Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What Science Is (And Isn't)


This question remains a central thread in our conversation together, and the more we talk about it, the more I understand that my belief in science is exactly that, a belief. It's a central organizing principle for much of what I do. It's what I decided to become, or at least tried to become, as a research physician.

Somewhere along the way it's become clear to me that such a belief includes a series of assumptions that are not universally accepted (to say the least). It isn't accepted by all, for instance, that scientists are dispassionate, objective observers of their environment, or that they are men and women of good will, or that they leave their own personal beliefs behind when they apply their trade, or that they are readily willing to alter their conclusions when facts or observations demand otherwise. And it shouldn't be, since  the history of science is full characters who failed those tests on all counts.

But even if those assumptions are not justified, it is in the very nature of science to overcome them. Science isn't dependent upon the the beliefs of a particular group or the received wisdom of a particular era. It is inherently open to scrutiny and correction. It is revealed and interpreted by humans, but it  isn't the product of human endeavor in the way that art, or history, or technology is. The internal temperature of the sun, or the age of the Earth, or the energy produced by mitochondrial respiration, or the suicide rate of baby boomers  are facts to determined, not assumed, or presumed, or fantasied about. They can be miscalculated, and they may change, but they are out there, and someone will always be trying to figure them out.

Just because the question of whether the Earth is warming (and its corollary question, whether CO2 emissions produced by human activity),  is particularly difficult, doesn't mean that it can't, and won't, be answered. And it will be answered despite the bizarre, relentless, vicious attacks of those whose cosmology is incapable of tolerating any alternative to itself. Beliefs come and go. Science is indestructible.


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