Friday, March 26, 2010

Arrogant Scientist

I was recently reminded of a pet peeve of mine which I like to call the "arrogant scientist". Basically the idea is that sometimes "scientists" let their ego get so big that they think they are unequivocally right. Unfortunately this happens all too often.

You'll note that when I say "scientists" with quotes, I'm implying that they have departed from being actual scientists. To me, one of the fundamental principles of a true scientist is that he should always say, "This is the best explanation I currently have. It fits with all my data from experiments and observations. I will put this theory to practical use, but concede that later information or discovery may render this obsolete."

Under my definition, a true scientist must always be willing to entertain the idea that everything he "knows" is wrong. He must never say that any particular theory is non-negotiable. He uses the scientific method to better understand the world around him and form theories which explain the things he observes.

Now, before I get too far into this, I want to reiterate that I love science. It's awesome. I consider myself a scientist. It is extremely useful. For example, using science we've been able to harness electricity and create computers. That's awesome! And if tomorrow we discover that we've really misunderstood electricity, that's okay. We can probably still blog about it.

If that seems impossible to you, I submit that it has happened many times before and will continue to happen. For example, take gravity. Before Issac Newton, "No one understood gravity." And yet mankind still figured out how to utilize arcing projectiles (like an arrow), water mills worked just fine, and things mostly stayed on the ground. Newton helped us learn more and we could use mathematical equations to accurately predict how things would fall due to gravity. But that wasn't the end. Some Einstein came along and gave us Special and General Relativity.

So science is good and useful. But science cannot necessarily prove anything to be an absolute truth. Science can only be used to prove things within the bounds of our current understanding and human limitations. Once we start extrapolating then we can't prove it to be true.

For example, I hate hearing people dismissively say that we know the earth is (roughly) 6 billion years old. No! We don't know it. We weren't there, we don't have a time machine to verify it. We think the earth is 6 billion years old because that age fits our current understanding of radiometric dating. I'm okay with people saying we know it, just not that we know it as an absolute truth. The problem comes in how they say it (just as any type of arrogance comes from an attitue, even if the person is correct). [Edit: paragraph updated.]

Suppose that in 50 years we find out new information about radiometric dating? Maybe half-lives aren't fixed. What if there is a hidden variable no one accounted for — perhaps it hasn't been observable for the short time we've been studying it? Then suddenly the earth has a new age, possibly drastically different than we thought before.

In thinking about this topic, I stumbled across a blog post that I really liked. It really resonated with my way of thinking. But a disclaimer: I've only read that one post on the blog; I can't vouch for everything on the site.

The media and politics are places where we find a lot of arrogant scientists. They take information and extrapolate it to meet their needs. Is global warming real? Will there be another ice age? We don't know for sure. I'm not saying ignore it. I believe it is wise to continue studying it and strive to make things better. I also believe that there are a lot of arrogant scientists involved.

So please, don't be an arrogant scientist. Don't tell me that you know something based on science. Don't tell me your phlogiston theory is not negotiable. Sit yourself down to some nice, home-made humble pie. Then once your ego is in check, I'll be glad to hear all about your theories and extrapolations with the caveat that it is based on our current scientific understanding.

I don't mean to imply in this post that scientists should constantly go around saying "think" instead of "know". I don't believe we need to be constantly wasting time couching all of our statements. I don't think that most scientists are arrogant.

When a scientist says that they know something, I understand that the implicit (but usually unvoiced) caveat that it is based on our current best understanding. I have no problem with that.

The issue comes up for me when the way in which something is said or written comes off as arrogant. When people talk about science in unequivocal absolutes. When what they say implies (at least to me) that they are no longer entertaining the possibility of being completely wrong. When they dismiss people's ideas for no other reason than it doesn't fit with their viewpoint (i.e. without considering it or comparing it to established science).

I've updated the above paragraph about the earth's age to try to clarify this.