Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Science vs. science

I'm thinking of getting a camcorder in the near future. Then, being me, I'll have to jack around with video editing and production.

Video editing takes lots of computer resources. And that's for a fairly narrow field of view. If you could use it to capture everything your eyes could see in every direction it would be far worse. And your eyes can't see everything.

Conclusion: we're missing most of what is happening around us all of the time. And that goes for the other senses too.

Of course human vision is inherently limited by the properties of our eyes. We can't see the radiation from a hot object until it starts emitting enough red radiation (by which time it's well beyond hot enough to burn us), and it would be nice if we could see predators at night by their body heat. We can't see ultraviolet rays, so we don't know to take cover when they are bad. Likewise our other senses have a limited "bandwidth".

Let's just say we had access to all of the observations made by all the people on the planet. Even then, they don't cover the entire biosphere,
and there's lots more stuff going on within the earth or in outer space. Even if everyone were a well-equipped, talented scientist, we'd still miss all but the tiniest bit of the data that is available.

And who says that we couldn't use more senses? Being capable of detecting radioactivity would be handy, as would detecting pathogens like anthrax or whatever else Saddam has been cooking up. There could be entire undiscovered phenomena out there that even our measuring instruments can't detect and that we don't even know to look for. And the instruments we do use generally work over a narrow range (just as we might use micrometers, rulers, and tapes to measure different length ranges), so you can miss things at each end. The result is that we don't even know all of what we're missing - we can't even place an upper bound on our ignorance of our surroundings.

And this whole process repeats forever, while our oldest quantitative observations might possibly date a millenium or two back out of the alleged 5 billion year age of the earth. I'm easy, let's call it 5000 years of science. That's one millionth of the life of the planet, and even less of the universe.

That tiny sampling of information we do have cannot be dealt with as is though, and it is subject to misinterpretation. We've all seen optical illusions to show how our senses play tricks on us. We invent all sorts of new illusions when we use optical devices like microscopes or even something as simple as a voltmeter. And we use categorical perception, which is a rich source of misunderstandings.

Yet somehow we get by. We learn to prioritize. We use external instruments for their presumed objectivity. We repeat experiments under differing circumstances. We use statistical methods to reduce information into its most useful forms, betting that we haven't found those uncommon but possible situations when the methods will lead to error.

That incredibly tiny, heavily processed sliver that remains from the original perceptions, taken from that absurdly short period of time in the life of the universe, is what is used by scientists to make claims about the beginning and the end of the universe.

One millionth of the life of a 70 year old man is less than 40 minutes. Imagine some alien coming here seeing Earth life forms for the first time, studying a human for 40 minutes, and claiming that he could predict every stage of development that had occured at conception, and what would happen until death. Good luck.

But there are people who find this credible, and scorn creationists.

Creationism is not science. As such it should not be taught in schools as science.

However, science should be taught warts and all. Ignoring its limitations is not scientific, and cosmology like the above makes an excellent example of just how expansive scientific predictions have been relative to actual observations. Believing the resulting predictions is very much an act of faith.

Further, It should be acknowledged that scientific theories are here today and gone tomorrow. For an example, curricula should include the flip-flops such as when global cooling predictings of the 70's gave way to the global warming predictions of the 90's.

It should be noted that science is influenced by personalities and politics, as it was with the theories of Trofim Lysenko.

Finally, it should be noted that science is subject to fraud. A classic example is Piltdown man, but there is much more than that.

Above all, it should be emphasized that science is not antithetical to religious faith. Otherwise we're introducing religion into schools in the form of atheism.

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