Apr 262017

On one hand, you might think that I’d approve of the recent “March for Science” because if you’ve read this blog for more than a few minutes you’ll realize I’m a fan of the scientific method. Secondly, I recognize that the world seems to be increasingly full of derp and bringing the value of science to the forefront seems like a damned good idea.

But…. nope. Couldn’t have cared less about the “March for Science.” Largely because it didn’t seem to be a “march for science,” but rather a “march for some science and for certain politics.” Now, granted, the right wing, which I suppose most people would  at least nominally lump me in with, seems to be on a particularly anti-science course. The tardtacular creationists seem to be creatures almost wholly of the right, and they’re sheer wrongness is as obvious as a suicide bomb. The current administration  (which is somehow assumed to be right wing, against all evidence) seems to have a hardon for slashing science funding. But the left has their anti-nuclear idiots and the anti-GMO scumbags… and even their pro-science advocates often seem to be more religious zealots than adherents to a methodology that starts off with “well, maybe I’m wrong here; check my math.”

Even Slate sometimes gets it:

The Problem With the March for Science

… most “pro-science” demonstrators have no idea what they were demonstrating about. Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it.

The sad fact is, most people don’t have clue one what science *is.* Most people seem to think that “science” is “technology.” But it ain’t. Science is a method. A method that, at it’s core, is simply a rational way to separate fact from bullcrap… even if the bullcrap is what the scientist doing the work desperately wants to believe to be true.

Science isn’t proclamation from on high; science is often hard damn work, with a whole lot of number crunching and statistics. But the really, really grating thing is this: science need not be that hard to explain and understand. Oh, sure, the more advanced corners of it will always be well beyond the vast majority of people… start going on about *anything* that involves tensor math and my eyes instantly glaze over and I start pondering something simple and sexy like “gee, wouldn’t it be fun to build a small ejector ramjet in my back yard, one hardly needs *any* complex math for rocketry.” But the basics of science are – or at least should be – taught to every school child. It’s really not that hard… see an issue, come up with a hypothesis, run some tests and try to prove yourself wrong. As tests produce data that conflicts with your hypothesis, either change the hypothesis to match, or ditch it entirely. Imagine if every adult got enough of a refresher course so that this sank in. People wouldn’t be able to create new antibiotics or search for gravity waves, but they might be able to do some basic science about “what’s the most cost effective way to do my laundry” or “what’s the fastest route to work” or some such. If people would apply the scientific method to everyday issues, they could not only improve their lives, they’d also come to appreciate science… at the same time they lose the cargo cult religion aspect of science worship.

It occurs to me that “science” has something in common with “firearms” here. Science and firearms are both used by some people, not used by most people; science and firearms are things that are held to be virtually magical by some people, and treated with respect by others. And in both cases, it’s the people who use and understand them that treat them with respect; it’s the people who don’t use and understand them that convert them into fetishes. It’s Hollywood and the gun grabbers who venerate firearms as magical killing machines, capable of doing things they cannot, and attributing to them motivations that firearms do not have.

 Posted by at 5:42 pm
  • Graham

    This YouTube video covers many of the issues both good and bad about the march.


  • Paul451

    I’ve never liked the cutesey “Scientific Method” that is taught to children, as depicted in that image. That’s not how actual science is done. And insisting to people that “this is science” merely resulted in people being vulnerable to manipulation by those trying to undermine a specific results they disagree with or promote things that are utterly debunked (whether it’s creationism, supernatural beliefs, alt.medicine, climate denial, or the suddenly resurgent flat-Earth thing.)

    Science is vastly more Bayesian than anything hinted at by The Scientific Method. Extraordinary results are not accepted without a lot of extra work than mundane results. The more extraordinary the result, the longer the process is meant to take. (Something the media can’t comprehend. Constantly taking single result announcements as the new Scientific Gospel. “Science Proves Faster Than Light Neutrinos!” Nope. “Single Crushed Bone Pushes Back Date Of First Humans In America By 100,000 Years!” Maybe, but probably not. Or putting small-sample single-studies above large-scale repeated studies.)

    And science is much more social than hinted at by The Scientific Method. It requires a community of people who all generally agree that reality is a thing and we’re in it. (Which sounds obvious, but is actually fairly unique in human history.) And hence when disagreements arise over the interpretations of the nature of reality, the community agrees to make a gentleman’s wager over the outcome and agree that reality itself decides the outcome. Each new round of “betting” builds on the results of the previous round, including inconclusive results.

    I bet you it’s between 20 and fifty. Well I bet you it’s over 100. Loser becomes more likely to accept the winner’s theory? Done!

    Failure to “pay the wager” harms your reputation, especially over time as your beliefs drift further and further from reality. Think Fred Hoyle and steady state. Genius, contributed greatly to stellar science, but by refusing to accept the accumulating evidence for the big bang, he became increasingly worthless to the field. Even though he never stopped “using the Scientific Method”, by the schoolboy definition, he was no longer “doing science”, as she is actually done.

    The culture of science (to place reality in primacy, and being surrounded by others who do the same) has occasionally left scientists poorly equipped to deal with people who don’t accept the social contract of accepting reality. When an opponent puts rhetoric above reality (winning the “argument” rather than the “bet”), scientists are often left floundering. Such as the early creationism-vs-evolution debates before scientists realised that their opponents were playing a dishonest game. Or climate denial, where some climate scientists IMO still don’t understand the political game being played against them.

    • publiusr

      Science itself hasn’t always been green. Oil and gas exploration allowed us to find chicxulub–fossils often come from mines–energy density is a big plus for kerolox rockets.

      Now if someone wanted to make the argument that Republicans aren’t the best ecologists–that’s one thing. Proxmire, Mondale–they weren’t big on NASA, and neither greens or libertarians seem to appreciate infrastructure.

      I supported embryonic stem cell research, animal testing–and support federal funding for science–so the religious right–the PETA left and anti-tax Randians all hate me. But I’d be the scientists best friend were I in office. But I’ll never get elected because of my support for the issues above.

      • Paul451

        Science itself hasn’t always been green.

        Not sure what part of my message you think this is responding to.

        • publiusr

          That wasn’t to you in particular. The Left thinks it alone speaks for science–not always the case–there is plenty of BS on all sides.

  • Rick

    great article!

  • Bibidiboop

    The problem I have with the March for Science is that it seems to be not much more than a curious spectacle. Theses marches seem to rarely, if never, lead to any political action, because no one is willing to step up, proclaim a single easy to follow change to fight for, and then take the steps to make it happen.

    Simple proclamation: “1% for NASA” (It’s just an example. Maybe instead you want schools to teach kids to fill out tax forms.)
    Platform: “We want NASA to have 1% of the Federal budget. That’s all we care about.”

    What you need to do: “Join our mailing list.” The mailing list then follows up with forms to write letters to reps, who to vote for to support the platform, and maybe a PAC to fund to fight for the change.

    The Tea Party got things right, while Occupy Wall Street fell on its face hard.