Actual Science

The scientific model is a glorious invention for exploring our universe. The simple rules, if honestly applied, are self correcting, grounding us always in a testable connection to truth. In establishing any fact, it unburdens us of ignorance about that fact not just now, but forever. It moves our piece that many squares forward. Best of all, new and meaningful questions arise which can be explored from that knowledge. Science fractures the unknown, then explores all the cracks and finds unforeseen goodies everywhere: Telescopes, antibiotics, vaccines, better food.  You could say “Like magic!” except, you know…it isn’t. As science got rolling, and gained momentum it also gained the respect that comes from undeniable results.

Science is earthy and practical and performed by people with an improbable and hard to explain love for things like soil or beetles or cancer cells. To the extent that any of us not actively working in science actually “Fucking love science” it’s probably due to the purity, passion and goodness of these nerds. They are the real and lovable thing. (my later complaints about “sciencey culture” are not about these guys) I don’t mean they are all adorable geeks out of central casting, but they have the temperament and interest to patiently keep close company with small simple details of experiments as they change across time, recording them accurately, and leaving a trail that could be followed later. They always understand what the experiment COULD mean in this outcome or that one but they play no favorites, knowing that to do so IS NOT SCIENCE. Therefore there is a core of disciplined virtue within every well conducted experiment. Every honest recording of a disappointing outcome is a public service, promoting the health and strength of the community. There’s no big reward for that, it’s just doing the job as it must be done. How many jobs utterly depend upon carefully documenting and sharing the truth? 

Not to say there are no fakers or fudgers or corner cutters or truth stretchers, but these traits play against the general temperament of those drawn into science and tend to cause high profile problems in later related research with a trail that leads back to the faker. If there’s a bigger problem, it’s rushing toward publication with patchy hurried results.

If a scientist is said to be a genius, it means she is on the most intimate possible terms with her subject. Real passion often drives the best researchers and their warm familiarity with the critical details is what allows them access into the deeper secrets of their subject. This intimacy is earned with devoted time and attention. Science would be totally sexy if it wasn’t about bacteria and stuff.

But this intimacy comes with the achievement of  proximity and proximity depends on having cleared away all the uncertain variables that could render the experiment meaningless. As a scientist you can’t even really ask the question you may want to ask until you have carved away the quarter mile of quartz in front of it. You can’t apply science to any problem that isn’t measurable and testable. The foundation of hard won knowledge has to catch up with every single subject before it can embraced. Otherwise it’s like you are holding an amazing  power tool but you lack a solid surface to press it into. You might feel cool and important standing there with that thing in your hand but if it doesn’t connect… it’s NOTHING. Hard science happens in this zone, where experiments can yield unambiguous results.  If the credibility of science is used to testify in any case where it is not in this zone, it isn’t really legitimate. For example, if a top level scientist from any discipline lectures on life after death they are displaying a shocking disconnect from their own model of correct practices, there is no reason to value the views of a scientist on this subject any more highly than a call center employee or a caterer (or some other person whose job begins with C). If extrapolating beyond the data is the opposite of your job, how do you not notice when you start doing it? The corollary is that science DOES deserve objective respect where it has done its job.

Soft Science

There are many disciplines where trying to apply the scientific method or at least its core of practical, sensible precepts is admirable, healthy and appropriate. In the law, psychology, sociology, etc. But in these fields it always lacks some crucial solid ground to render an unambiguous result. Evidence is gathered with some standards from the scientific model in place, but the results can never be unequivocal because the power tool is pressing into a foundation material that is not fully understood. I wish we had a better way of measuring and ranking how meaningful the results of research in these “softer” fields even CAN be. It isn’t that they shouldn’t try, it’s that the value of this research should automatically understood as qualitatively different than hard science.
A psychologist friend once said “All sociologists do is count things and publish what they counted as if the meaning was self evident.” Many psychological and sociological studies gather results which may be valuable when cross-indexed against some contrasting information someday, but are published with an implicit sort of “ If you know what I mean…” that might mean a number of different things in different hands or might end up not meaning anything at all. When tempted to cite a pop culture psychology study as evidence keep in mind that they have a reproducibility rate of about 36%.

When studying human behavior we are always looking at the results against a background of uncertainties and disagreements. The results may be significant and even helpful but they can’t be placed in a well understood and agreed upon theory. If the results were a toy left on the floor, we wouldn’t all agree where to put it away. Yet the results of “soft” studies are often the stuff of headlines in newspapers, whereas hard science doesn’t get quite nearly as much PR for its more solid and stolid answers. The soft study headlines are more sexy because they seem to promise exciting changes and big breakthroughs. Do you notice that there is almost never a follow up on these later? Meanwhile hard science is grinding away directly at the point of contact with the unknown. It’s not surprising that exciting news is less common from there.
Remember when talking to Psychologists and Psychiatrists that they once would have told you as their expert opinion that morning sickness comes from rage at the father, that “refrigerator mothers” cause autism and that homosexuality is an illness. When a soft science expert is wrong they are still generally sure, because you know, it’s science!

“Sciencey”: The Culture of Science

In my work, Culture is a sort of “skin of self” automatically woven by people invested in the same locality or meme. It doesn’t follow rational rules, but more general tribal rules about consensus, belonging and rank. You don’t really get a choice about whether to interact with it if you are in the community. 

Science culture in large part is descended from and deeply colored by scientific reductionism, a line of reasoning that the most accurate view of anything is to see it as nothing more than the sum of its parts. It began with Descartes describing the cries of animals being vivisected as the sounds of a broken machine winding down. It took root at the introduction of Darwinism as a defense against the thin wedge of proto-creationism which had players on the field even as natural selection was introduced. The theory of natural selection is founded on the notion of random mutations as the force driving evolution. Many scientists even at the time didn’t find this satisfactory. Darwin himself had doubts. But religion was pushing back hard against the evolutionary model and scientists were pushed into an uncharacteristic expression of certainty and uniformity in order to hold the line. Randomness became dogma because scientists held the line.
But one subtext of reductionism is either turning away from complex systems because they are overwhelming, or worse, arrogantly declaring victory over the larger questions because you broke something down to its smallest units. “OK. It’s dead, these are the pieces. I guess we’re done here.” In one stroke, you could say “it only appears to be complex, it’s really just made of carbon. I’ve done my job and now we know pretty much everything and by the way there is no deeper meaning anywhere. Stop asking.” In some ways it’s the scientist redefining the question as one she is currently able to answer and suggesting that that it the correct question to ask.
Reductionism became the “scientifically correct” position and all who desired credibility (and employment) within the culture had best support it. All cultures have a “Seek Purity” wing divided between true believers and ambitious careerists who see political power and advancement in standing closer to cultural purity. The intended message of this cultural meme was fearless, unblinking, unsentimental realism, and as the subtext: Credibility. But it soon meant that any other viewpoint was dismissed as “fuzzy thinking”. This lead to soft sciences like psychiatry, psychology and sociology adopting a tough and cold model to their research and theorizing because it was “Sciency”. Why else? BF Skinner reduced all human behavior to stimulus/response and was taken seriously. Artists and intelligentsia in the non-science culture at large embraced the model and expressed it from “The Rite of Spring”, to abstract expressionism. All this stretched across the bloody 20th Century.
Somewhere in here, the cultural voice of science became a uniform downer, disseminating the messages “Simply, only, merely, just.” and “Random, meaningless, isolated, alone.” The primary message being that the truth is learned from the dead, broken apart powerless bits of complex systems rather than the ACTUAL FUCKING COMPLEXITY. The problem is that when people think you know everything you feel like a bit of an ass saying: “Sorry, I really don’t know, we don’t have experiments that can learn those sorts of answers right now.” Especially because you are mainly concerned with what your peers at the top of the science food chain will think about your apparent fuzzy, sentimental thinking. The appropriate attitude for scientists speaking on any subjects they don’t have hard evidence for or against, should be genial open mindedness. The right attitude is: ASSUME nothing, not assume NOTHING.
Stop speculating beyond the damn data and that includes speculating BENEATH it. Don’t put words in nature’s mouth. You are the natural guardians of this damn rule you’ve devoted your life to , and you violate it every time you open your mouths about life and death and origins and meanings. Stand up for this principle and show people what science is really all about: “I don’t know yet, I’m trying to find out, and I’m being as simple and practical as I can be in order to get it right.”

Beyond “Sciency Culture”: Back to good old Science

Modern science has many points of contact with living systems so elegant and unexpected that it leaves a person with nothing but metaphors about communication and intelligence. It’s completely understandable that in the early days of a battle for survival, science would bet the house on nothingness over the same old stupid, stupid something. But it’s time to grow, in honest recognition of the sophisticated, subtle picture being drawn by modern research. I don’t want anyone to speculate beyond the facts in this direction either, but please, give the finger to those old owls giving you disapproving looks for reporting truthfully about systems that are in reality way smarter and better connected than fucking Darwin said they were.
The process leading to life on earth and the ever increasing complexity of that life is maybe the most interesting thing in the entire universe. If the earth is the only place where this is happening, then a sort of Terran-centrism isn’t misplaced or self important, it’s reality based. If the earth is one of dozens or millions of worlds where life is percolating then it is still literally of cosmic importance but instead of being the whole self contained story, it is part of a recognizable universal pattern.
I actually do “fucking love science” but as amazingly far as science has come, there are super important things in the world that science has no means as yet to measure and map. All of these things are therefore unscientific by definition. You are not hindering science by wondering about them. To limit our speculation to things that are scientifically proven is a kind of self imposed censorship and an autistic filter over your mind that is at odds with the real purpose of science. Science exists to establish the testable truths about the things it can test, not to impose low ceilings over things that it cannot.