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How Science Works October 11, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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About 65 million years ago, give or take, dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  Then, on a single day (more or less), a massive asteroid struck in what is today the southern Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Yucatan Peninsula.  A decade or two ago, there was evidence of a massive asteroid strike in the Gulf of Mexico at the K-T boundary.  Seemingly, this changed the Earth’s climate so drastically that dinosaurs became extinct (this took likely a million or so years).  While this theory was first proposed about two decades ago, it is receiving additional support through further research.

None of this is known in an absolute sense; there were no witnesses, of course.  Paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, and more have deduced this from evidence on the ground.  You will truly be amazed at the amount of effort scientists have put into discerning the distant past.

It’s important to note that the evidence is not first-hand.  Scientists typically start with a theory, then look for clues that support or reject the theory.  The clues are not clear-cut.  Other scientists pose alternative theories.  More research is conducted.  Based on the preponderance of research, one theory may win out over time, but other scientific theories may still be valid.  We may never know truth in an absolute sense.

I remember, now about 45 years ago, a novel by Larry Niven called Lucifer’s Hammer, which postulated a modern-day (well, the 1970s) asteroid strike on the Earth.  For months before the strike, the possibility was dismissed because the margin or error was too large.  That margin of error became smaller and smaller, until the day the asteroid, in major pieces, hit various parts of the Earth.  But only the “kooks” bought into it before the margin of error equaled certainty.

All science is messy, and that causes many people fits.  Theories are proposed, supported, refuted, and supported further.  We had Newton’s Three Laws (which are not the same as Asimov’s fictional Three Laws), until Einstein proposed a more accurate theory.  But Newton’s laws are still useful for many computations, and in a physical sense, easier to understand.  So we continue to use them.

Too many otherwise educated people become frustrated at the ambiguities and contradictions of science, and reject the conclusions because they don’t like the process.  Others fail to grasp the nuances, and fall back on undocumented legends and stories.

Does this mean we should reject science because it is a work in progress?  Many people say yes, reverting to other beliefs.  We think that science is all certainty, and when we become disillusioned, we reject everything.  But that’s not how science works.  As we are increasingly in a world where it may take decades or longer to discern truth, or even never completely be cognizant of truth, we can’t reject science because we don’t like the process.

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