Monday, March 2, 2009

What's Wrong With This Picture? A Short Rant

(slight paraphrase)

"We have to do this the scientific way



Try and prove it....."

I was grading papers tonight. Given that I fall asleep easily while doing this means that I need distractions, so I was watching an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the first season episode "Home Soil" the good doctor Beverly Crusher delivered this stunner of a statement about "science". As much as Star Trek was a half-decent attempt at good science fiction (don't ask a physicist, maybe), the statement above represents the kind of television/movie silliness that science teachers have fought against for decades: a fundamental misunderstanding of how we gain knowledge in an objective manner.

The term "theory" has been misused for a long time, I suppose because it is harder to get actors to say "hypothesis" in a convincing manner. And to get the science right means cluttering up a crisp script where everything has to happen in the 47 minutes or so that isn't commercials in an hour-long broadcast (and yes, I know all about 47 and Star Trek). How many times have you heard someone say that an explanation is "just a theory"? Or, "here's my theory about why something happened the way it did". These statements only work when the word "theory" is replaced by "hypothesis".

Theories, on the other hand, are models that are accepted and understood by scientists as to the way the universe works: atoms are theoretical; so is gravity. And evolution. We don't "believe" in atoms or evolution, we accept them on the basis of years of research and exploration. And the world and universe behave exactly as if these phenomena are in operation. One can choose not to believe in gravity, but trip over a rock and you will land on your face anyway.

In any case, the Creation-Science/Intelligent Design movements use a method much like that at the start of the post: Decide upon the truth, and garner all the evidence that supports this truth. You can try to call this approach "science", but it is not science.

So, to assist the Star Trek writers, here is Beverly Crusher's statement, updated to reflect the way things work in scientific research. Sorry I'm 20 years too late for this episode...

"We have to do this the scientific way...."

"Observe the phenomena, collect evidence and organize all the data, formulate as many possible explanations (hypotheses) as we can, and design tests that can disprove our hypotheses. If one explanation is finally supported by the evidence and cannot be disproven, we will accept the explanation and act accordingly, knowing even then that our explanation could be disproven if new evidence emerges".

Sorry script-writers, science is sometimes hard to jam into a sentence (and this, among many reasons, is why I am not writing scripts for a living). I welcome any of my readers to try to make this more succinct. But I wish Hollywood would try a bit harder; it would be better for us all.

Thus endeth a short mini-rant...