Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"You keep using that word . . . "

And so, for the second time in just over a month, I invoke the profound wisdom of The Princess Bride to introduce a post.

Over at The Week, writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry discusses our misunderstanding and misuse of the word science.

Really, it seems, we are victims, to one degree or another, of scientism: "a naive gullibility towards science as the ultimate source of all knowledge, denying the uncertainties thereof."

It's very tempting to think of ourselves as scientific when we read and hear and see the effects or results of science, most likely through venues of pop science, without ever really doing science.

There's an astronomically huge difference between the two.

I have three science degrees, have read countless peer-reviewed journal articles, have even been part of some interesting experiments either as subject, lab assistant, or principle researcher.

But at present, I don't do science. I merely observe. And that primarily through secondary and tertiary sources.

And so I watch myself all the more closely lest I fall prey to any of the false, vain, and foolish science-in-name-only ideas currently en vogue. Science falsely so called, as the Apostle termed it.


Troy Wynn said...

I totally agree. I've heard people call math and statistics, science! They take a poll and they call it science. The word is applied to far too many technical things.

Nate said...

Good point, Troy. Math and stats are tools in a scientist's toolkit, but don't constitute science themselves.

Janice Black said...

I think people (especially the young) tend to put 'way too much trust in "science." Almost worship it, actually.

This summer I got a survey call regarding the impact of cattle ranching on wilderness land in Idaho. Three of the questions asked me to give a numerical value to how much I trust information received on the subject from ranchers, environmentalists, and scientists. When I gave a fairly low rating to trusting the information received from scientists, the poor college student giving the survey was so startled that she repeated my answer back to me in an incredulous voice to be sure she had heard me correctly.

Nate said...

One thing that is particularly pernicious in these matters is that somehow we've created a false image of scientists as dispassionate observers of natural phenomena with no personal prejudices whatsoever, only going where the data take them, as if data speak for themselves.

Well, I have to say, just as the trees needed the Lorax to speak for them, so too data need a speaker, an advocate, an interpreter, a popularizer.

I wonder if that student surveyor had considered that those three categories of rancher, environmentalist, and scientist aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

There could be, without any stretch of the imagination, a rancher-scientist, or environmentalist-rancher, or scientist-environmentalist.

Or perhaps one has a degree in animal or plant science, runs a ranch, and has strong views regarding human stewardship of the land?