Last week, another article appeared about someone’s wonderful idea to remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make it into gasoline. If I remember correctly, the scheme would also supply electrical power. That got me thinking I should write a post, but the announce of the agreement with Iran intervened.

On Saturday, another tweet hit me: a rather prominent intellectual had just learned about giant gas planets. It was a tweet of discovery, hey this is cool and I didn’t know it before, which was much better than the ignorance of that earlier article. It reminded me of the post I wanted to write, and since I was on Twitter at the time, I decided to query the hive mind.

I hoped to reach people outside of science, and it was retweeted quite a few times, but I think that most of the responses are from people inside science: scientists, students, teachers, and science communicators and hobbyists. I’ll guess that a quarter of the responses are from non-scientists. So they skew toward “this is what we think you should know”. I’ve collected the relevant responses in a storify, arranged roughly according to how I’m writing about them in this post and the next.

There’s always a problem with “this is what we think you should know,” namely that it pisses the group known as “you” off. Why should we know that? Why should we care? And then there are two “we”s, just as back in the days of C. P. Snow’s two cultures*. I don’t know how to get past that, so I’m making it explicit. By the rules of science and by the rules of the humanities, those questions are fair enough. I’ll partially duck them by saying that science provides a generic logic that can be applied in many places. Plus some facts you really need to know. Some of those facts are obvious, like gravity. Some others aren’t but come into your daily life, more and more as we worry about things like global warming. And a great many of us have gotten a lot of pleasure and fun out of the logic and the facts, just as there is pleasure and fun in reading T. S. Eliot or playing Bach on the piano.

The responses that were identifiably from people who were not scientists, science teachers, or science journalists were not too different. So maybe we could eventually all agree on the useful and aesthetic parts of science.

The most frequent response was that science is a process, not a collection of facts. This was expressed surprisingly vehemently at times:

I think this responds to a way of understanding science as primarily a collection of facts. Emphasizing the process is a good corrective. I would claim the facts as very much a part of science, and a part I get a great deal of pleasure from.

The process is how we get to the facts, but it also comes from the facts. It’s a very constructed logic, the same logic that historians or readers of literature use in analyzing the material they study*. Scientists have perhaps made it more explicit than those in the humanities. So we have the scientific method, which was mentioned in the responses along with terminology like theory and hypothesis. Like the facts, those words can be taught as a list to memorize. It seems to me that someone could learn the steps of the scientific method as they are often given and the proper meanings of the words and still not understand, not have a feeling for, how science is done and how essential the process is. A couple of helpful tweets:

Here are three things I think are important about science and that will help to organize the responses: Everything is subject to criticism. There are always a number of things happening, although you can simplify for the sake of argument. There are such things as basic facts. These points showed up many times in the responses.

Science is ultimately about the physical world. Some disciplines are inherently more mathematical than others, but they derive from studying the physical world. String theory is criticized for its distance from the physical world. I went into chemistry rather than physics or astronomy because of its physicality. I would argue that literature, art, history, even philosophy also trace back to the physical world.

Criticism, questioning, trying alternative hypotheses are all essential to science. If an idea can’t stand up to scientific review, you have to give it up. Every idea I have about how things work is provisional, along a spectrum of provisionality. Gravity is a fact. We deal with it every day. It is possible that the way it is described by science will change; that has happened in the past, and the fact that gravity has not yet been made to fit with quantum mechanics suggests that it will in the future. But its existence is not in question. You can’t manufacture mass or energy from nothing. Evolution, the half-lives of radioactive substances, the basics of photosynthesis, and many other things take up little of my mental space thinking about their provisionality.

Details of global warming, like the role of clouds, are more provisional while the fact of warming and its anthropological origins are firmer.

Those are the basics, it seems to me. They help to distinguish science from pseudoscience, as several people mentioned. It is possible to put a façade of scientific method on nonsense, but pseudoscience fails in one or more of those requirements. A number of other responses are worth mentioning.

Science uses some words differently than they are used in everyday language. Theory is one, but physics in particular has force, acceleration, and others. Consensus irritated one respondent, who didn’t understand that science uses it differently.

Our preferences and cultural context affect how we see things and the kind of science we do. A number of respondents made this point in different ways, and a small argument broke out, of which you can see a few tweets in the storify. Ideally, the methods of science result in findings that do not depend on the cultural context of attitudes about gender and race, where the funding comes from, and so on. But we know that context has overridden or contaminated the methods in many cases. Studies have “proved” the existence of human races and the superiority of some; drugs have been tested on male animals and humans only; the Tuskegee study; Lysenko’s Soviet genetics; the recent support for torture by the American Psychological Association, and many others.

Some would claim that all of science is culturally determined, others that by following its methods, it can be free of those influences. This differs from one field to another; a chemistry or physics study is less likely to be influenced by culture than a sociological study. What is studied is influenced by the preferences and structure of funding agencies.

That doesn’t mean that all of science is purely a cultural construct and therefore we can believe anything we want, which some have concluded. It is one more set of questions that can be added to the fundamental necessity of criticism.

This brings us to a point made by two respondents: a single wrong study doesn’t necessarily discredit others, or all of science. Does that incorrect study form a basis for others? How much of them must be rethought? Since science is a method, it can’t be discredited by a single bad study or even a run of themwithout weighing its successes.

The publication process is a formalized part of the criticism and was mentioned by respondents. I think this starts to get further down in the weeds than most people need to understand, but the popularity of basing newspaper articles on single studies suggests that some acquaintance with it would be helpful. And yes,

Claims of breakthroughs should be questioned. They get reporters’ attention, which is why they appear in press releases. They’re hardly ever true, or, if they are, they apply only to a very small part of science.

Finally for this post, three encouragements:

Also, a number of thoughts here that are similar to what I’ve said above.



* While I was writing this post, I came across an article by David Bromwich about online courses. His position is that face to face teaching and learning is superior. In that article, he writes

This discipline can’t be called a science as a natural scientist would understand the term. It is not progressive. It has few formulas worth memorizing. It doesn’t show its glory in “research programs,” airtight systems of classification, or pathbreaking discoveries that refute a previous century’s scientific orthodoxy. Yet the discipline does have perceptible boundaries and teachable methods of confirmation or falsification, based in large part on the relationship of evidence to assertion, and on the common sense and insight of qualified judges.

The characteristics that Bromwich attributes to “science as a natural scientist would understand the term” are not mentioned by any of my Twitter respondents. I would question whether any of the characteristics Bromwich attributes to that science are necessary to science as I understand it. His description of his preferred discipline sounds much more like science, although it gets a bit mushy toward the end.

Bromwich does not put a name to his discipline, but I believe he intends the description to apply to intellectual thought, or perhaps college-level instruction. He is Sterling Professor of English at Yale. I’m betting he doesn’t talk much to his colleagues in the science departments.


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