I came across this comic the other day.
It addresses something very important: There are scientists and there are science enthusiasts. Science enthusiasts don’t always understand how science really works. Science makes great discoveries (it is the only thing that reliably can) but most people don’t know what this process really looks like. This is not in any way to demean those who are not scientists but who are interested in science. On the contrary, applaud those people and I hope more people get interested. My problem today is not the people who don’t fully understand science, but with the comic itself, which may have overshot its mark.
The first row of panels are spot-on. No problems there. I am regularly disappointed in the news coverage of scientific findings. Sometimes a news article will sensationalize the findings. Sometimes the importance or relevance of the findings will be wildly overstated. Sometimes the main point of the study will be missed entirely or they will get major facts completely wrong. People reading the news coverage may have no idea that there are problems. It is obviously best to read the primary source of the information, but (1) most scientific journal articles are behind paywalls, and (2) the point of science journalism should be that people don’t have to.
The second row of panels is where I start to have a problem.
Experiments don’t always work, and this causes a great deal of frustration for scientists. Failure is part of science. An experiment doesn’t work and you have to do it over again. You have to troubleshoot it with colleagues. Sometimes you have to put it on the back burner until you have the inspiration or technology to make the experiment work, and sometimes you give up on the experiment entirely.
But make no mistake — science DOES work, bitches. The comic appears to be arguing that, because individual experiments do not always work, it is incorrect to say that science works. This is my problem with it. There is a big difference between science as a whole and individual experiments. Science is the process through which we discover new information, and experiments are one of the major tools we use. While individual experiments sometimes turn out to be miserable failures, people in science believe in science. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in science.
In the third row of panels, the comic again seems to be conflating the outcome of an individual study with the whole process of science. It seems to be saying is that, because sometimes scientific results are confusing, the statement “science can answer any question” is false.
It actually gets a little bit confusing here because the statement “science can answer any question” is not entirely true. Opinions aside, there are likely to be empirical questions that science cannot answer. For example, Werner Heisenberg argued that it was not possible to simultaneously know the location and momentum of a subatomic particle. Without a time machine, it is probably not possible to know exactly what plant was growing at my location exactly 1000 years ago.
We don’t always know which questions are and are not answerable. The only way to truly tell if a question is answerable is to answer it. History is full of people believing that something was impossible, only to be proven wrong. James Baldwin once said, “Those saying it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” A sharp contrast to Simon Newcomb, Professor of math and astronomy, who infamously said, (in 1906) “…no possible combination of known substances, known form of machinery and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air…” Regardless of whether we think an empirical question is possible to answer, science is our only chance at finding an answer. As scientists, we always have to believe that it is possible to discover the answer to any question.
Have a topic you want me to cover in a future post? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @CGEppig.