Friday, June 5, 2009

What do you know?

Kathleen V. Kudlinski has a great set of books about science and scientists. My 3 year old received "Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs!" as a gift from my in-laws and we enjoyed it so much that I bought "Boy, Were We Wrong About the Solar System" to add to our library. These are the kinds of books that show children that science is fun. Moreover, they portray scientists as young people, women & men, having fun with their work. They also expose kids to the scientific method and how what you know depends on how you interpret the data. Both books address how scientists reinterpret data and adapt their models to incorporate new data. The only things set in stone are the actual fossils...

One cannot understand science without taking into account the scientific method. An observation leads to a hypothesis. Experiments are performed to test this hypothesis and the data either supports it or not. The hypothesis is valid if it doesn't crumble under pressure. Once the data gathered starts forming a picture, one can propose a model. Any new data will be incorporated into the model or will lead to a reevaluation. With enough experiments giving it strength, a theory can be proposed. In science there is no such thing as "just a theory". All these scientific terms are strictly defined, but somehow not clearly defined to most people.

The misuse of the word "theory" irritates me incredibly, especially when one is trying to convey science to the general public. With so many theories right and left, no one will pay attention to the real ones. I am impressed that scientific journalism in major newspapers is not held to more stringent copy editing, nor major novel writers. Dan Brown's Deception Point was particularly aggravating because it portrayed a group of top notch scientists discussing data and assumptions. The first time one of them said "my theory is..." they should have been shot down with a "you mean hypothesis, right?". He missed a great opportunity to set a good example...

Apart from the faux pas on scientific terminology, Dan Brown's book was pretty good. It reminded me about how data interpretation can be founded on assumptions. And those assumptions might be incorrect or biased. A lot of what we know is based on assumptions, which, if shown to be incorrect, will lead to a reevaluation of the data that was interpreted based on those assumptions. Proof, truth... these are words that express absolutes. It is a lot easier to prove something wrong than to say it is right.

Part of my passion for science has always been the ever changing body of knowledge - the new discoveries, the reinterpretation of what we thought we knew. One of my favorite quotes, which really defined science for me, is from the movie Men in Black (1997):

1500 years ago, everybody "knew" that the earth was the center of the universe.
500 years ago, everybody "knew" that the earth was flat
Imagine what you'll "know" tomorrow.

I can guarantee that you will know you were wrong about something...

1 comment:

  1. That's one of my favorite movie quotes, too. I try to remember it as I'm working in the lab-- even when just troubleshooting.