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Science Isn't Science If It Won't Take Questions

Science isn't a set of answers. It's a way of approaching a problem.

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The news is just now filled with “science” that some use as sword and shield to reject or ridicule your reasonable doubt. That’s a mistake. In fact, those who say science “settles” this or that are the ones you shouldn’t listen to at all.

I write for a living, but I was trained as a physicist. Most people don’t quite know what physics is, but it’s actually easy to describe: it’s the study of how things work in the physical world. I like to think of it another way: it’s the science of predicting the future.

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If I throw a ball, I might want to know the shape it will cut through the air, or how far it will go. If I build an engine, I might want to know how much power it will produce if I change the gasoline or use a different oil. That is, physics involves creating a model of how something works, and identifying the variables that go into it.

Some models are exact, like that business about throwing something. Other models are only good approximations and, sometimes, not even that. We have a pretty good model for predicting the weather. It’s not exact, but it’s close. We have a pretty good model for predicting the outcome of elections, though sometimes we get those wrong, too. Put in bad data, you get a bad prediction – garbage in, garbage out. And if you have a bad model, it doesn’t matter how good the data are. 

Which brings me to my point. Many educated people just now are invoking the word “science” to tell you what’s going to happen next. But all they’re doing is predicting the future with a model and data.

Their model may be right. Their data, too. But it won’t be exactly right. In fact, it could be completely wrong. Why? The world is a complicated place filled with details that change too fast to pin down, and situations we have not seen often enough to model well. We have to leave room for what we might have missed, or don’t yet understand. Applying a little common sense helps, too, along with a healthy respect for human nature – and human ingenuity.

Listen to scientists, absolutely. But when you hear someone declare something is true because science tells us “with absolute certainty,” be careful. Even consensus among scientists doesn’t protect you. Until the 19th century, the consensus among scientists was that we all walked through the world in a cloud of an invisible substance they called ether. Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist in history, believed in ether. Einstein considered the possibility of ether, too. They were wrong. But the consensus among scientists for literally thousands of years had been that they were right.

Scientists know a lot, but they don’t know everything. Nor do the CEOs, politicians, and pundits who invoke them. 


Science is abused when it's marched out to shut down your questioning.

Science is abused when it is marched out as a bludgeon to shut down your questioning. Science without skepticism isn’t science at all. It’s faith, and the weakest kind: a faith that fears being challenged.

Science is always improving, which means it might be wrong today. That should give us hope in a time when some seem to delight in the drama of doom and gloom. How ironic that our greatest encouragement can come not from the certainty but the un-certainty of science. 

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Topic Organization Date Location
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A Trade Association April 14 Washington, DC
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