8/52: Science as a belief system.

Feb 26, 2017

Disclaimer
Before I get on with the post, I have to make known that I think the scientific process is one of the most valuable tools we have as humanity, and that I am (obviously) not anti-science, nor am I anti-vaccination or anti-climate change. The following is simply a thought exercise that aims to examine my own belief system, as well as an attempt to draw some insight in the way we maintain knowledge about the world. Given the current political climate, it may be untimely to write something that presents itself as anything other than throwing my full weight behind science. But that is precisely what I'm doing: improving the way we think about, and communicate to others, the truth about how science works.


First, I think it's useful to distinguish the two meanings we invoke when we say "science". First and foremost, science is a method (or process) that iteratively attempts to converge on fundamental and useful descriptions of the world we live in, be it in physics, biology, or economics. It's making assumptions, gathering evidence, and re-examining the assumptions if anything surprising is observed. On the other hand, "science" also describes the body of knowledge gathered thus far via the scientific process, sometimes known as scientific truths or facts. This is a body of knowledge that has allowed us to make tremendous modern advances via engineering and medicine - applied sciences. By analogy, the former science is the method by which you build a house, from foundation to rooftop, and the latter is simply the house that was created in the process. The process itself is not attached to the resulting product, ideally at least. In fact, the fundamental principle of the scientific process, in a way, tries to rip down the house as it is being built, with the hopes of building another one with much studier foundations. The distinction between the two took me many years and many contentious conversations with friendly people to figure out, but I think I've finally converged on how to express what I think the problem is properly.

Science, as a body of knowledge, needs to be communicated. Consider how most of us acquire scientific knowledge about the world nowadays: we have science classes in high school, and if you were so inclined, you could take science courses in university or college as well. What about in areas outside of your concentration, and after you graduate? Unless you pursue a graduate degree in science itself, it is most likely that your formal science education ends there, and anything you learn moving forward comes from secondary sources, such as magazines, news/internet articles, or even word of mouth. After all, I don't think many of us gather our beliefs from primary research articles, nor should we be required to in order to "learn" or "understand" something. Nevertheless, many of us have learnt to build a belief system on the foundations of scientific facts - not the process itself, but the knowledge acquired. Common examples: the Earth is round and revolves around the Sun, gravity is an universal force, medicine works better than prayers.

Now, it might seem inconceivable, but we could replace that foundation with any other body of knowledge, be it folk wisdom, anecdotal stories, or religious teachings. In fact, I am under the impression that, as a body of knowledge, facts about God and religion-guided moral codes were transmitted in very similar ways prior to the last few decades, and it has only been recently that scientific facts have replaced religious facts as the common belief system. Note that I am not drawing an equivalence between scientific facts and religious "facts". Obviously, the process in which we generate scientific facts is tied very closely to the scientific process, which is fundamentally different from how religious facts are generated. Nor am I saying that religious ideas have no place in our society - quite the contrary, when used effectively, it is an excellent tool in building our human community. What I am saying, however, is that when removed from the process, or the context, of the fact-generating mechanism itself, scientific truth is just a set of belief system that can be easily exchanged with another, and that is the way it is most commonly portrayed in popular media: facts first and only, with little to no mention of the scientific context - history and process - in which the facts are generated. A simple way to test this is to ask yourself the following: take some scientific facts in a field unfamiliar to you, by which I mean that it was not your primary major in college, and think about why you believe what you believe, and why not the contrary. Why DO you believe the Earth is round? Or that evolution is real? Or that consuming fat is bad for you? More importantly, what are the alternative hypotheses and why are those invalid?

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

I raise these issues not to cast a shadow of doubt on their scientific merit, but to simply illustrate a point, which is that I personally, and I think many of us, hold scientific beliefs in the same way I hold many other everyday beliefs: I simply accept them to be true in good faith. Of course, the crucial difference between scientific and folk wisdom beliefs is that had I ever had any doubt on the truthfulness of a scientific finding, I could have looked up the original, peer-reviewed, research report(s). Although, having the ability to do so does not equate to having done so, and one important thing to keep in mind is that even having the thought of accessing primary research articles is outside the scope of many people in this country, much less having the means and skills to do so (e.g., keyword searches, getting through paywall). 

With that setup, I am ready to state the problem: I think how we communicate the body of scientific knowledge directly contributed to the predicament we currently find ourselves in, namely, anti-science and post-truth. Science education in schools and popular media largely ignore the philosophy of science and how the process itself is a process of elimination. At best, when it is mentioned, it's casted as a fact-finding process, not a hypothesis-eliminating process. This is a subtle but very important difference: fact-finding tries to find observations to support a claim, while hypothesis-elimination tries to find observations to disprove a claim until none other is deemed satisfactory - and I must say, even scientists (myself included) get those two mixed up sometimes. Without informed opinion about how science as a process works, we do not have the context to properly and critically evaluate facts generated by it, and so, removed from the source, it is just another belief system. Naturally, then, we should face resistance from those that were not brought up with the same belief system. The key is that, an understanding of the scientific process allows you to see that this particular belief system is open to edits in an attempt to converge on the truth - often in non-linear trajectories and with significant setbacks. But without it, it just looks like whoever is making up these facts screws up a lot. The whole Andrew Wakefield vaccine debacle, for the scientific community, is an affirmation to the process itself, that we eventually will erase false knowledge through group effort. But without understanding the process, it is confirmation that scientists can't make up their minds. Are vaccines really okay or not? Are carbs healthy for you or not? Is the climate really changing if there is still some 1% of so-called "scientists" that deny it? How CAN we make those calls without understanding the social, cultural, and economical motives that drive, not only corporate scientists, but all scientists?

So we have multiple belief systems that are now judged to be equivalent, though one is methodologically more trustworthy than the rest (for a particular area of knowledge, at least). That is the problem, and what can we do about it now? Well, I don't think I'm saying anything that somebody somewhere hasn't said about science education, but it's important enough to keep repeating it: we need to focus more on the process, and not the facts. It's a lot of fun to watch a well-made YouTube video or well-written blog article talking about new scientific findings, but that cannot be the only thing. We have to educate people about the fact that this belief system that we call science is not like other belief systems, and it's founded on a rigorous set of principles that anybody can apply to generate new knowledge, not just scientists. There are professional scientists, and there are backyard/kitchen/everyday scientists. The facts are almost secondary: give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish, feed him for a life. We need to educate people on how to look at a news article, be it scientific or world events, progressive or conservative, and be able to apply for themselves the hypothesis-eliminating procedure, instead of taking the information as is. The current information technology infrastructure in the form of social media and internet as a whole makes that a really hard thing to do: after all, who has the energy to rethink every piece of "information" they receive on Twitter or Facebook or Buzzfeed or what have you? I don't know what the solution to this bigger problem is, but I think emphasizing on disseminating information about the process itself is a good start.


Addendum: this took me several weeks of hand-wringing to figure out how to convey the message properly. I'm not 100% satisfied, but it's good enough for now. Thank you to everyone that had this conversation with me, all of those helped in distilling the difference between the process and the body of knowledge that is science. I remember the first time I had this thought was maybe about 4 years ago, and I probably blurted out something to my roommates like "guys, is science really different from religion?" I hope the answer is clear from the above. I am very interested in hearing about how most of you think about this framing, since most people that read my shit are science advocates, or at least pro-science. I also wonder if anyone on the other side can relate a bit better to this framing, instead of the usual "science is good for you and that's that".