Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I'm Not a Scientist, Man

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Got all the bacteria, forgot the dinosaurs
Marco Rubio recently became the the next in a long line of politicians so cowed by the morons in their constituency that they are perfectly willing to become morons too.  As has been documented endlessly, when an interviewer with GQ asked him about the age of the earth, his response was "I'm not a scientist, man" and that questions like that are one of life's "great mysteries".  Now obviously, there is no mystery whatsoever about the age of the earth, or, for that matter, the age of the sun, the age of the galaxy or even the age of the universe.  Rubio and his ilk on the right think their problem is that there are people who won't vote for them if they acknowledge the amazing depth of accumulated scientific knowledge.  But his real problem is that a politician depending upon meeting the expectations of his electorate for ignorance and closed-mindedness for his election cannot then suddenly start to analyze information and use it to govern effectively.  He has locked himself in an information vacuum, forever afraid to recognize new discoveries at pain of alienating his voters.

But the thing that caught my eye was his attempt to justify his claim to basic scientific ignorance - the statement that he is not a scientist.  How does that apply?  If only scientists can know things, why would we have books in the library?  Why would we teach science class in school?  Indeed, how could we even create new scientists in the first place if they had to actually BE a scientist to understand the world around them?  Scientists discover things.  They learn things.  They figure things out.  Then they tell the world about those things, and the world takes that new knowledge and combines it with the earlier knowledge and it becomes understanding.  And understanding is available to anyone.  I couldn't do the necessary math to explain the fundamentals, say, of CP Symmetry Violation, but I am perfectly capable of understanding both what it is and what it means to the Standard Model.  And I'm not a scientist, man.

This is important to me because of a similar construct I run into quite often, even among otherwise scientifically literate and open minded people.  Particularly when discussing the implications of known physical laws, they often respond by saying "hey, we don't know everything, some day it might be possible to...".  At which point they wander off into a never-never land of science fiction, fantasy and imaginary jargon.  But here's the thing - we don't NEED to know everything to know some things.  And the things we know are not isolated factoids floating in a dark sea of ignorance, they are related to other things and have implications in the universe.  The things we know about matter lets us understand things we cannot directly observe about gravity, and the things we learned from relativity and quantum mechanics allow us to understand not only what is possible in the universe, but what is not.

Science and the scientific method does a very good job of questioning its own conclusions, and requiring proof that can be repeatedly demonstrated.  Researchers had seen the Higgs Boson many times before they were willing to announce its discovery.  When there is a broad scientific consensus that something is true about the world around us, it usually is.  And it is not that knowledge alone, but the conclusions we can draw from it that are important.
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8 comments:

  1. At which point they wander off into a never-never land of science fiction, fantasy and imaginary jargon.

    I hope your not raining on the jet-car parade, mikey.
    ~

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  2. Mostly people get really butthurt if you suggest to them that interstellar space travel is pretty much an impossibility. They REALLY want there to be starships and klingons...

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    1. Yeah, I do.

      But until interstellar travel is worked out, if ever, just have to live with skiffy and rum. I don't get butthurt.

      I AM looking forward to the Romulan Ale, though...

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  3. I'm sure it would be quite a mellow quaff after aging a few thousand years at 2°K on the delivery truck...

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  4. But the thing that caught my eye was his attempt to justify his claim to basic scientific ignorance - the statement that he is not a scientist. How does that apply?

    Duh, he's a law-making guy, not a scientist.

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  5. Ya know, the idea that science is something handed down by Ivory Tower Eggheads really needs to be destroyed. The scientific method is available to any genuine seekers after knowledge. Yeah, even a bunch of teens can make awesome discoveries.

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