, or chose to ignore it. She didn’t say there was no God. She said it was outside her purview as a scientist. Scientists deal with the verifiable though empirically-observable experimentation. How are you going to test the the Prime Mover? By shutting it off? How?

Her statement was one of deep humility. She’s a scientist. She deals in the verifiable.

So what’s the real problem? Why is it so hard for even educated people to grasp what science really is and not conflate it with a mystical body of secret, irrefutable knowledge held by people wearing ceremonial garb?

“. . .the reason it took us so long to invent it and the reason we still haven’t quite understood what it is 500 years later is it is very hard to be scientific. Not because science is “expensive” but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are.”

Nailed it.

Science has its roots in an essential and gut-wrenching humility. If you aren’t proving yourself wrong about half the time, you aren’t doing science. Pride goeth before a fall, and pride doesn’t belong in science.
And that’s hard.

Words and Images ©2014 Bill LaBrie
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