Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Scientific Thinking - What is it good for?

Derek Lowe had a post a month ago that I still keep thinking about, so now it's your turn to hear about it and my thoughts on it.

The point of Derek's post was that having a science-based outlook is very helpful for doing science and engineering, but not much else.
"...(1) the natural world is independent of human thought. Your beliefs may be of interest to you, but the physical world is indifferent to them. (2) The natural world has rules. They may not be very clear, and they may be wildly complex, but there are rules, and they can be potentially figured out...

It's surprising, when you look at the record, to find out how little this view of the world has held sway over human history. There were various well-known outbreaks of such thinking in the past, but it's really only been a continuous effort in the last few centuries, and not everywhere in the world, by any means.
I think Derek's comments were not as expansive as they could have been, so let me build on them.

First, let me be clear about what is not at issue here. Most humans understand that we are not purely logic-driven Vulcans and do not want to be. Emotions are an important, valuable part of being human, and I certainly am not arguing against feelings of love and hate, joy and sadness, ecstasy and pain, and all the rest. Nor am I arguing against music, the visual arts, prose and poetry or pretty much anything else created from the "right side of the brain". Applying scientific thinking to these subjects would utterly destroy them leaving us all worse off.

I am also not talking about politics either. Political decisions are based on values. (Why so few people see this is a complete mystery to me. Once you see it, then all the arguments become so simple.)

Instead, I'm concerned about the lack of scientific thinking in everyday situations in which it would be useful to have that perspective. Telemarketing/Internet scams selling products with (incredible) claims of healing/better looks/white shirts… are an easy target to pick on. Scientific thinking would suggest that you run an experiment (or two or three or…) with a control to look for differences in the performance, and yet that is never done. (In actuality, that is only the first step – any experiment of value would suggest additional experimentation and also would be compared to other data from the past, but that does get to be quite a bit more work.)

Sadly, I think that people assume that because they either 1) didn't like science in school, or 2) don't know much about science, that they can't think scientifically about something. And that's where they are wrong. Having a scientific approach to a problem can exist regardless of the level of knowledge that exists. None of us from Einstein on down can be said to really know enough about science as the more we learn, the more we discover that there is to learn. No one is seeing the end of science just yet. We have high school science fairs, undergraduate research, graduate schools, post docs, fellowships, sabbaticals,…and don't restrict science to only the top 100 people in the world. We all can and should be making decisions based on the structures of scientific thinking.

1 comment:

lalitterer said...

I think it is because most people are not willing to take the time to do the work. They are happy to read the results from someone else doing a comparison test. Look at the popularity of Consumer Reports or Cooks Illustrated for examples.

For myself, I have been doing experiments to find the perfect brownie recipe for several years. Last night I did another replicate of recipe #40, and I am still pretty happy with it. I find resource limitations to be a problem with doing side-by-side comparisons. Component lot and supply variations are also a problem. On the bright side, I have no trouble getting my friends and coworkers to evaluate the results.

I am a long way from the average American, having been brainwashed by biochemists at an impressionable age.