Author: John Cassleman
On April 22nd, Earth Day, a congregation of determined citizens will be marching through the streets of Olympia to promote and celebrate… science. “Science?” Yeah, science. Now please grab your pots and pans, pens and notepads, and keep up.
SCIENCE CAN’T THINK
In case you haven’t been following the conversation, the debate around the value of science and its worthiness as a source of public funding is, ahem, hot. From An Inconvenient Truth to National Geographic’s feature series titled “The War on Science” (link) to rogue National Park’s employee twitter accounts, the American public seems to be having a difficulty agreeing on what “science says”. Before we jump in on the conversation ourselves, let’s come to a consensus on what we mean when we talk about science.
Science, as a label, is often misused. We often speak about science as if it is some singular entity that unilaterally declares what is true and untrue, like some omniscient judge. It’s not. Science can’t think. It can’t believe. It can’t steal your lunch money. When we treat it like it can, we distort its essence. Let’s clear this up: science is a process. It includes some combination of these steps (or, if you prefer funny web comics, like this):
Observe, predict, test, analyze, repeat. And repeat until whatever it is that you discover can’t be disproven even by your fiercest critics.
Although this is an oversimplified description of the scientific process, it gets to the heart of the thing we call science.
THE POWER OF CONSENSUS
Oftentimes when we talk about science, we’re talking about scientists. Scientists are the people who use this process to learn. That includes astrophysicists, kids watching birds, and your grandma when her joints ache and she predicts that it’s going to rain. If you’re curious about something and you study it by observing and testing – “Congratulations!”, you’re a scientist. Can we screw the process up? You bet! That’s where expertise comes in.
What sets experts apart from anyone who is using the scientific method is that most scientists have devoted their lives to one particular area of study. That’s not to say they know everything about that given topic, but if you want to challenge their findings, you better have your speech prepared and heaps of evidence that can be reproduced, examined, and discussed. Now, when a wide variety of experienced people carefully examine similar phenomena in different parts of the world and they agree on the evidence, I’d be willing to bet that they’re right – and so would you.
Every time you cross that bridge to work, put on that weatherproof coat, or drop your latest selfie on Instagram, you’re trusting that the science used to create those things was accurate. You trust the bridge won’t collapse and the cell phone in your hand won’t burst into flames.
Furthermore, we don’t debate whether or not the earth is round. We don’t debate that the moon orbits the earth or the earth orbits the sun. We don’t debate that when you drop two objects of the same size and shape from the same height, they will land at the same time, regardless of weight (thank you, Olympia Family Theater for the show last month #TheStarryMessenger). We don’t debate these facts because scientists have put these claims to the test time and time again until they realized it was pointless to do so anymore.
The scientific process (and the consensus that follows) gives us the means to solve increasingly complex problems, across the world, and into the future. It helps us gather the data we need to solve problems like lead in drinking water and the extinction of species.
And if the term “global warming” gives you pause, the fact that coastal cities are drowning and aquifers are drying up is impossible to ignore. Need proof? Go to these places. See for yourself. better yet, go to these places, stay there, apply the scientific process, and publish your findings.
NOT PERFECT, BUT GETTING CLOSER
We cannot forget that governments and individuals have used scientific findings as tools of oppression. In the 19th century, a branch of scientific study known as phrenology was the widely held as valid. Its underlying assumption was that the brain’s size and shape determined the intelligence of a person or a group of people. That … were used to justify racist policies based on a perceived racial hierarchy. All this, supposedly scientific. But because
The process isn’t perfect. But it is the best mechanism we have for discovering accurate concepts of the world. And the only way we’re going to get better is if we have more and more people doing more and more science. That process has no concern for the policies of one political party or another… What is our alternative to the scientific process as a method for discovering broad truths?
THIS IS WHY WE MARCH
Science, itself, is a march, ongoing, towards truth. It’s time to bring out the pots and pans, pens and notepads, and pick up the pace.
The Olympia March for Science, a sister march to the D.C. March for Science, is happening because people out there believe in the scientific process. They believe that science can help us uncover new truths, and create new and exciting opportunities for the future. They believe that science is our best hope at collectively discovering universal (or, near universal truths). They believe that instead of taking federal funding away from scientific exploration, we should be putting more money into scientific exploration, explorations that follow the scientific method: observe, guess, predict, test, repeat. Discuss.