It is understandable. It is easy for my generation to misunderstand science because actually, in science lessons we didn't learn much about science! How so? Well, if for example you learn cool stuff like that there was a 12 m long predatory reptile called Tyrannosaurs rex that roamed the Earth 67 million years ago (Wow!), or how eye colour is determined by the genes, or the nature of water, or how one bacterium becomes a hundred million bacteria, or what a clone is, or how a drone flies... you are learning information, facts, but you are not learning science. Science is not facts, science is the process by which we find things out.
We didn't learn too much about that process during school science lessons in the 1970s, we only learned the information that has derived from it. And we didn't learn that information gained from scientific work isn't the same as facts. There were exceptions, but that was the general case. Things may have changed, but judging from what I read and hear from people around me, I think probably not. Not teaching children about the process of science in science lessons is responsible for a wholesale misunderstanding of science in the majority of people, who do not go onto study it at a higher level. And that misunderstanding is responsible for a widespread tendency to be cynical about or dismissive of science.
It is a pity because essentially the scientific process starts and ends with a sense of wonder. It starts with a "Wow... look at that!" and ends with another "Wow!", which is also another beginning. In between there is some technical stuff. It goes something like this:
- Wow! Look at that! I wonder how that works?
- Here's my theory. I think it works like this.
- Let's carry out some sort of test to see if my theory can explain what we observed.
- OK. Now we have some information from our test. Hmm... just looks like a chaotic lot of numbers to me. We need to do some kind of maths to sort it out and see if there's any meaningful pattern there.
- Hey! There is a meaningful pattern, and it seems consistent with my theory! Let's see if when we do the whole thing again it gives the same sort of result. But let's make the test bigger, including lots more examples of the thing we are investigating. That way we'll get more reliable information.
- Yeah, same result! Now let's tell people about it and wait and see if others can confirm what we seem to have found out.
- Yes, they can! So, let's say my theory is right unless any further information contradicts it, then we'll have to look at things again.
- Uh, oh. Look at that! My theory can't explain that. I wonder how that works then! We might have to change my theory, or even ditch it. Let's try to come up with a better theory.
- Come to think of it, think of all the possibilities this opens up. "Wow!" (Back to Nº1).
And the mistaken belief that information is the same as facts leads to disastrous results. At its most banal, it leads to the attitude that "You can never trust what scientists say, they're always changing their minds". The press is more than happy to feed such attitudes by reporting initial and partial information as "a new discovery", because fundamentally, the press sells headlines: no new headlines, no news, no sales. More seriously, it leads to potentially disastrous public policy decisions, such as the widespread public health advice to cut out dietary fats, which reigned supreme from the 1980s to the 2010s.
Unfortunately, and here the cynics have a point, this last example was all the more serious because the misunderstanding of science was aided and abetted by scientists themselves. The orthodoxy, guardians of the "scientific consensus", had achieved such an inflated view of its own importance and gravity (this happens from time to time), that it lost sight of the fact that while "we can only work on the basis of what we currently think we know", it is often wiser to not intervene in important matters when it is likely we do not know enough to do so intelligently.
There, self-importance prevailed over wisdom. This is a human trait to which scientists are just as prone as politicians and journalists. But none of this means that science, used but not abused, is anything other than a wonderful tool for improving our understanding of our wonderful world. It is not the only way to learn about our world, and it has its limitations, but it still is a wonderful tool.
I will continue to walk the world in childlike awe.