So much of our society and our culture is dishonest about what we know and what we don’t know. Often, we are not even honest with ourselves about it. In public life, especially in politics, so much energy is spent creating the illusion of confidence. So much time and effort is spent running away from the vagaries, the nuances, and caveats of the world as it is, in exchange for delusions of an absolutist world that doesn’t exist.
Good science is about confronting uncertainties head on. People are often impressed by the precision of science, but I think they are impressed by the wrong part: the precision of the answer. I am more impressed by the precision of the “error bars”. As scientists, we spend more time thinking about where our measurements and theories could go wrong than where they can go right. We spend the bulk of our time meticulously accounting for and quantifying our uncertainties. We spend a lot of time thinking about what can be know, what cannot be known, and why. This is what I mean by the Art of Uncertainty.
I’ve had a passion for science all of my life. What attracted me to the sciences was the content: the exciting and imaginative ideas, the chance to reveal the secrets of the Universe. In my adult life, as a career physicist, I have fallen back in love with science, not for it’s content but for it’s methodology. I’ve come to see scientific thinking with all of it’s flaws. It certainly isn’t perfect, and I’ve seen examples of it at its worst. But, I’ve also seen it at it’s best. I feel that the culture and tools of the scientific community are the best that mankind has achieved for objective truth-finding, the most effective system we have to cut through the nonsense that pervades so much of the rest of our world.
The development of “the scientific method” is one of the achievements -perhaps the achievement- that brought western civilization out of the dark ages. Basic science is the engine of progress and the engine behind the new technologies that shape our world. Yet, so many people are scientifically illiterate. Scientific illiteracy is made worse by the fact that it is often acceptable among otherwise literate people. The stakes are very high. Scientific issues have a huge bearing on our lives, on our world, and on how we see the world. Now, more than ever science literacy is critical.
The web and the blogosphere are full individuals who purport to teach scientific skepticism. Some of these are individuals who reject a particular theory (or suite of theories in science) on non-scientific grounds, whether they be political or religious or philosophical. Some are ill equipped with the basic tools to address scientific topics. Their goal is not to understand the science but to attempt to refute it. This sort of a posteriori approach is antithetical to the values of scientific inquiry. I hope to present many articles detailing characteristics typical of false skepticism: How to spot and and how to respond to it.
On the other hand, science is not perfect. Media coverage of science is even less perfect. It is important that people exercise healthy and well informed scientific skepticism. I hope to present an alternative: a clear model and a set of rules for how to be skeptical.
As both an observant Jew and as someone who struggles with his religious worldview, I am very interested in the tension between empirical thought and faith. I will likely address some of these issue, both in broad philosophical terms and in response to particular arguments made by some in the name of “defending the faith”. I certainly want this blog to be a comfortable place for people of varying religious, secular, or political views. In most cases, my concern is less with what people believe than with the way the engage the science on said beliefs.
Finally, I hope to discuss interesting topics and measurements in science. Science appreciation is like the appreciation of any good art form: The more knowledge and context you have, the more you enjoy it. If I can share even a glimmer of the joy and satisfaction that science brings me, it will be worth the effort. I also look forward to the comments and questions. I hope you will join me.