Those who practiced medicine many decades ago eventually realized that anecdotal evidence just isn’t as helpful as repeatable experiments that give consistent results. Where herb poultices and leeches had occasionally cured certain maladies (and inadvertently caused others), understanding pathophysiology helped invent and direct more reliable cures. We’ve moved toward understanding things and proving things rather than occasionally lucky stabs in the dark. Now, it seems, you can’t even apply common sense to medical problems without conducting multi-phase clinical trials to prove what everyone thought was right from the beginning. This is because evidence-based medicine has been extremely effective in treating disease, so it’s thankfully here to stay.
Science is the system of determining facts about the world through an objective process of measurement. At least, that’s how I think of it. The measurements have to be similar when done by different people at different times, and the facts apply only to conditions unique to the experiment. Testing hypotheses in this way has proven to be a hugely successful way of generating information.
Add on a little math and/or logic, and you can extrapolate facts from other facts. If this experiment shows us this, and this experiment shows us this, we can conclude that this third experiment would result in this, even though actually conducting such an experiment may be impossible. Through rational thought, we move forward.
And thus we have the Internet, antibiotics, space shuttles, etc. Go team.
Unfortunately, the progress from simple direct experiments like Mendel’s pea plants to sophisticated nano-scaled machines means that most of us are just going to have to accept most of science on faith. We can’t know it all for ourselves because the existing body of knowledge is too broad and too deep. The minutia of technology and the esoteric nature of sub-specialized fields of expertise mean that I’m obliged to sit here and happily type my blog without giving a second thought to how it all works. From the binary code of the software to the physics of electricity to the economics of free web-based services, I have no choice but to trust that people have this stuff figured out, and my trust is rewarded with results.
Unfortunately, faith in science can be misplaced. We resident doctors hash out the specific details of scientific papers all the time as a part of our training. In “Journal Clubs” we dissect journal articles to find flaws in their methodology, their study design, and the conclusions they claim to have reached. Contrast this with the press, who often not only fail to question the actual plausibility of a study’s findings but often overstate the conclusion and give the public a completely false impression that some ridiculous idea has been “proven by scientists.”
There are occasional mistakes that take scientists down a false path for a long time before realizing the error. Unfortunately, some errors are deliberately propagated by those who are trying to sell something, both material and ideological. Either way, don’t ever assume that something claimed on “scientific” grounds is a sure thing. Your trust is probably well-placed, but not necessarily.
The good news is that poor science, even the most esoteric kind, is likely to be eventually uncovered. But it’s uncovered by the folks who take the time to really understand the data, not by the peanut gallery who scoff at the unfamiliar. The scoffing is just noise.
My brain has gone all over the place now, and you just have to stay tuned to see why I even wrote this post. There’s no denying that a systematic, ordered approach to demonstrating what we don’t yet know has taken us amazing places--even in my life time. I like science, logic, and rationality, because they work really well.
Index to series:
Rational faith 1: Science
Rational faith 2: Spirituality
Rational faith 3: Grand unifying theory
Rational faith 4: Creative calculus
Rational faith 5: Wrap up