Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Science is Hard, or Joe vs. the Cosmoquantumdestructocollider

There’s been this idea churning in the back of my head for the last week or so. It got going reading this post at the (aptly named) Science Blog. In it, Jonah Lehrer bemoans an issue he has perceived: that advanced scientific research is generally headed into areas that have little relevance to the public at large. My initial reaction was a snarky “I bet Einstein would have annoyed the bloggeristas as well.”

Then I picked up the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine last weekend (yes, we all know it pales in comparison to NYT Sunday Mag), the focus of which was dynamics in the ongoing soap opera that is creationism vs. evolution. While the primary article was a decent primer in current trends towards reconciling a deity-driven model of the universe with the scientific approach, it didn’t cover any new ground. The more interesting piece was this backgrounder on the Creation Museum that’s recently opened in Louisville, Kentucky. The museum developers have spared no expense in creating a pseudo-science museum experience, right down to animatronics of homo sapiens sapiens hanging out with various grass-eating dinos (of course, they wouldn’t be hanging out with T. Rex, would they?).

At first glance, the two items seem completely unrelated. Either author is likely to be offended to be mentioned in the context of the other. Yet try as I might, the themes embedded within each kept swirling around the other like a pair of stars trapped in a complex gravity dance. Somehow, there was an intrinsic relation between the two articles.

As I’ve had time to mull on it, I think I’ve come to comprehend the underlying issue: we, as a society, do a dismal job engaging people in understanding the “what” and “why” of science (ok, so I’m sure it feels like a bit of a “duh” moment, but stick with me). We do a better job at the “how”, inasmuch as scientists like to show off their shiny cosmoquantumdestructocollider beams to the world. Humans can intuit hardware—they have a harder time with software. What we don’t do, what we’ve never done, is to foster human intuition where it comes to scientific principle, and both these articles are perfect examples.

Consider Lehrer with his “science is hard” complaint. If you look at the significant strides that have been made, especially in the field of physics (where the bulk of his ire is focused), they have all occurred in the shadow of an uncomprehending public. I joked about Einstein, but your Joe Bagadoughnuts still doesn’t intuit relativity. Try explaining to him that relativistic effects could cause different observers to experience a time series of non-casually related events in different orders, and see what kind of look you get. You might as well fuggetabut da math.

The Creation Museum represents the idea taken to its illogical extreme. Faced with an environment lacking a clear framework upon which to develop intuition, humans revert to the known. Consider: Galileo wasn’t a heretic because he was right. He was a heretic because he challenged the preexisting intuition. Evolution challenges our current environment in much the same way. Yes, there are some in the scientific community who relish in rear guard attacks on evolution’s principles. But the real problem is our inability to integrate evolution within our human intuitive framework in the same way that, say, Euclidian geometry is part of the things we "don't know we know". I may not be able to write a proof that two parallel lines in two-dimensional space never intersect, but I "know" it to be the case.

Ultimately, I think this challenge results from deficiencies in three areas, which I will discuss in future posts (this one is already too long):

(1) Lack of effective explanatory models;
(2) Failure to maintain integration between the fields of philosophy and science;
(3) Culture.

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