A very reasonable question was asked on Quora to which some professionals responded aggressively and maybe even pompously.
I appreciate and even identify with the question. I don’t identify regarding climate change. It is well within my field of ecology, even central to it to see first hand the dynamics of a global loss of Carbon balance between land, air, and sea due to human excesses and extreme and unnecessary disruptions to landscapes and ecosystems globally.
I identified with the question because of ethos and because there are two sides to every coin.
I’ll start by copying a shortened version of my conclusion to give it all away early:
“Finally to answer the question directly: …don’t believe. Science is not the silly religion that requires blind faith. Critique science, employ intuition and rational thinking… learn, study, research. Look for results that make sense in the bigger picture…”
Science like math is a discipline of knowledge refinement. In math you take proven methods and assess otherwise difficult variables and come up with reliable answers.
First let’s introduce a word: Delimitation.
Delimitation is when a complex system is narrowed strategically to simplify. Delimitation is critical to good science. It is making an impossible complexity into a rationally simple list of components that can be addressed with far greater certainty. It is also the talent and skill of any good scientist. Math addresses this in any “story problem” breaking it into components that can be figured with certainty systematically building one upon another till an answer can be found with certainty or ending closer to that answer than would have been possible without the use of math.
Science in this context is a tool to study life and reality in a similar way. Few will argue with the theoretical potential for benefit and for a more rational and real ability to assess our surroundings using science.
The problem that the question above addresses is undeclared or unrecognized mistakes and uncertainty and by inference arrogance in science seen in early and overly stated conclusions beyond what can truthfully or accurately be drawn. Science is more abstract than math. Science has more room for mistakes that are harder to trace down because it operates in less of a vacuum and under less constraint in a more real and less theoretical playing field than math. In 2018 it also operates on an almost infinitely complex foundation of established knowledge that is never properly known or taken into account in completeness. Both science and math address our reality and math is one of science’s greatest tools but science is a bridge from abstract mathematical thinking to understanding the complexity of life and envirnment. To be real and to be blunt, the propensity for mistakes in science is great and more so the bigger it gets. This can be helped, but not totally prevented.
The delimitation of science itself:
We have the evolution of science to both benefit from and to contend with. It is bound to get bigger and more complex with greater and greater tools and an ever increasing body of knowledge acting as a foundation to underpin and enable further studies. We must contend with this in much the same way we should our own religion or culture. We must keep it “delimited” within its areas of best use and capacity for accuracy and usefulness to society. It should not grow into a boundary-less behemoth of abstraction that prescribes or dictates our reality.
Why would science tend to broaden beyond what is appropriate? If we don’t like religion, we might fill that space with science. If we don’t like politics we might put science in its place prescribing policy and ‘strong-arming’ outcomes. If science holds the keys to legitimacy in an impossibly complicated civilization it will be pulled and stretched until no one will really knows what it is anymore. It becomes ripe for use to influence and bolster power structures or the interests of industry, powerful lobby’s, and capital. We really do need to know what science is!
Knowing what science is, we need to continually and unashamedly “delimit” the scope and realm of what we call science to counteract expansion by ambitious influences. Where and how science is used and how far we accept its expansion beyond traditional definitions is perhaps one of the more important stewardship mandates in enlightened society. We need to keep it legitimate and authentic so advancements can be relevant to the societal good and so conclusions can be drawn with reliable accuracy, We all win when science is respected by everyone for its altruistic integrity rather than eyed with suspicion for its hubris.
Science will naturally grow both in appropriate ways and be grown manipulatively in inappropriate ways as per the realities of “political science”. Keeping tabs on science in a political and rational sense is what will keep science science. Every run of the mill person knowing what science is and what it is not will help on all accounts. Blurred lines equal blurred integrity/respectability… Delimitation is all of our responsibility!
Calling reality or the subject of discovery science seems harmless. In fact, it is the entry level abstraction. It is a bad thing because it starts the process of mystification and word confusion. For example biology is not life, it is the study of life–‘bios-logia’. Life is above science; life itself is reality, while our scientific data set will always be half-truth of a half discovered reality. Scientifically speaking, geology is not inanimate earth formations, it is the study of such–‘geo-logia’. The formations are above science and their story is always accurate and complete while the products of science are always a partial reading from an outside perspective. The body of discovery is not science either; it is the product, just like the answer of “5 miles” to the story problem is not math, it is the product of math.
The drawing of conclusions is also often beyond science. Science is not as apt and is, in some instances, completely out its league as the assembler of data into holistic pictures of reality. This may be shocking to some, but it is real. The humanities including the artists are often more qualified to assemble potentiality from the pieces of reality according to judgement and intuitive capacities, while logic, philosophy, and reason–also subjects of the humanities–are better at proofing the reliability or potentiality of conclusions drawn. The broader public, often discounted, is arguably the highest and most important litmus test if discussions are transparent and above board.
Statistics is a subset of math that is usually more abstract and indirect. With skilled and conscientious use, it is an incredibly important tool of science. It can also be a tool that masquerades as definitive when it can be very subjective.
Sometimes statistical presentation and analysis are arbitrary or cherry picked to suggest conclusions for a believable presentation. Is that the job of science? To convince? There is an important but fine line here. Statistics lead to enlightened understanding and better interpretations or they lead to mistaken conclusions or misleading presentation. It feeds back to the question from Quora since hubris attached to packaged conclusions can lead to an artificial perception of reality that goes on for years. The earth is flat till proven otherwise kind of thing; but it wasn’t flat! In our day we can spray pesticides “safely for years” before outlawing them as unsafe. They were never safe! Sometimes the reasons for this effect can be vested interests and strings attached to funding that are looking for results to help their cause. Other times it is religiously tenacious faith and ambition in a researcher. It can be as simple as a lack of good judgement or an ignorance of the scope of actual science.
Statistics are often worked and reworked to prove or suggest conclusions behind closed doors with the intent to present complete scenarios. This in particular makes outside unbiased critique more difficult since the data sets represented are often diverse, extensive, and of varying levels of credibility. To take a simplified historical example: If I hang a feather-less bird on muscle relaxers in front of an audience while giving a speech on human evolution directly from birds, my story can jump to a level of acceptance beyond what is naturally rational.
Statistics can, with the wrong interests, be used as a sophisticated method of misrepresentation and idea marketing with the product labeled as “science” and hidden beneath reams of data and sometimes thousands of pages of discussion. Presented ideas can become de facto reality called “best available science” until alternatives are proposed and until proven wrong. Science is only a small player in this theater and such should be clear but is not. The statistician who artfully displays the data to drive a point home is an artist not a scientist. The national geographic or religiously biased editorials with their theoretical pictorials on any subject are similarly the work of art not science. In the most basic example: We all know what atoms look like from all the pictures and diagrams, but in fact they don’t; that was the art and partial reality. Where is the clear distinction between art and science in our world?
Summary of discussion:
Following the example and path of its older brother math, the less imprecise science gets… the less it stretches beyond its strengths, the higher the standard and legitimacy will be. So; we get to the root; we suggest simplifications, but the reality is complicated. Science is sort of the conductor/orchestrator to a symphony of contributors that make up a system and methodology of discovery, verification, and critique. The best results of science are an often arbitrarily organized (though “arbitrary” is seldom declared), verification-ranked data-set with tags which contain the details of the studies of significance. Science is primarily a methodology based on delimitation and rules of controlled study. Science is not necessarily qualified in-house to reassembly the bigger picture. The studies themselves pull in the statisticians, the philosophers, etc before publishing the collage of science and art. The more complicated the pre-presentation, the less transparent the process and the more biased or impotent the public reading will be. The public reading is perhaps the greatest test. Too much pre-prep and packaging means less contribution of the true big-picture realist component… the public.
When you combine the complexity of increasingly vast mathematics with the abstraction and infinite complexity of statistics, the power of computing, and the skill that good science requires (by inference also meaning the ease of doing things wrong), you have reason for constant humility. At the same time, the power of these tools and the rallying call of our civilization demand definitive answers while feeding science a line that suggests it is or should be all knowing. We end up constantly overstating things and drawing conclusions internally that we are not qualified to draw without the inclusion and direction of other disciplines of knowledge housed in different buildings and colleges… the humanities.
OK, so science is solid theoretically and can be much more solid than it is today. It is arguably becoming a huge limitless abstract field of authoritative voices which we are often told that we are not qualified to question. It is over-extending legitimacy. The over exaggeration of certainty is made worse by the concept that the “best available science” is for all practical purposes correct. Sometimes the best available science has ‘nailed it’ and an honest assessment can say within a percentage of accuracy what a once mysterious concept really is. Other times we are still on slippery ground and the higher level researchers know it. Because of the need to prove and compete for funding pools, future grant funding, and to establish policy, the details of what is concluded and known and what is not are often blurred as they are communicated to less specialized levels of science where policy, news, and media is representing it to the larger audience.
Science is a strong player on our team for knowledge acquisition and refinement. It is not the only player and the process we often call science today may only be 10% science. If we give the term “Science” too large a theater, we will undermine it and eventually achieve a loss of legitimacy. Everything in balance and in its place creates a potential for wise civilization and an evolution of society.
Climate change is a rallying call for a situation that is obvious to anyone who raises their head above the clouds created by the conversation. Science does not create the need for action. The need for action exists because of the situation and because of our past actions. We are a civilization accelerating ourselves toward ecological catastrophe. Ecology is our media of survival. Ecology is what turns entropy on its head and creates syntropy and enables prosperity. We are destroying a once robust system of balance on a planet that is everything to us and our offspring and all the sweet creatures we share it with. Intelligence and open eyes is all that is needed to motivate action and change. Science can help us see how best to make these changes and how to play our best cards to improve the prosperity of the future in line with the tandem prosperity of the whole on which we depend. In short, a better science means a better future for us and everyone else.
Finally to answer the Quoraquestion directly:
Some things have been well established by science with certainty of which even the higher levels of the specific fields understand and confirm with those who function to bridge between fields. Some are not solid by any stretch. Communicating this honestly in a corrupt civilization is difficult and trusting what is communicated is similarly. Therefor, don’t believe. Science is not the silly religion that requires blind faith. Critique science, employ intuition and rational thinking… learn, study, research. Look for results that make sense in the bigger picture. It is up to keep our eyes open and our minds working and together to keep science in its best capacity… to keep it altruistic, progressive, and reliable.
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