Blargh Blog

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A Precarious Pinnacle: The Scientific Method

Sometimes people don't explore the slopes, perhaps because they seem too complicated or treacherous to risk venturing out. They might be slippery! But staying at the tippity-top, in the clouds, ignorant of the messy details below, could leave you in a particularly precarious position once you get a glimpse of the imperfect and potentially unstable ground beneath your feet. As I wrote before,
To avoid slipping down, though, people often try to remain firmly planted on the apparently flat, and thus safe, ground at the top of the slope. Often far more unstable than it appears, this ground may erode and crumble beneath your feet, sending you tumbling towards the bottom with little chance to grab a handhold on the intervening slope.
Richard Chappell helped name the phenomenon, and now he has brought up a much better case than my original example of tax rates. He quotes an article by Phil Mole, Nurturing Suspicion: what college students learn about science*, which suggests that science is a bit like laws and sausages:
What happens when students never learn about the historical development of science--when they never comprehend the significance of the scientific method? They leave their science classes with a highly idealized, intellectually impoverished view of science that is highly vulnerable to attack. When they encounter modern cultural criticisms of science in "science and society" classes, they have no larger perspective to balance against these claims. They never learned that great scientists have often been fantastically wrong and never learned about the role of bias in developing scientific theories. As a result, any evidence that scientists do have bias, or that they sometimes make mistakes, causes them to question the validity of the entire scientific enterprise. In Christopher Hitchens's memorable phrase, "utopia becomes the subconscious enabler of cynicism." If students initially learned anything about the complex social history of science, they would have some intellectual armor against the ideologically charged claims of modern science critics.
Even if the scientific process isn't always pretty, it works rather well. You just have to get down and dirty and familiarize yourself with some of the messy workings of the process in order to be inoculated against efforts to turn any instability into an avalanche. (Pardon my metaphor soup.)

*Link didn't work before but now it seems to (Updated 12/3)
Related Posts:
Introducing the idea of the precarious pinnacle
2. Statistical innumeracy in the press corps
3. Truth and lies: Logic puzzles vs. actual people


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