THE trickiest thing about writing an essay is getting it started. The next trickiest thing is blogging an essay, because no one reads long posts. This is invariably because people talk bollocks. With that in mind, I’ve decided that the best way to start it is to moan about how essays are difficult things to get started. Thus low and behold we’re here, we’re up and running, and now I can talk about what it is I wanted to talk about.
Editable media, such as blogs, are an interesting phenomenon for scientists who typically publish in journals where making subsequent changes after publishing is fraught with a great deal of administration. Once something is committed to paper, then it is essentially fixed. However, my position at that time may not be my position in months to come. If there is one thing that makes a good scientist, it is doubt; doubt about the level of ones knowledge, and doubt about the subject, validity or factual correctness of that knowledge. Thus setting down any particular view is folly as it can only be based on my received knowledge at the time, with the appropriate amount of synthesis. Yet views should be set down, and the state of the art documented; it is a necessary process, and one with which scientists are familiar. However, one cannot keep re-editing previous posts ad infinitum. Sometimes it is nice to leave a record of development of a new idea or position.
So my aim in this blogs is to spend more time discussing my research; the aspects of science that interest me; the key topical issues in science debate; and address aspects of blatant bad science, pseudoscientific quackery, that I come across in society.
So it goes.
Last week, when I was walking with a friend, a bird flew onto a slate wall in front of us. It was an amazing flash of yellow, it stopped briefly then departed. My friend asked me what sort of bird it was, but I was unable to oblige him with an answer because, like him, I am useless at bird identification. I don’t feel diminished by this admission, far from it, and I’ll tell you why: It is because I can tell you plenty about the rock that the bird landed on, the slate, how old it is, when it formed and under what conditions. I can tell you about the sort of people who mined it and the context of it being there. I can tell you about the biochemical constituents of the bird shit that the yellow bird left as it departed. I can tell you about the lice and mites that are likely to parasitise the bird, but what I cannot tell you is the name of the bird.
Well, actually I can, having since looked it up. It was a Yellowhammer. So why am I telling you this? Well I’m reminded of an excellent lecture by the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, whom I hold in the greatest esteem. He mentioned once that knowing the name of something tells you nothing about what that something is, because that something will be called something else by someone in another country and something else by someone in another country and so on. All you’ll in fact know, is that this something is called five or six different things depending on where it is. As is the case with birds.
So from the name Yellowhammer, we do glean some information [information that we are not blessed with in other bird names], as we can in fact see that it is yellow, but as for the hammer bit, well, I couldn’t tell you. Thus merely knowing the name of something is so pointless that you may as well not know the name of it at all. It is false knowledge, and it is invariably designed, either consciously or unconsciously, to make people think you know what you’re talking about.
There is no rock that I can name that I do not know something about, but there are a great many rocks that I can’t name and about which I know nothing. What is the point of remembering the name of a rock if you can’t say any more than that, if only, at the most basic level, that this one is slippery when wet and this one isn’t; sage knowledge if you happen to be a climber. I can say the same of identifying microorganisms, chemicals and metabolic pathways. I generally never know just names.
It is for that reason that apart form those few birds that we could identify, all unidentifiable birds were henceforth called Pelicans. They may as well be until we know something more about them.
Richard Feynman was once asked to talk about what science is, which is a hell of a tricky task. In a subtle way he answered it, but likely not to his satisfaction, nor to that of many others, but it communicated a feeling of what science is. We are fortunate, as a species, to be able to communicate. In this manner we accumulate and disseminate knowledge, which becomes fixed in the species as a whole. This means that each new individual is not forced to learn a fresh the entire body of knowledge that will be necessary for a successful life; knowledge that was hard gained, could be lost due to untimely death or forgetfulness. Thus the rate of knowledge accumulation needs to outweigh the potential for forgetting that knowledge, or dying before it can be passed on. This, Feynman called Time-Binding.
The only problem with this, Feynman continued, is that with all the good and practical knowledge accumulated and passed on, there is also a great deal of bad, corruptive and prejudiced knowledge passed on in a form of Chinese Whispers that continues down the generations. This “disease”, as Feynman called it, has a cure. The cure is doubt; some level of scepticism that leads the recipient of that knowledge to question its validity and therefore to set out to discover once again from new what the situation is, rather than just trusting the form received. That is what science is, at least as best as Feynman could conclude. I don’t disagree, even though it is not a complete definition; perhaps it lacks the emphasis that the systematic methodological approach of science is the best means by which we can understand the real world, and thus by which continually assess received knowledge.
Incidentally, the Science Council spent some time coming up with a definition:
“Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.“
The question remains, why are people so scientifically illiterate as a whole? Again, Feynman helps us out here by suggesting that it is because science is irrelevant. The process and development being largely outweighed by, and divorced from, the end products of science in the minds of the public. Perhaps a more interesting question he raises, is why people are able to stay that way without it worrying them at all, and why they are happy to do so when so much of the knowledge is denied them? It is for this reason that despite being in the 21st century, things like pseudo-science and superstition still exist. It is likely the fault of the scientists themselves really. Society detaches itself from the more complex or unpleasant things, trusting them to individuals who are deemed to be better suited for the job; society can just reap the benefits at the end. Interestingly, Plato said the same thing of the Greeks some 2340 years ago, in his disappointment that unlike the Egyptians, the children of whom still played mathematical games, in Greece, philosophy and mathematics were the the plaything of scholars only, and ignorance the plaything of the common man; he remarked upon how the Greeks had become as pigs.
What we should be doing as scientists is to openly discuss pseudo-science, which can only have the effect of forcing the pseudo-scientists, psychics and faith-healers into a position where they have to actually learn some science in order to defend themselves. Only the blindly faithful can argue a case without knowing anything of the other side. Perhaps in that action, they may realise that perhaps their knowledge isn’t so well founded. Perhaps they will have doubts, and as I mentioned before, doubt is where it all begins.