Ask a Science Blogger, know how to know!

By Razib Khan | May 18, 2006 7:56 pm

This weeks “Ask a Science Blogger” question is:
“If you could shake the public and make them understand one scientific idea, what would it be?”
I assume others will answer this also, so I want to get this out first: my reply is that the public needs to know that the most important idea about “science” is that it is not about ideas, but it is a way of getting to those ideas through a specific way of thinking about the world and interacting with your fellow human. Science is the means, not the ends. And, that means is a synthesis of a set of heuristics mediated by a particular social context which is at the terminus of a path of cultural development. Rules like falsification are important, but they are irrelevant outside of the context of a group of peers who seek to discover the truth about the world as it is. The scientific community is important, but that community flourishes best in a roughly liberal culture (see the destruction wrought upon Russian genetics by Lysenko). Finally, the set of rules must include in appropriate dosages elements of rationalism (a priori model building and hypothesis formation), empiricism (experimentation) and skepticism (an analysis of the rigor of the models constructed and the data collected).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ask a ScienceBlogger
  • Dan Dare

    The most important scientific idea is that science is the most important idea.

  • VJB

    Yes, that is the point. Science is much less a collection of facts than a way of interacting with reality to discover how it works. ‘Truthiness’ may be operative in the political sphere, but doesn’t apply to the objectively real world. Good post.

  • Agnostic

    I think that’s too over the public’s head. It’s like trying to give a legalistic definition of a cow rather than point to cows. What you pointed to will stick. :)
    …and not to nitpick, but the rationalists were the experimental scientists or practical engineers of their day (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Huygens), while the empiricists were all armchair philosophers or civil servants (Locke, Hume, Berkeley).

  • razib

    well, i didn’t mean ‘rationalism’ or ’empiricism’ in the narrow philosphical sense. i mean, i guess bacon isn’t really an ’empiricist,’ he’s just an empiricist :)

  • Agnostic

    yeah, i know what you meant, but i just have to register annoyance that these terms have been twisted to make it seem like the leaders of the scientific revolution were armchair guys while the philosophical S.J. Goulds of the day (eviscerated by the Dawkinses of the day, like Thomas Reid) are thought to be experimental researchers.

  • razib

    honestly, i never reflected deeply on this dichotomy, but yes, i’ve noted it.

  • boojieboy

    Probably the idea about how scientific truth is provisional truth, and the nature of the connection between scientific evidence and scientific truth.
    People have to learn to accept uncertainty. So long as that uncertainty continues to decrease, we’re on the up escalator, hey!
    There are no absolute truths, only things we are more or less certain of.

  • John Emerson

    Steven Shapin has written a number of good books about the social organization of early science.
    Everyone should read Descartes’ Discourse on Method. It’s short, easy reading, and much different than you would expect. He was a hands-on guy who deliberately spent many years knocking about the world in the company of uneducated people such as skilled craftsmen. (Education then was mostly theology, Latin and Greek classics, and law; alchemy, astrology, and medicine were proto-scientific, but were taught mostly through the reading of ancient texts.) The direction of attention of “gentlemen” to the knowledge of craftsmen (who were not gentlemen) was one of the origins of science; craftsmen’s knowledge was earlier stigmatized as material and empirical rather than rational and philosophical (or revealed).
    In Shapin it comes out that while the head scientist had to be a genmtlemen, a lot of the real work was done by very skilled non-gentlemen assistants of the craftsman type.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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