Ruminating on Science

Science (from LatinĀ  Scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.[1]

So begins Wikipedia’s definition of science on August 22, 2012. Remember – Wikipedia is subject to change by anyone at any time, both the secret of Wikipedia’s brilliance, and its Achilles’ Heel. I’ve been a licensed CPA for more than 20 years. But my subscription to Science News is even older than that. I guess that gives me an unusual perspective on the debate that drives today’s issues.

Wikipedia’s definition the day I looked it up turns out to be a thoughtful paraphrase of J. L. Heilbron‘s introduction to the 2003 The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, in which he describes Science as a meld of established and theoretical explanations of the physical world. The two parts are purposefully distinct: “established” explanations (tennis balls and all models of Estes model rockets go up into the atmosphere and fall back to the ground so consistently I can predict the outcome of a given launch) and “predictions” (each of which lives apart until its last advocate quits or until it becomes an “established” explanation). They are very different halves of a sphere. As J.L. initially said,

“… modern science is a discovery as well as an invention. It was a discovery that nature generally acts regularly enough to be described by laws and even by mathematics; and required invention to devise the techniques, abstractions, apparatus, and organization for exhibiting the regularities and securing their law-like descriptions.”

Coming from an accountant’s perspective as I do, I think of the “testable explanations about the universe” portion of Science as a sort of balance sheet. It’s the state of affairs on a given day, at a particular moment. You can measure it, take pictures of it, and gather independent observers around you who can agree they saw the same thing you did.

The other part – the “predictions about the universe” a.k.a. “invention to devise…” – is much more fuzzy. It’s the most attractive theories, at any given moment, about things we don’t understand.

At times, this category has included:

  • Thinking the Manhattan Project would incinerate the atmosphere over six seconds. Instead it saved millions of today’s grandparents’ life and limb, in Japan and America.
  • Imagine: If we can just kill all the witches, imagine all the people living life in peace.
  • These astrophysicists claiming to be honing in on the Science of galaxies are idiots. They’ve been predicting their stupid Higgs bosun for decades, and can’t prove a thing.
  • Understand the shape of the skull, predict anti-social behavior.
  • Bleeding will cure George Washingtion’s cold or flu.

To be fair, at times this category has also included:

  • Pasteurizing milk reduces food poisoning.
  • Beams of radiation will kill cancerous tissue faster than it will kill non-cancerous tissue.
  • The sun will rise tomorrow, I promise.
  • Administering insulin to dying diabetics will keep them alive for decades, until some other malady claims them.
  • No, we circle the Sun, not the other way around. I promise.
  • Beta is a better format than VHS (just kidding – that’s a joke thrown in for the grandparents out there)

The “predictions” are like an income statement. “Predictions” which eventually prove consistently “testable” are pluses; “Predictions” that eventually prove false are minuses. If more predictions this year turn out to be consistently testable than false, it’s a good year and the balance sheet grows. The income statement is positive. If it’s the other way around, it’s a bad year, the income statement shows a loss, and the balance sheet shrinks.

The years just before Science figured out that bleeding flu victims was a bad idea was a time when Science probably moved humanity backwards. Sadly, those years included the year George Washington had the flu. He was retired, so his medical murder did not interrupt the course of the development of the United States of America, back when their separate consensuses were considered. But let there be no doubt: America’s best medical Scientists killed our first President.

My late friend and colleague Bill Raggio often described aggressive policy-makers as being “too far over their skis”.Ā  Bill grew up in Reno, less than an hour’s drive from the mid-60’s winter Olympics. He was referring to how far forward a skier should lean over their skis, to make themselves go faster. The reckless pursuit of fastest can leave a skier too far over their center of gravity. It doesn’t last long, and is usually followed by “Wild World Of Sports” caliber video of tumbling skier.

Can society get too far over its skis when it takes scientific theory as fact?