Science Isn’t Everything

Artists often desire social recognition for their contribution to society, recognition that might come in the form of funding, recognition, validation, or visibility. Teachers do the same, perhaps striking to foster awareness of the constraints within which they conduct their work. Even politicians have to convince the population that their efforts are worthwhile; otherwise, they don’t get reelected.

Increasingly, scientists, too, seek legitimacy for their work. The March for Science on April 22, 2017 had this claim to legitimacy as one of its goals: politics should take scientific knowledge into account when making decisions.

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By Christopher Michel – E=MC^2, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24810134

Here’s the rub: science changes its mind and sometimes scientists (including social scientists) can’t seem to agree on what constitutes scientific rigour and scholarly success, or even how to interpret results. This apparent conflict does nothing for the public perception of an endeavour truthfully plagued by practical and social problems, from funding to publishing pressures.

Most people don’t seem to understand the scientific method. In fact, most people don’t seem to understand that science is in fact a method, not an object. Yes, the word “science” can be used as shorthand for “knowledge garnered through scientific research,” but I suspect most serious scholars would claim that the power of science lies in its principles, not in the body of knowledge itself.

This is why social science is a science, even though many studies are neither replicable nor generalizable, two cornerstones of what we might think of as science. That’s not a flaw in the method; it’s a limitation in the object of study. People and culture and society are complex, shape-shifting objects.

Science philosopher Ian Hacking coined the term “looping effect” to denote the process whereby ideas about how society or identity works directly influence how society or identity actually works. New studies of these things modify the scientific or social consensus, which then further influences how people view or experience them. And so on ad infinitum.

In one example, certain trends become apparent through research about what it means to be a refugee. Identifying people as refugees only becomes possible once the notion of a refugee becomes socially widespread. People thus identified become aware of what it means to be a refugee through how that identity is constructed by institutions and their fellow refugees. They will have multiple social scripts available to them, but those scripts are shaped by the culturally accepted notion of “refugee-ness.”

Science is like this. It is messy and some things change. Other things don’t. For instance, some scientific disciplines have a condition humorously known as physics envy. Physics doesn’t really change and it can be measured with mathematical precision, no matter how social conditions and individual biases might shift. (I’m talking about the actual workings of physics, not the study and practice of physics, which of course change with societal variations.) In many other fields, including so-called “hard” sciences like biology or psychology, the actual facts might mutate along with external conditions. Life expectancy lengthens with improved hygiene, education, and access to healthcare. Menstruation starts at a younger age with a change in diet. Being LGBTQ+ is a risk factor for depression, due to antipathetic cultural norms.

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By Rcragun – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34549866

These factual changes are uncomfortable. Something can be true only under specific conditions, but we imagine that it is always true, because it is currently true or it has been true in our experience. People might think science is just making an “educated guess” based on preexisting ideas. To a certain extent, that is true, because scientists are people and we are all biased and prone to errors in thinking. In fact, however, in science, an educated guess is called a hypothesis and it is the starting point, not the end point, of research. The hypothesis guesses at the outcome based on prior results, but the study’s purpose is to attempt to disprove the hypothesis. In other words, what we think is likely true needs to be tested and challenged and disputed in as many ways as possible and as many times as possible before we can accept it as true. Scientists call this process “falsification.” They are trying to prove their ideas wrong, not right.

Unlike many others, (good) scientists of all stripes welcome criticism. Scientists want to improve their craft. They want to know what they are collectively doing wrong, so that they can do it better.

Obviously, individual scientists with ego issues or tunnel vision might not welcome criticism, especially from another field, but overall, the scientific community aims to hone in on all the factors that go into knowing reality. These factors include subjectivity, interdisciplinary awareness, cross-cultural understanding, and myriad other intangible ingredients. Good scientists welcome the challenge.

The rest of the world looks at them and thinks, “Man, they keep changing their minds. They keep making mistakes. They aren’t paying attention to what’s going on over here.” And so on. Those are true statements. But instead of rejecting all science because of these issues, let’s try opening up a conversation. Let me say it again: good scientists will welcome the criticism and change tack accordingly.

Do scientists have all the answers? Of course not. Certainly not as individuals, and even collectively there is much yet unknown. And some things can’t be known through science.

Science is flawed and it is imperfect and it is sometimes wrong. But it is the best method we have for solving large-scale questions, like polio or religious war or climate change or the origins of humanity, and for figuring out how things work, like weather, socialization, affection, and bridge stability.

We absolutely need social science and philosophy and art and literature and personal experience to live meaningful lives, and even sometimes to give us personal answers. But cutting out science means ignoring an intimate, integral part of our humanity. We have an innate and cultivated desire to know and understand, an urge to observe and reason, and an impulse to test our ideas against those of others to determine what might be true.

Science is not everything. But it sure is something.

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On Not Knowing

In my last original post, I had heard that water has memory, but I didn’t know enough to decide either way.

I did some digging, and it turns out that the water studies were not conducted in a scientific way, nor were they peer reviewed. There’s no way to substantiate any of the claims made. In other words, pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. Good to know.

Confused
Rory the Tiger, confused – Artwork by Ruby Wang

Now that that’s been cleared up, let me turn to my main point for this post. I want to reiterate a point I brought up in that previous post: it’s both extremely uncomfortable and incredibly rewarding to admit that we don’t know something.

I think we internalize this discomfort with not knowing from a young age. We learn to only speak when we know the answer.

Here’s a good time to enact what I’m advocating for: I don’t know how people feel about saying they don’t know something in other parts of the world. Or even here, really, so I’m speculating based on things I’ve read and my own observations in North America and Europe.

Within this realm, parents and older siblings often chide children for asking too many questions. It’s annoying and time-consuming, and probably the parents and siblings don’t know the answer half the time. This situation can make them uncomfortable, especially for parents, since they are socially responsible for their children’s education. If they don’t know what information to give their child, have they failed in their role?

While there are many outstanding teachers in the world, many are forced to silence curious children. The goal of public education is to get children to pass standardized tests and learn the required material laid out in a narrow curriculum based on memorization, rather than research and discovery.

This trend of consuming information instead of seeking and building knowledge continues into adulthood. At work, seeming unsure might lead clients, bosses, and coworkers to distrust your abilities. Saying you don’t know merits chastisement, even to the point of getting fired for “incompetence.” (I’m not saying there aren’t actually incompetent people, just that learning is a process that takes time and acceptance of errors.) Instead of providing training and allowing employees to grow into their positions, many companies – including those in the arts – want their new recruits to come fully formed with years of experience and lots of energy. When David Bowie put out his first album, no one expected a success, but they gave him the benefit of the doubt and let him explore his sound in the studio for multiple subsequent recordings. Nowadays, if you don’t sell enough copies right off the bat, you risk being cut from the label.

So we feel that it’s uncomfortable and inhibiting to admit we don’t know something. Yet in reality, no one can claim to know everything. If we can start accepting this condition in ourselves and others, we may build a more honest world.

We will also start to recognize our own strengths and to value those of others. If I can admit that I don’t know something about medicine or physics or politics, then I can find someone who does know. In this way, I can become smarter and more informed.

We will all become better at discerning good information from bad if we practice finding out what we don’t know. It’s not enough to click on the first Google hit. SEO, paid ads, and popularity play a huge role in what’s at the top; facticity and accuracy do not.

It’s also not enough to read a few lines or even a few paragraphs on a topic and call it “learning.” Most things that are “known” are way more complex than a simple explanation will suggest. It’s always good to examine opposing views, because someone can be very convincing without being right. It’s also important to look at the person’s claim to authority, which can mean many different things. Their positionality in the world (which social labels they fall under, where they live, and many other factors) will influence their perspective as well.

Learning through discovery is hard, much harder than reading a “fact” and then regurgitating it. But we don’t really know anything until we’ve looked at it closely from many angles and sat with it for some time. Otherwise, we’re just repeating words that someone else said. We can’t actually own the knowledge as a personal intellectual asset. We’ve accepted information as true without having any understanding of what makes it so.

Sometimes new information emerges and what we previously “knew” becomes obsolete, shown to be incorrect. Other things can change from moment to moment, place to place, person to person. Democracy doesn’t just mean one thing; neither does religion, or even a specific type or subtype of religious belief. Sufi Islam is very different from the Sunni persuasion. Pagans vary across the board. And of course individual circumstances affect interpretations and practices, so you can never come up with a timeless, immutable law of Sufi practice or any other human endeavour.

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Rory the Tiger, confused – Artwork by Ruby Wang

I don’t know a lot of things. When I write a post expressing an opinion, I often second-guess the validity of that statement. In other parts of my life, I try to present myself as knowledgeable as frequently as possible; obviously I’m not immune to the socialization process. I also tend to simply remain quiet when I don’t know something, hoping that someone else will fill in the blanks.

However, training in research methods has spilled over into my daily life. The first thing we all should know is how to find solid, valid information. Then we should know how to examine it, test it, shake it up, and see if it still stands.

Of course, we all have limited time and resources at hand, including life experience or education in various subject areas. To some, something might seem obviously untrue, while someone else might be convinced by its apparent value and what looks like supporting evidence. We also need to respect this type of difference (without being afraid to challenge another person’s viewpoint, of course).

We can’t all know the same things, no matter how hard we try. In this light, it seems worthwhile to question our own received knowledge and try to really understand why we think we know what we do. This approach just might help us all get smarter, while simultaneously producing the joy of discovery and the solace of mutual respect.

Does Water Have Memory?

A few days ago, I heard about the idea that water has memory. Of course, when people say such things, I have to wonder what they mean by the word “memory:” does water have memory like humans have memory (e.g. being able to recall emotional experiences)? Or more like how bees have memory (e.g. knowing how to navigate to the same place they were before)? Or maybe like mud has memory (e.g. retaining a footprint)?

The point is that I don’t know. I know nothing about this science, if science it really is. My first inclination is to say it’s probably not true, at least not in the New Age-y sense in which it was implied.

Here’s one of the things that put me off the idea: apparently, if you play classical music to water, it takes on a beautiful shape at a very minute level, whereas heavy metal makes it all crooked and jagged. This sort of idea immediately makes me skeptical, since it fits too neatly into social snobbery about “good” vs. “bad” music. It seems more likely to me that the acoustic properties of the different types of music affected the shape of the water crystals, not that it had a negative emotional response to some quality of the music. Sound is a physical entity. (Also, what do they mean by “classical” music? Was it a nocturne? A slow piece for solo cello? A dance piece for piano quartet? Or a more dramatic orchestral piece? I’m sure each one would shape the water differently. The same applies to heavy metal, some of which is actually quite gentle.)

Here’s an example of how sound can do seemingly “magic” things with water:

But the fact that this connection doesn’t sit well with mean isn’t evidence.

I still don’t know. I can’t say with any kind of certainty that my hypothesis is correct. I haven’t examined the science and I’m not sure I’m properly qualified to understand and judge it all anyway.

And sometimes that’s okay. It’s okay to live with not knowing, at least for a while. In school and other areas of life, we often learn that not knowing is a crime. If your teacher asks you a question and you say you don’t know, you might be ridiculed or shamed for not having done the homework or not paying attention in class. Instead of teaching how to find out what you don’t know, the response is that you should just always know, or else you should shut up.

Not knowing is uncomfortable. Admitting it out loud is even less comfortable. But not knowing is what drives curiosity, discovery, creativity, and innovation. We need to recognize what we don’t know before we can move forward.

Without admitting that we don’t know something, we will never take the steps to learn about it or to invent a way of doing the thing we don’t know how to do.

So next time someone tells me something that sounds implausible to me, I’m going to try really hard to just say, “I don’t know.” It might be off-putting to them and uncomfortable for me. But the payoff will be worth it, because it will allow me to consider an idea more openly, instead of dismissing it on some emotional basis.

Mansplaining and Feminist Chromosomes

"Battleofthesexes" by Welleman - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain
“Battleofthesexes” by Welleman – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain

Mansplaining” is an increasingly nebulous term used in some feminist circles to criticize men who condescend to women by relaying their apparently superior knowledge in self-important ways. From my understanding, the term is applied most commonly in situations where the woman already knows a lot about the topic at hand, but the man assumes that she doesn’t and that what he has to say is more pertinent.

In many cases, the topic is sexism or misogyny or, you know, feminism.

It seems obvious that women would know more about women’s rights or experiences of sexism than men, doesn’t it? How could a man possibly have anything to say about it that a woman wouldn’t already know?

I hope the rhetorical device is apparent in the above two questions. Asking how a man could possibly know more than a woman on a specific topic is essentializing to both genders. But the problem runs deeper than that. It may be the case that many people distrust experts in a number of realms, and rightly so! Science is a method, not a religion to be taken at face value, and questioning every claim is integral to its progress. (So is accepting solid evidence, but that’s for another day.)

But yes, there have been many scientists who failed at their projects because they refused to consider laypeople’s knowledge about their own lifeworlds. It’s a give and take. Other so-called experts from educators to politicians have intentionally deceived or accidentally misled those in their care.

It’s not a perfect world and experts aren’t immune to hubris or other human pitfalls.

Wait, so are the men who start telling women about so-called women’s issues exhibiting hubris and a false sense of expertise? Or are women who throw the mansplaining label around claiming absolute authority for themselves with a de facto rejection of anyone else’s perspective?

The old saying goes, “Everybody you meet knows something you don’t.” If we actually interacted with one another on that basis, communication would improve in all directions.

Formal experts have studied and trained, and they’ve often spent years researching issues by examining and deconstructing primary and secondary evidence of many kinds. They know something.

Laypeople have also gained years of experience, sometimes their own, sometimes an accumulation of social knowledge that has been passed down from one generation to the next. They also know something.

Both so-called experts and so-called laypeople have some knowledge that the other can’t immediately access.

Can a middle-class social theorist discover a fact about the systemic roots of poverty that someone living in the ghetto might not have known? Does a light-skinned person who suffered from genocidal attacks in Rhodesia have to kowtow to the opinion of someone whose ideas of racialized discrimination are based purely on North American definitions of being black?

Is a person with a penis incapable of knowing anything about women’s issues? Can a man not read a book or watch the news or talk to women or even other informed men and come to a reasonable, respectable conclusion about rights or sexism or feminism?

Does being a male feminist mean shutting up and listening while the women talk?

Before entering any discussion, let’s take a moment to acknowledge everyone’s unique positionality in the world. I know what I know and you know what you know. The goal is to question what we know, as much as possible, so that we can all get closer to some semblance of truth. Of course, like everyone, I might mistakenly wax polemical for a while, until someone more informed shuts it down or at least provides evidence that forces me to embrace more nuance in my stance.

Women’s experiences are crucial to understanding feminism and sexism and misogyny. Assuming women don’t know about economics or astrophysics is sexist and insulting. In addition to personal experiences, many female feminists have spent years studying social issues and engaging in empirical research on which they base their knowledge and arguments.

So have male feminists, like Michael Kimmel. I agree that being condescending and silencing others is reprehensible. But it’s not “mansplaining,” a trait somehow unique to men, nor is it shared by all men (although there are men who automatically assume their own superiority to women, of course).

And it’s not only about gender – some men speak that way to other men, as do some women to other women. Some queer and trans people do it to one another, and to cis people and vice versa. People with lighter skin do it to people with darker skin and the reverse is equally true. If you have differently shaped eyes, or a different accent, the condescending tones might come out. (And, by the way, so-called “white male Westerners” don’t have a monopoly on arrogance.)

Having a certain type of chromosome or physical appearance doesn’t make you an expert. And it certainly doesn’t give you the right to drown out another person’s voice.

Before we engage in a shouting match, let’s take some time to listen. Everyone’s positionality has taught them something we don’t know. And some people know a lot, while others know a little. Some people can spout statistics, while others can tell us how something feels.

So if we each know something, maybe we can let go of our egos and put the parts together. That way we can all become smarter.

Something about Science, Gender, and Jobs

WomaRecently, the Globe and Mail sought readers’ opinions on getting more women into male-dominated professions, the sciences in particular. According to the article, more Canadian men than women pursue a career in the sciences. While the numbers are closer for those who study science in university (“less than 40 percent” are women), after graduation the discrepancy widens when it comes to employment (“less than 22 percent”).

The writers don’t offer any explanation for this gap. However, the piece’s title, “How can we encourage more girls into science careers?” suggests a tacit assumption. “We” (whoever that is) are not doing enough to promote science careers to young women.

Education, parents, media, marketing, and whatever else constitutes “we” might very well be guilty of persuading women that science is for men. It’s hard to say; the article provides no evidence, which is to be expected considering it never states the claim explicitly anyway.

Since we’re in speculating mode, I can come up with a few other reasons for the gender difference in employment. Please bear in mind that we’d need actual research to substantiate any of these.

  • Older people have more of a gender gap than younger people
    • It wouldn’t surprise me if accounting for age or length of time in the field changes the way we understand the data. If recent numbers show less of a gap among science graduates, it’s likely that we’ll see less of a gap in employment once the older generation retires.
  • Women have babies
    • Yes, I know. More men are staying home with their kids these days, and that’s great if that’s what both partners want. However, I’d guess it’s still more common for women to stay home out of choice and/or tradition. More importantly, many women get pregnant, which requires at least some time off. Creating a human being is hard work, but not the kind you can put on your CV (unless you’re creating a homunculus in a lab). Even with the most supportive family, childbearing can put women behind in their careers when compared to their childless counterparts, including men. The more children you have, the further behind you will fall. A male commenter on the Globe article made this point quite well.
  • Employers are sexist
    • Not all employers are sexist. Obviously. But unless things have changed drastically since 2012, many employers have an implicit bias that they might not even be aware of. One study gave potential science mentors the exact same student application, but changed the name from male to female on half of them. They discovered that a gender bias really does exist: “Results found that the ‘female’ applicants were rated significantly lower than the ‘males’ in competence, hireability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student.”

These are just a few possible roots of the gender gap. Luckily, it does appear to be shifting. So yay.

Now here’s an issue nobody talks about in these discussions: why is no one encouraging boys to enter female-dominated professions? Where are the articles decrying the lack of men in nursing, social work, counseling, event planning, or teaching?

To be fair, earlier this year, Business Insider did note which jobs tend to employ more women than men. However, the brief article was bereft of the sense of alarm so often used to highlight the relative lack of women in traditionally masculine fields.

So why the paucity of interest in getting men into traditionally feminine careers? Let’s speculate some more.

  • Work traditionally viewed as masculine is more highly valued than work viewed as feminine

That’s the only reason I can think of. The work that women have done traditionally just doesn’t garner the same level of respect, as evidenced by the higher salaries often received for many masculine jobs.

The respective valuation of traditionally masculine and feminine work may be the real crux of ongoing gender inequality in the labour force. Today’s movement encourages women to be like men. On a large scale, “we” still tend to value masculine things over feminine things. The goal is to raise women up to the level of men, because women’s work does not have the same social standing, no matter how much it contributes to our health and economic function (e.g. social work or primary education).

In other words, it’s great to encourage women to do the same work as men. But we won’t have true equality until men can do the same work as women, without losing their social standing.

Science Is Not Truth

How do we know what is true? It’s an age-old question that hasn’t been fully resolved.

We do know that evaluating evidence and recognizing the role of subjectivity are part of the most reliable approach we’ve discovered so far in our trajectory as a species.

Generally, we call this approach “science.” But science is not the same as truth.

A few years ago, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) removed the word “science” from its description of the discipline of anthropology. Unsurprisingly, this act created an uproar with partisans on either side arguing for or against the definition of anthropology as a science.

Unfortunately, a lot of them seemed unable to articulate what science really is.

It’s a common mistake and one you will encounter in other areas. When people debate the validity of science, we tend to take for granted that everyone knows what the term means. Fun fact: we don’t.

You may have come across the phrase “the scientific method.” This phrase provides a clearer indication of what’s going on than the single word “science.” “Science tell us that the Earth orbits the sun” would become “The scientific method tells us that the Earth orbits the sun.” It’s a subtle difference, but revealing nonetheless.

The first statement implies some sort of oracle or god (“Science, goddess of the Sky”) revealed an absolute truth. In the second version, we understand that a rigorous process was involved.

In the early twentieth century, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (drawing on his teacher Franz Boas) wrote down three principles of science:

  • The method of science is to begin with questions, not with answers, least of all with value judgements.

  • Science is dispassionate inquiry and therefore cannot take over outright any ideologies “already formulated in everyday life”, since these are themselves inevitably traditional and normally tinged with emotional prejudice.

  • Sweeping all-or-none, black-and-white judgements are characteristic of categorical attitudes and have no place in science, whose very nature is inferential and judicious.

Kroeber’s teacher, Franz Boas, divided science into two branches, which he called the general sciences and the historical sciences. For him, the general sciences try to discover universal laws, while the historical sciences uncover the processes behind things that happen only once, usually in a specific time and place. The social sciences, including history, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology (among many others), fall into the latter category.

Both use the scientific method. Although the type of knowledge they produce is not identical, both the general sciences and the historical sciences contribute “true” ideas to the collective body of knowledge.

I put “true” in quotation marks because scientists of all stripes constantly work to disprove accepted theories. When evidence supports a theory, that’s great, but it’s more important to see what other evidence might disprove the theory. In this way, while it is a challenge to conclusively prove a scientific theory beyond any possibility of dispute, it can be quite simple to disprove the same theory. This is how we know that vaccines don’t cause autism (a disproven theory) and that gravity is likely more of a push than a pull (a theory modified from its original version).

As The Skeptical Raptor suggests, evidence against a hypothesis is more powerful than evidence in favour of it. In other words, if you have three bits of evidence in favour of a theory and only one against it, the theory is wrong. It might not be entirely wrong (as in the gravity example above), but something about it needs to be changed to more accurately represent what is happening.

This is why so-called scientific laws are not carved in stone. Just like national laws, they can change.

Scientists face a lot of criticism when they announce that they were wrong about something. Also when they refuse to state anything with 100% certainty.

But what they are trying to say is that, while there is no absolute truth, there are degrees of validity.

Additionally, a theory is only based on the scientific method if people can imagine a way to test or disprove that theory.

If there is no way to test it, then there is also no way to prove it or argue it either way. We’ve left the realm of science to enter the realm of philosophy (which, by the way, has a lot of value in its right).

One of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s more infamous theories says that all girls experience penis envy, recognizing the male sex organ as superior to their own. When challenged with evidence that went against his theory, namely that many girls and women say they do not have penis envy, Freud simply asserted that they were in denial.

This is an example of how logic can fail us by denying or explaining away contradictory evidence. Evidence is more important than logic and the hypothetical plausibility of a theory based on logic alone says little about how a process might actually play out in the real world. We can imagine all kinds of logically possible beings, processes, and events. Both Freud’s theory and his explanation of contradictory evidence sound logical and plausible. But as soon as he explains away the gaps with circular logic that draws on no evidence, the theory stops being scientific. You can no longer falsify (i.e. come up with a way to test his theory) since there is nothing observable (i.e. no evidence). We are forced to toss the whole thing out the window.

Real scientists and seekers of knowledge are always trying to disprove their own theories. They don’t need something to be right just because they have always thought it must be true. Instead, they constantly re-examine their assumptions and come up with new ways to disprove existing explanations.

Of course, if people test a theory for decades and centuries with no successful disproof, then the theory generally becomes established as fact. In careless everyday speech, many people including scientists will say it is therefore “true,” but I would recommend being more specific in what we say. Otherwise, we risk obscuring that in this context the word “true” simply means “rigorously tested but never disproven.” If contradictory evidence surfaced, we would accept the error in the original theory.

Science requires a flexible mind, as well as an acceptance of uncertainty.

On a final note, I use the word “disproof” above, which is probably more recent incarnation than the word “proof.” Originally, to “prove” something meant to test it, as in its derivative word “probation.” Knowing this helps us understand what the scientific method means by proving something is true – it actually means the opposite of what we might think: you can only prove a theory by seeking to show it is false, but failing to find evidence that goes against it.