What Should an Educated Person Know of Science?
Cheryl Rofer asked a thought-provoking question on Twitter today:
Okay, Twitter: What should an educated person know of science? I know my followers are going to skew sciency, so I'd appreciate if you'd RT.— Cheryl Rofer (@cherylrofer) July 25, 2015
While she’s already gotten a ton of good answers, I couldn’t really manage anything I thought was interesting in 140 characters. Among other things, I kept thinking of different answers, and I didn’t want to bombard her with dozens of tweets. :)
But it is a fascinating question, and I wanted to record some of the answers that popped into my head. This seems as good a place as any.
Science is a process for answering questions. In general, it consists of carefully studying something you don’t understand, like an object or a process or a living thing; making guesses about the answers to your questions (such a guess is usually called a “hypothesis”); and then trying to figure out if your guess is correct, either by making more observations, or by carrying out some kind of test or experiment which is designed to tell you if your guess was wrong.
Science is really hard to do well. Most of the time, when you start studying something, it turns out to be hugely more complicated than you thought it was. When you start trying to test your guesses about how the world works, you’ll often find there are lots of complicating details which make it hard to do a good test.
Scientists are people! Most of the time they are extremely careful, and they try to eliminate sources of error or bias in their work. But this is also very difficult to do, so the science they produce is usually not perfect or completely correct.
Science is the best method we’ve found so far for building reliable knowledge about the world. Despite how hard it is and how easy it is to make mistakes. It can take a very long time to find and fix our misconceptions, but over time our society seems to make good progress on this.
The world acts differently at different scales. For example: many of the same general processes are involved in global climate, local weather, and how the air inside your house circulates. But the results are very different. Depending on what you’re studying, this might affect how well your small-scale experiment explains something much larger.
Math provides a very effective way to speak precisely about scientific observations or predictions. This works very well for some sciences like physics, chemistry, or computer science; it works less well for others, such as anthropology or sociology. Just because something is not expressed in terms of math or numbers, does not mean it isn’t science.
When you see a news report about science, remember that the journalist is trying to tell a good story that they think will make sense to their audience. The scientist, speaking to other scientists, is likely to tell a much more limited story with a lot more doubt in it. That doesn’t mean the story is wrong! But it does mean that the answers may not be as certain as it appears in the story.
One of the tricks to understanding science is to know that the answers are always in doubt, but that some answers are more certain than others. Doubt is not a binary choice, where you think you know the answer or you don’t; it’s a sliding scale where you have a lot of evidence for some answers, but less evidence or conflicting evidence for others.
The rest of the answers I thought of were either due to current events (i.e. “global warming is real”), restatements of grade school science (“the Earth orbits around the Sun”), or things like “people should understand the laws of thermodynamics”. I’ll spare you a list of answers of that type, as in the best case they are boring, and in the worst case they just reveal my own biases about what I think is important in terms of science trivia. :)