I don’t think it’s a secret around these parts that I love science, but it occurs to me that I’ve never told you why. I don’t really have that much formal science education; my high school biology and chemistry teachers were terrible and AP physics sometimes baffled me. I was the only person in my immediate family not to major in geology or math. But I still absolutely love science. Here are just a few of the reasons why.
Science looks for answers and ways to explain the world. Literature finds wondrous ways to describe our world, history tells us what has happened to shape our world, and philosophy tries to define how we interact with it and each other, but it’s science that looks for the most specific, testable answers. Sometimes the search for answers raises more questions that no one had previously dreamed of asking. There are always new discoveries; new things to learn about. Who a century ago would have dreamed that we’d have walked on the moon, launched telescopes into orbit, found planets orbiting other suns, and gazed at distant galaxies?
Science admits it doesn’t know everything. Because of course there would be nothing left to study if scientists thought they had all the answers. Knowing that there are things we still don’t understand gives us a reason to keep learning and exploring. It can be frustrating when anti-science-minded people use this to pretend scientists know nothing. But all things being equal, I much prefer people who know their limits than people who hold their beliefs in absolute certainty, regardless of how correct those beliefs are.
Good science doesn’t have biases. It merely looks for answers, and accepts what the data says. Science is sometimes accused of being cold and unfeeling, but the truth isn’t always pretty and we have to learn to adapt ourselves to some fairly harsh realities sometimes. I would love to be able to believe that humans have only had a positive impact on our world, but the data tells us otherwise. Climate scientists are frequently accused of pushing an agenda and only telling us bad news. I’m sure they would love to be proven wrong about our contributions to global warming (and sometimes we do get good news on that front) but they have to look at the available information and see what it can tell us. Results have to be replicated to become widely accepted as scientific fact, hopefully ensuring that no one scientist’s biases or mistakes can rewrite what we all believe. In practice, of course, wildly inaccurate information sometimes does capture the imagination of the public (cough, the bullshit vaccine-autism link, cough), but the scientific community tries to only stand behind what can be proven, whether they like it or not.
Science admits when it’s wrong (even though it can be recalcitrant). Scientific knowledge is constantly growing and evolving. Centuries ago the most brilliant scientific minds knew that the earth was flat and that it was the center of our universe, with the sun and all other planets orbiting around us. Later we came to realize that the earth is round and is merely the third planet in a heliocentric solar system, but it was believed that our planet was a perfect sphere and that our orbit was a perfect circle with the sun at the exact center. We know now all of this to be false; the earth is actually an oblate spheroid (flatter at the poles and wider at the equator) and travels in an ellipse with the sun at one focus. It took years, sometimes centuries, for enough evidence to be gathered for these beliefs to be accepted widely, and some early proponents were put to death for their heretical beliefs, but the truth won out. Hell, when my parents were studying geology in college in the early 1970s plate tectonics was a brand new theory that barely warranted a couple paragraphs in their textbooks, whereas I learned about it in elementary school. Who knows what will be the next one of our truths to be overturned? There have been reports from the Large Hadron Collider that neutrinos may have been measured moving faster than the speed of light, a barrier that was thought to be impossible to cross. The measurements have been captured twice at this location, but have yet to be replicated elsewhere. If true, it’ll overturn countless theories, even Einstein’s theory of relativity. What happens if E â‰ MC²? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.