Tuesday, January 24, 2006


May 29, 1998

Dear Editor:

Jack Vincent made several comments about science in his recent letter praising Michael Ventura's column, and I'd like to respond to them.

First he said that his 7th grade science textbook told him that "science is knowledge". I'm not suprised to hear that, because science education in this country is legendarily poor. Science is not knowledge, it is an approach to acquiring knowledge. So when Mr. Vincent goes on to complain that his science book didn't tell him that science is "incomplete and dangerous knowledge", he is missing the point: science is an approach to knowledge, and it is important to discern between the process of science and its findings.

He then goes on to list two "problems with scientific knowledge". Setting aside for a moment his confusion between scientific inquiry and scientific discoveries (the fault, no doubt, of the poor science education he received), there is further confusion about science in his descriptions of these "problems".

The first problem he mentions concerns objectivity in scientific inquiry. He states that "there is no such thing as objective observation", makes a vague reference to scientists "changing phenomena by focusing their attention on them". I must assume that he is attempting to describe Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. This principle states that one cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle to an arbitrary degree of accuracy. The reason for this, though, is purely physical. In order to measure a particle, it is necessary to bump into it with something. But because particles are the tiniest things there are, there is nothing small enough to bump into them with that isn't big enough to change their position or their momentum. So if we measure them to discover one of those details, we have no way to avoid changing the other one. This has nothing at all to do with "attention". Furthermore, this problem shrinks to insignificance as we deal with larger and larger objects - so that it is pretty reasonable to ignore the influence of the impact of a single photon on the position or trajectory of a macroscopic object.

He goes on to conclude that "there is no such thing as objective observation, therefor scientific knowledge will always be fluid and changing and reflect more the state of mind of the scientist than outer reality". Despite his misunderstanding of science and of the Uncertainty Principle, there is a grain of truth in this. The conclusions derived from scientific inquiry do change somewhat over time. However, the reason for this is a purely practical one which has little if anything to do with "states of mind". It has to do with the universe being a big place, both in terms of its size and its age. That being the case, a lot of what scientists try to study is remote in space or time or both - or it only happens once in a long period of time, or once in a huge volume of space, and so on. Scientists try to make the best of this situation, piecing together a view of the big picture from the bits they can observe. But it is inevitable that as they continue to observe, new discoveries will be made which require a revision of the old views. This process of continually refining our understanding of phenomena which are rare or remote is the greatest contribution of science. For it to be otherwise, scientists would have to be omniscient. Who knows, perhaps that's what they taught Mr. Vincent in 7th grade.

I might add that the Uncertainty Principle is itself the product of observation, and of drawing conclusions based on those observations.

The second problem he addresses is "divisiveness". He charges that isolating phenomena for study causes the study to be devoid of context. While it's true that studying the behavior of a chemical in its pure form will not shed light on its behavior when mixed with other things, it certainly will shed light on its behavior when pure. To study its behavior when mixed with chemical B, you isolate must it along with some of chemical B. You cannot discover how pure chemical A behaves by mixing it with other things. Each context is separate, and needs to be examined separately. These studies are not devoid of context, as Mr. Vincent charges - rather, they are each a specific context. It's difficult to see how it could be otherwise.

Finally, he states that "the big lie of science at this time" is that "The products of science and technology are enhancing the quality of life". I am curious to know what standards he uses to measure the quality of life. The most obvious one would be life span, which has risen from about 30 years in ancient times to more than 80 nowadays.

Most of Mr. Vincent's objections to science seem to come from a misunderstanding of what science is. The rest seem to come from a misunderstanding of certain scientific principles. The answer to both, it seems to me, is better science education - not a backlash against imaginary flaws in science.


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