May 25, 2012

I Have A New Laser

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I like science. There is just so much about it that is awesome. Look at all the toys that science gives us, like R/C Cars and helicopters (Did I mention I got a new laser pointer?) Or what about all of those handy dandy tools, gadgets, and gizmos that we have, thanks to science. You've got things like power tools and non-stick pans and the triumvirate of computers, cell phones, and the internet. If nothing else, the lifesaving technologies that we have available to us (thanks vaccines!) are rooted in science. If you're of a more philosophical nature, when we seek to understand the world we expand our potential both as a species and as individuals. The knowledge that the scientific process creates can be used to enrich our lives. It can create new markets and new ways for people to exhibit their genius. Plus, science makes fireworks more awesome.

If I had to choose a favorite aspect of science then I must say that it is the scientific mindset. I like the idea of curiosity run rampant. But a curiosity self-tempered by critical analysis and empirical observation. I want to know about the world. I want to understand how it works. I find joy and beauty in reality. There is a depth and breadth of ideas available to me. There is a multitude of ways to explain the world. Some are right and some are wrong, and it is through critical analysis and empirical evidence that I can tell the difference. To me, the scientific mindset is innately curious, rigorous in its self-examination, skeptical, and above all, absolutely in love with the real world. That resonates with me.*

I think that what I find most attractive about this way of thinking is its versatility. The tools and techniques used in biological chemistry are vastly different from those used in astrophysics. How a historian goes about their business is different than that of a sociologist. The very nature of the topic explored dictates such changes. Yes, there is a ton of overlap between areas, and they all make use of mathematics. They may have surface differences, but they are fundamentally the same thing. And it is precisely that fundamental similarity that I am talking about. The drive to understand the world through logic and empiricism underscores much of science.

I have long thought that the mind of science could have much more widespread use than it does now. Consider social programs, such as foreign and domestic aide. We have to get a grapple on the magnitude and complexity of the problems; we have to find their cause. We have to figure out ways to cure or alleviate the symptoms, and we need ways to check that our plans are working. We could also consider civic law. What laws work, which don't? What are the ultimate goals of our laws? How can we know, for sure, that a law is no longer needed or has caused more trouble than it cured?

I wish to be clear. I'm not making the claim that we need more science literate people in congress. We most certainly do, but the effort is wasted if there isn't a corresponding rise in scientific thinking. We don't just need more science knowledge at play in our political system, we need a more systematic way of understanding our society. With a country as large and complex as ours, in world as large and complex as ours, we need some way to see what's going on. We can't just think up something, fight for it in congress, and hope things get better once it passes. We have to do research to make sure we haven't missed anything. We have to hypothesize an idea for what could work. We have to test this hypothesis out. This could involve more research, questionnaires, field studies or pilot programs. Once we have as much data, as much knowledge, as much understanding, of the problem and our solution as possible, we can then make it into law. We would of course do follow up studies to ascertain that program’s effectiveness, and we would always be open to the idea that there is a better way of doing things.** Given our current situation, any step in this direction is going be a step in the right direction.

I would begin with the political process itself.  As a citizen, I want to know as much as I can about issues and candidates. What has this person voted for in the past, what bills have they fought for? Speaking of, what about having an easily accessible repository of bills? You could link this in with a candidates voting history for a whole heaping helping of juicy data. I want to have such things because I want to make an informed decision when it comes time to vote. I want to see metrics galore of our society, with lots of statistical analysis. I want to see this data used to determine what works and what doesn't. I want us to lose our need of campaign promises and flawless leaders. I want us to lose our fear of failure.  In short, I want us to embrace the scientific mentality so that we can rationally decide what the best course for our society is.

That being said, it is unsurprising that I liked this article by Mark Henderson for The Guardian. He starts with a quick rundown of how science acts like an idea sieve, separating the good ideas from the bad. He then moves into the lack of the experimental thinking in government. He claims each new piece of legislation is a social experiment. Yet unlike with medicine, there are no experimental trials or pilot programs.

He then elaborates his point by putting forward several areas that could use a touch of experimental thinking, a dash of scientific reasoning. He hypothesizes that the school day be modified to match teen’s circadian rhythms. He also proposes a way to empirically prove which works better, prison or rehabilitation for drug offenders. He also shares his ideas on how foreign aid may benefit from scientific thought.

He certainly makes a compelling case, at least one argued better than mine. I truly think that, especially in a democracy, we need all the facts we can get. Science is great for that!


*Which makes sense, since it's my definition
**A bit idealistic, I know. Ideals are perfect, and we can never achieve perfection. But we can come close. Just because something is impossible is no reason to stop trying.