Saturday, May 17, 2008

Exaggerated Uncertainty

It is often said that science has a PR problem. Scientific knowledge can obviously benefit society in many ways. Popularizers of science attempt to provide laypersons with a basic understanding and appreciation for the power and scope of rational inquiry. Their task is an important one. A technique used to do this is to present unexpected discoveries as exciting. This leads to the tendency of popular works to focus on historical scientific revolutions, periods of development where old paradigms were dramatically superceded. The classic examples of this are Einstein's work on the theory of relativity and the development of quantum mechanics. There is a downside to this approach, I think. This causes some people to believe that large bodies of evidence can be invalidated at any time by a new discovery. In other words, the need to update scientific models is not due to verifiable progress towards truth, but because the scientific method has weak epistemilogical foundations. In recent times this problem has been worsened by the acceleration of scientific progress and the shoddy journalism of the mass media that reports on these discoveries. In reality, scientific theories are updated because of incremental refinements to the body of knowledge in light of new evidence. This process of refinement is where the power of science lies. It is a widespread misconception that Einstein demonstrated that Newton was wrong. Newtonian mechanics is just as true for the size range and velocities that he observed in the seventeenth century as it is today. Einstein extended Newton's work to sizes and velocities that the progress in mathematics, physics, and technology during the subsequent two centuries allowed him to describe. Later scientists always have an unfair advantage over earlier ones because the incremental changes that survive rigorous testing are reliable. I think it would be helpful if popular science writers emphasized the reliability of incremental refinement and the beautiful concepts it illuminates. Much of the technology we use everyday without thinking about it requires a large number of facts uncovered by science to be true in order for it to work properly. Maybe if people understand how accurate the scientific process must be to give us modern conveniences, they will be more willing to accept its less tangible conclusions and value it more highly.