Monday, April 24, 2017

What Science Ain't

I sparked a bit of an argument on social media with a little jab at Bill Nye the Scientism Guy.
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a science expert in the sense that Larry the Cable Guy is cable expert.
People don't really like it when you attack their cherished sciensh celebrities. The reaction of those who chose to defend the attack was what we've come to expect: a discussion of credentials. For instance, because Nye is a degreed mechanical engineer, that makes him a qualified scientist. More than just a fictional character with a children's show, I suppose. But is he a scientist? What is a scientist? To find out, let's name the things we know aren't scientists and see where things start to get uncomfortable.

A tech junkie is not a scientist

There's a tendency for people to lump all technology in with science. For instance, people say that because engineering is a subset of science, engineers are scientists. But does working in technology make one a scientist? By that understanding, gadget gurus would have to be scientists, as well as mathematicians, etc. If all STEM is science, then why even have the TEM at all? It should just be S.

A book reader is not a scientist

Merely possessing knowledge does not make one a scientist. An idiot savant whose only skill is voracious reading skills coupled with perfect retainment might learn the entirety of some scientific discipline in a number of months. But that would not make him a scientist. Learning science does not count. I've taken quantum mechanics but no one pretends I'm a physicist.

A figure skater is not a scientist

Further, employing knowledge found from science does not make one a scientist. A figure skater might be a top-notch scholar, with a deep understanding of the laws of centripetal motion.  She might employ that knowledge to create visually stunning performances of her art. But that does not make her a scientist. An engineer is not a scientist just because he builds bridges. If they were, they'd have to build a series of spans at each crossing to determine which design & materials had the best results. But they don't do that. They build bridges using best design practices and knowledge previously acquired.

A teacher is not a scientist

Teaching is not science. Teaching is teaching. Science might be applied to teaching, but that is not the norm. Science is about discovering new information. Teaching is about passing the information down to others. Both are very important roles, but they are not the same. Just because Nye goes in front of kids and recreates science experiments does not make him a scientist any more than performing Beethoven makes a pianist a composer.

A computer scientist is not a scientist

The term science has been so abused that it cannot be trusted on sight. People have a tendency to latch on to the word in the belief that it will convey an air of legitimacy. But not much of what happens in the field of computer science is really science. The same can be said of political science and probably any field that feels compelled to include the word science. Computer science graduates understand the distinction and call themselves programmers or software engineers instead. Even within academia, they are more likely to refer to themselves as researchers than scientists.

A taxonomer is not a scientist

Here things start to get uncomfortable, as taxonomy is defined as a field of science. Is it really science? It doesn't do much to expand the field of human knowledge. Then again, organizing things allows for humans to perceive relationships they might otherwise miss. I would suggest that taxonomy can be a science, as long as it organizes observations against a testable theory. For instance, I might organize my record albums by the middle name of the drummer, but there is nothing to test. There is no underlying theory. I might theorize that all the K albums will be terrible, but testing random hypotheses probably doesn't constitute science.

On the other hand, organisms tend to be organized according to the theory of evolution. It is tested every time a new organism is discovered (does it fit in nicely or does it mess up the order?) and with the advent of new technologies, such as genomics. So a taxonomer might actually be a scientist, but we have a pretty good idea of when they are not.

A theoretician is not a scientist

Are theory guys scientists? What about philosophers and logicians? Our theory of science probably shouldn't exclude theoretical physicists, but what if it does? The job of the theorist is to create hypotheses. We might make a similar argument as we did of the taxonomer. Their work must be testable. String theory has lost support in the scientific community; no one believes it is a testable theory.

Can we apply the same requirement to the logician or the philosopher? I reckon there is no other way. Arm-chair philosophers might analyze their world view and come up with unique insights, but the process can only be called science if those insights are testable. In Make Predictions or STFU I implored anyone making social commentary to make predictions if they expect to be taken seriously. To be credible, one must be regularly proven correct, or show that they have modified their world view in response to poor predictions. This prediction-making is a poor man's science. Yes, it's prone to some confirmation bias, but formal science suffers that as well. Perhaps even more so, as disagreeing with the academic orthodoxy is a good way to sink a promising research career.

Bill Nye is not a scientist

Perhaps science is not really that complicated to define after all. Actions that expand or sharpen the collection of testable human knowledge is science. Everything else is something else. Acquiring scientific knowledge isn't science. Applying scientific knowledge isn't science. Teaching scientific knowledge isn't science. It would seem that there isn't anything that Bill Nye does that could actually be called science. Making and testing predictions on a blog is closer to science that what Bill Nye does, which is to apply pseudo-scientific rationale to preferred political and social objectives. We all tend to do it, but we don't all have a large platform to broadcast from or the veneer of scientific credibility. Really Bill Nye is a model for us of what not to be doing.

Science is a process. You are a scientist if you engage in science. Having a degree doesn't make you a scientist. Advocating science doesn't make you a scientist. However, to go back to my initial point, the question was never whether Nye is a credentialed scientist, or even whether he is a scientist at all. The question was whether he is a science expert. Can one be an expert in a field of which they do not participate? Yes, I think they can. Historians of medieval warfare don't normally engage in jousting tournaments to prove their legitimacy, for example.

So how do we know if Bill Nye is a science expert? Well if we could definitively answer that question then we could also answer a great number of more substantive problems. Like who to elect. The normal human intuition must suffice. Does he have great command of the science he discusses? Does he communicate that knowledge without contradicting himself? Is he able to make solid arguments in favor of the positions he advocates? The answer to all those questions, as shown in Bill Nye the Scientism Guy, is no he does not. He does not have the facts of climate change at his disposal. He deeply contradicts himself. And not only are his arguments easily refuted, they betray a novice grasp of the concepts he using. If he goes on Tucker Carlson specifically to talk about cognitive dissonance and then shows that he doesn't really understand the term, then what else is he talking about that he does not understand? 

It's interesting that Bill Nye is arguing that climate skeptics are suffering cognitive dissonance because they question the results of the academy, and so many people defend Nye because he is (allegedly) credentialed. It all sounds like the sort of dynamic that science was supposed to avoid. In the days before science, the epistemological orthodoxy was strictly controlled by the academy, which was basically the church. While the anti-science role of the church is somewhat exaggerated in the modern zeitgeist, it can't be denied that they kept a strong grip on what could be believed and what would be punished as heresy. The whole point of science was that knowledge became a matter of provable fact rather than theological or authoritarian belief. And yet here we are, being told that consensus of the academy is all the proof we need, and academic credentials are all that convey credibility. By the same people, mind you, who typically condemn religion because of it's enforced monopoly on intellectual discourse. It seems that too many of those people are less interested in destroying religion as a matter of  principle as they are in replacing it with their preferred religious orthodoxy, Scientism.

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