I am happy to be giving opening words today when Liz Zelman is giving a science-based talk. Recently Liz and I realized we have roughly similar career backgrounds in that both of us earned PhD’s in the early 1970’s, were lucky at that time to find teaching jobs in small liberal arts colleges, and left to other employment after a few years. In retirement, both of us returned to academia although Liz has been more serious about it — even writing a book.
One of my interests is “How do we know stuff?” As very small children, we learn what it means to touch a hot stove. In school, we learn how to live in our society. But how do we know what to believe about the more serious questions? How do we know what is true and what is just opinion?
Science seems to me to be the best model for determining what is true. There is a well-established process, known as the scientific method, for deciding what to accept as true. It is not perfect and its application varies from situation to situation, but it is the best way we have of building understanding of how the world works.
According to Wikipedia, the chief characteristic which distinguishes a scientific method of inquiry from other methods of acquiring knowledge is that scientists seek to let reality speak for itself, supporting a theory when a theory’s predictions are confirmed and challenging a theory when its predictions prove false. A theory is just a story that takes all known data into account — no cherry picking of data to compose a theory explaining what you want to be true.
In my area of study, Mathematics, we start with postulates that we assume are true and deductively prove theorems that follow from postulates or theorems that have been proved earlier. But we cannot claim that mathematical conclusions are actually true in the physical world unless they can be established by experiment. Relativity, the existence of Neptune, and string theory are examples of things that were deduced mathematically but cannot be accepted until real world verification is made. Of these only string theory remains to be established by real world experiment.
I’m expecting that what Liz has to say to us today has been established by archaeological finds leading archaeologists to build a story that encompasses all that is known about these subjects. Other scientists may come up with alternate theories to fit the same observations and present contrary arguments, based on the same information, to explain alternate theories. This give and take is also part of the process of establishing a better theory. This is how it should be.
We are all frustrated these days by the lack of acceptance of science. Part of that is ignorance on the part of the general public. People do not understand how what we consider known science can change. What happens is that, as additional verified data become known, the theories explaining what we know sometimes have to change. Sometimes they become more complex; sometimes they become simpler sometimes they are greatly revised.
Evolution and climate change are two theories that are subject to popular rejection, usually by those who are unwilling to try to understand them — they are inconvenient truths which contradict religious beliefs or other things people want to believe are true.
One of the central tenets of the scientific method is that all known data must be considered when deciding what to believe. Getting people to accept established science is something we may never fully be able to accomplish, but it is a goal.
One thing we can do for ourselves, using the scientific method as an example, is to try to direct our beliefs toward what the facts tell us rather than what we want to believe. Consider all of the facts, not just those that support what we already believe. This is especially the case in this political year when all of us are much more inclined to believe what the candidates we support say, and discount what the ones we do not support say. Polls show that, in so many cases, how we react to a bit of news depends on our political affiliation.
Let us resolve to be both rational and objective in deciding what to believe.