Science Doesn’t Exist

I sometimes hear people say things like, “If science supports X policy, it should be enacted.”  Hiding behind the word science for your moral or political beliefs is a bad idea, because science doesn’t exist as something that can be accountable or take responsibility.

Of course there is a method of inquiry called the scientific method.  It is particularly useful in the study of physical objects, forces, and relationships – what we call the physical sciences.  But science doesn’t say anything, and it certainly can’t do or enforce anything.  Science isn’t a person with positions on issues or an ability to clearly articulate and act on them.  It’s a tool and a way of thinking.  It’s a process that helps people test and falsify and eliminate possibilities and make better theories.

Even if smart people using the scientific process arrive at a theory about the physical world and say they believe certain policies should be enacted, it’s not a trump card to then say that science demands legal action.  Science can’t demand anything.  Scientists can demand legal action, but they almost always do so based on a romanticized view of the political process.

Putting aside the fact that there is no such thing as “settled” science – indeed, it is an open and ongoing process, not a body of accumulating, unchanging facts – even when research reveals certain relationships it does not follow that policies imagined by scientists should be enacted.  Political-made law is not like the laws of science.  People with incentives having nothing to do with the facts or the outcome must posture and pontificate and make deals before passage.  The end result only passes if it sates the appetites of enough rent-seeking interests, regardless of whether it resembles what high-minded scientists imagined.  Enforcement is even worse.  Carried out by unaccountable armies of bureaucrats (some armed, all dangerous), laws are a cudgel used selectively by those in power to further cement it.

When you hear people loudly demanding political action based on ‘settled science’ don’t give them a pass.  If a theory about the physical world is really sound, there’s a built-in incentive to adapt to it without resorting to force.  It may happen imperfectly and slower than some experts would like, but ten times out of ten I’d trust the market process more than the political one to discover the best trade-offs.

Stay in Touch with the Future

There was a great Super Bowl ad that showed a now famous clip of two newscasters discussing the internet and email in 1994.  It was only 21 years ago, and already the thing they were so helpless to define or understand has completely redefined our world in a way all of us tacitly understand from birth. (You should see my kids with an iPad).

I’m an optimist and a big believer in the possibilities of tech and progress, yet too often this belief is just theoretical.  It’s easy to get a little impatient.  Yes, I know what’s possible in theory, but why don’t I see marvelous advances in practice?  Looking to the recent past is a great reminder of how much radical progress has happened in my lifetime alone.  Looking to the cutting edge of the present is even more exciting.

I try to read or watch something at least every few weeks about some area of science or technology that is a new frontier.  Whether checking on the latest in 3D printing, taking a peek at what’s going on at the Large Hadron Collider, or reading up on Bitcoin and its implications, I’ve discovered my sense of wonder is stirred by frequent updates from the fringes.  Every time I poke around new research and discoveries I wonder why I don’t do it more often.

If you’re looking for some crazy new stuff, here’s one I watched yesterday.  In addition to discussing some specific new technologies, Jose Cordeiro mentions four ways to deal with the future: Passive (bury your head like an Ostrich), Reactive (respond to it like a fire-fighter), Preactive (hedge against it like an insurer), and Proactive (create it like a builder).

The Art of Science

A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this week claimed that great scientists needn’t be good at math.  E.O. Wilson argued that big ideas, not number crunching, are the source of major breakthroughs.  In other words, it’s the art of science, not the science, that inspires the game-changers.

I think there’s something here that applies beyond the physical sciences.  The social sciences, in particular economics, have been in a race of sorts to see who could mathematize fastest.  While complex modelling and statistical analysis can illuminate, they cannot generate.  Data is meaningless without a theoretical lens through which to interpret it.  Path-breaking work comes not from those with the best “hard” skills, but from those with the best paradigmatic innovations.  The best work seems to come from seeing the world differently, constructing theories from the new lens, then running some numbers to see how they look from the new vantage point.

This bit about seeing the world anew has never been more profoundly communicated to me than in a book by the novelist Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation.  Koestler sets out to reveal general rules of creation that apply across media – from the creation of a joke, to a work of art, to a technological invention.  It is a stunningly informative and ponderous work.

Koestler describes worldviews as matrices of thought; well-worn knowledge and assumptions that we carry along with us and use as shortcuts for understanding our world.  The eureka moment – the burst of laughter in a joke, the flow in the making of a sculpture, the sudden insight that unlocks the innovation – comes when two separate matrices intersect.  Koestler calls this intersection “bisociation”, and sees it as a kind of relieving of tension as two paradigms moving in what appears to be unrelated directions suddenly converge.

A poignant example in the book is Archimedes’ discovery of how to measure the purity of gold in a crown.  Archimedes knew the weight per volume of gold vs. other metals, but he could not melt the crown down to figure out its volume.  The thought matrix relating to weights, volumes and metals was completely unrelated to Archimedes afternoon bathing.  Yet as he slipped into the tub and noticed the water level rise, matrices collided and the bath solved the measurement problem of the crown.  It was not new, fancy calculations that resulted in this breakthrough on determining purity in oddly shaped gold items.  Instead, it was a bisociation of existing knowledge on water displacement with that on metallic weight.

Not only is creation about seeing familiar facts in new ways, it’s about allowing oneself the time and mental play to do so.  Some of the greatest eureka moments have come upon waking from a dream, going on a long walk while the mind wanders, or taking an explicit break from the problem at hand.  It is true, the great innovators have been versed in the science of their craft.  But what separates creators from specialists is not better technical expertise, but new eyes that generate new ideas.

Think big.  Explore.  Don’t let a lack of mastery keep you from probing the mysteries that fascinate you.

What the News Could Never Do

I love Facebook.  It’s a great way to connect to people I enjoy communicating with, see new ideas and articles, enjoy social diversions during the day (when you work from home it can replace the water cooler), and of course keep up on memes and videos of cats.  But there is another function of Facebook I didn’t foresee that has become increasingly valuable.  It does something news outlets can’t do – respond to exactly what I’m interested in at the moment and give me stories about it.

A few weeks back I realized it had been some time since I read or watched anything about new advances in science and technology.  I remembered the excitement I got as a kid looking at Popular Mechanics magazine, and wanted to get that thrill again by hearing the coolest stuff now within the realm of possibility.  I could have gone to any number of news outlets and browsed the technology section.  I could have gone to tech specific magazines or websites.  But these don’t always have articles on the most cutting edge stuff, and if I picked the wrong day, I might get a story about a new app instead.  It would require some browsing.  I could use Google, but Google is best when you know what you want to find, and I was looking for something I didn’t know existed.  In short, I needed to be inspired by the creative power of mankind, and I had no where to turn for a quick overview.

I posted an open-ended question on Facebook: What are the coolest things going on in science and technology? Within a few hours I had dozens of amazing articles, video clips, pictures and stories of everything from 3D burrito printers, to graphene smart phones, to particle accelerators, etc. ad nauseam.  Not only that, the responses were from people who knew something about me and could add some humor, flavor, or insight no other outlet could.  There was even some friendly competition over what was truly the best innovation going.  I’ve only read through half of the things posted thus far, but I still go back to the thread from time to time to be further amazed.

News outlets and periodicals can produce great stories.  The problem is, they have no way of knowing when I’m going to be in the mood for the latest trend in herb gardening or the latest adventure sport.  They publish such pieces, but most of the time my interests don’t intersect with their schedule.  Sure, they archive them, but there’s no good way for me to access the info unless I already know exactly what I want to read.  Enter Facebook.  Now it’s like every one of my digital acquaintances work for me.  I can outsource the article reading, categorizing and rating to a few thousand people I find interesting.  They enjoy the chance to share their interests, and I get the benefit of good stories without wading through all the other fluff.  I do the same for them.

I’ve got a lot more to say about Facebook, but I’ll save it for another post.  I am of the opinion that we haven’t fully internalized how radical is the shift in social order wrought by Facebook.  We have yet to appreciate the tremendous impact on every facet of social and commercial life.  The layers are many.

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