“Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” ~Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
When I watched this hilarious bit by John Oliver, it reminded me of a problem I’ve noted in the proper use of the English language in media.
Does the word “scientific” mean authoritative? Is “science” an unassailable edifice of knowledge? Are “scientists” the monks of our religion of secularism? Are white lab coats a cuirass against our blunt wooden spears of “common sense”?
You have probably heard the old wive’s tale “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” You probably have not ever tested it, or you’d find it to be false. While this diminishes the rigor with which modern science is (or at least should be) practiced, it contains the essence of what science is all about. Galileo was effectively the vinegar of the Inquisition’s honey.
Science is, by definition, an act of revolution, a challenge to accepted norms. Many headlines claim that some experiment or other has “revealed [a subject] to be more complicated than scientists first assumed.” While this passive-aggressive headline intends to rebuke the discoverers for their hubris, it is in fact a tautology. Science is always discovering new things because that’s what science is. The “assumptions” the headline wants us to believe scientists have always clung to with religious fervor is what experimenters actually call the “null hypothesis.” This is one of my favorite terms. Not only does it imply that what we know today is merely the zero-th iteration of what shall prove to be an ascending ladder of more nuanced understanding. It also implies that what we know today is null, zilch, nada, ethereal, that we exist in a state like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle, with new pieces always being added, and existing pieces always being rearranged. This is not fatalistic as long as our methods are always ensuring the puzzle is progressing toward completeness.
I highly recommend the above books on science, all written for the layman. In Richard Dawkins’s first book, The Selfish Gene, he laments that all scholarly papers aren’t written in “plain English.” Richard Feynmann famously said that if he couldn’t distill a complex physics subject into a freshman lecture then it meant we didn’t really understand it. These books are a great way to learn about and feel empowered by astronomy, quantum physics, and evolution, because they do what no academic paper or textbook can do: they bring out the magic in their subject without talking down to the reader. Dawkins, in his remarkably thin book, sweeps through the hundred-plus years of developments in evolutionary theory since Darwin. (Remember, Darwin lived and died before the discovery of genes and DNA.) Guy Murchie takes you on a tour of the Solar System in a book of mind-boggling clarity and childlike magic. Deutsch will challenge you with a new vision of the universe that is at once counterintuitively repulsive and simultaneously tautologically self-obvious.
From Deutsch’s book, I learned of Karl Popper. In Popper’s time, science took on an air of empiricalism, the idea that there was one right set of ideas and we were all hopelessly toiling toward it, with finer and finer approximations to it, like Zeno’s arrow. While not overtly wrong, this dangerous worldview allowed people to think that once a truth was discovered, it became a stone in the unalterable edifice of absolute truth, to be built upon but never again questioned. This still seems to be the intuition of most laypeople when it comes to science. Either a theory (like gravity) is established fact, or a theory (like evolution) is just a theory, a 50/50 shot in the dark, hardly better than a guess. Popper reasoned that all discovered truths were like animals in the jungle. They evolved over time, they could be challenged by rivals big or small, and their truth was ultimately defined by their survival of trials. The proper response to a “scientific discovery” is to doubt, to set out to find flaws in the discoverer’s method, to attempt to replicate their data and thought process, to find a wrinkle in their otherwise smooth theory. In this way we reinforce, overturn, understand, challenge, and fall in love with the world we live in.
No statement about the physical world can be “proven” to be “true.” It is true only insofar as it makes itself easily vulnerable to disproof and successfully weathers these attempts. Earlier, I wrote about the morals science teach us. The most important takeaway comes from a quote by Claude Bernard: “True science teaches us to doubt and to abstain from ignorance.” It is just as ignorant to accept with blind faith the proclamations of experts as to ignore them.
Science is the systematized challenge of authority.
Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.
Doubt is the ultimate weapon against ignorance.