Why should John Doe study science?
It's a good question. And while scientists complain that the public is, for the most part, scientifically illiterate, they often do not supply a compelling answer: "It's important," the chemist asserts; "It's enlightening to know how Nature works," the physicist argues in appealing to scientific idealism; "It's all about life," the biologist contends; "We should know the origin of our existence," the paleontologist posits; "And we should know our place in the universe," the dreamy-eyed astronomer declares while holding up a glossy, black and white photograph of a spiral galaxy.
We are all quite content to buy plastics, gasoline, paints, ceramic glaze and other products of the chemical industry without knowing what is a polymeric hydrocarbon chain or a covalent bond or an oxidation/reduction reaction. You need not study physics to be a major-league baseball player or president of the United States; the majority of "successful people" never take a physics course, and indeed, most people avoid the subject out of fear of failing. For many businessmen, biology is for the birds; and paleontology is even worse: the classification of fossilized dead bones. For the average John Doe, the stars are in heaven not on Earth.
to judge whether the US should proceed with
an anti-ballistic missile defense system?
So why study science?
Consider the following definition: Science is a description of how the physical world works.
Ergo, if you never study science, you won't know how things function. But there seems to be a contradiction: The person who never took a science course still knows that apples fall from trees to Earth.
It is often said that toddlers are born scientists: manipulating things to see how they behave, spilling water to watch it flow, releasing objects to see them drop and asking their parents countless "how" and "why" questions. In effect, they are doing science; they are exploring their surroundings and learning how it works. So, in this sense, all of us *have* studied science.
The reason for taking physics, biology or chemistry in school is to increase this knowledge, to achieve a better and a more precise understanding of Nature perhaps through the use of mathematics and to learn of things that we cannot necessarily see (such as an atom or a cell) or touch (such as a distant star or galaxy) or directly experience (such as an electric field or a Jurassic dinosaur). Science education is most successful when it trains the student to evaluate the consequences of actions and to determine the relation or non-relation among events by using common-sense reasoning.
Given the above definition of science, the answer to the question is obvious: John Doe should study science to increase his understanding of the physical world. Such learning is helpful and useful because it allows John Doe to function better, to make superior decisions and to profit from his knowledge.
To emphasize the point, consider the consequences of a lack of scientific understanding. A potentially harmful form of scientific illiteracy is physical delusion, that is, a belief about the world that is completely false.
In 1997, led by their leader Marshall Applewhite, 39 members of the Heavens Gate commune committed suicide. Why? They believed that the Earth was about to be re-cycled as the third millennium was approaching and that a spaceship in the tail of Comet Hale-Bopp would whisk them away to Heaven. They consumed lethal quantities of barbiturates to "shed their bodies", which they referred to as "containers".
It didn't take too powerful a telescope to ascertain that there was nothing in the tail of the comet except dust, gases and debris; biologists shuddered at the thought that the human body is a container; and the third millennium has arrived without a final holocaust. Clearly, the Heavens Gate individuals were out of touch with reality. Fortunately, very few people have this level of misconception about the world.
In ancient times, many civilizations worshipped the Sun. Perhaps, they did this because that glowing celestial ball seemed like a powerful entity in their lives. Or, perhaps they did it to make sure the Sun would rise each day or because they believed in a sun god. Many things, in ancient times seemed mysterious. Praying to the Sun may have been comforting but there were more important matters for ancient people to spend their time on.
Medieval alchemists wanted to turn lead into gold. It was a fruitless endeavor because they used chemical reactions. Nowadays, we know why: Chemical reactions cannot change one element into another. Only nuclear processes, which involve intense energies not available until the 20th century, can accomplish this.
Footnote: Actually, alchemy played an important role in the development of chemistry because it forced people to experiment with materials. Likewise, astrology helped the development of astronomy because it made people study the stars.
Having gathered more than 2000 years of scientific information, we no longer waste our time praying to the Sun or trying to make gold out of lead. However, occasionally, some people do the modern equivalent of these misdirected undertakings. They make decisions that are influenced by a newspaper astrology column, or they use an alternative medicine treatment that can been shown to be ineffective, or they invest in a high-tech company that is based on faulty science, or they avoid buying an attractive house because it is near an electrical power line.
We should know how it works.
Recently, two books on scientific misunderstanding have been published: Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud by Robert Park and Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction by Charles Wynn and Aurthur Wiggins. Both are worth reading.
Both cite the Heavens Gate Cult incident. Indeed, the prologue to Quantum Leaps begins with this tragedy.
The key differences between the two books are summarized as follows: Quantum Leaps concentrates on the scientific method and its use of experimental techniques to debunk pseudoscience. Extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis, supernatural phenomenon, aliens, out-of-body experiences, the creationist view of the origin of the universe and the evolution of life, astrology and fortune telling are among the subjects that are shown to be invalid or non-existent beyond a reasonable doubt. Voodoo Science is concerned about the sociology of scientific misconceptions: how it is that people deceive themselves and how it can be avoided.
Robert Park, who is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, often uses common sense to judge the validity of a claim: Given current scientific understanding, is the purported result reasonable? Does it violate a law of physics? If it doesn't, is it plausible? This gedanken-like method is underutilized in Quantum Leaps, but it is, in fact, a most fruitful approach: Few of us – including most scientists – have the time and money to carry out experiments to decide the veracity of extraordinary claims. We frequently need to rely on our scientific common sense. Among the topics treated in Voodoo Science are proposals for perpetual motion machines and unlimited free energy devices, dubious alternative-medicine methods, safety concerns about low frequency electromagnetic fields, cold fusion, aliens, and superstitions.
Consider how the two books might approach Quantum Healing by Deepak Chopra, which claims that the power of the mind can cure illnesses and turn back the aging process. Robert Park immediately dismisses this as nonsense. He argues that although one's state of mind may affect one's health, its effect is extremely limited. Upon examining Chopra's book, he finds that Deepak Chopra has no idea of the meaning of the word "quantum" and that he has completely manipulated the concept for his purposes. Yet millions of people bought the book and have subscribed to its methods. Charles Wynn (a chemistry professor) and Aurthur Wiggins (a physics professor) would take a more conservative approach: They would call for a double-blind experiment to determine the validity of Chopra's methods. Since the brain is able to produce chemicals that may affect health, it is necessary to be almost 100% certain of results.
to create a myth that will require years to rectify.
Quantum Leaps is methodical in its approach to nonsense science: Its first chapter presents the five steps of the scientific method: (1) Observation, (2) Hypothesis, (3) Predictions, (4) Experimentation and Testing, and (5) Recycling (that is, rejecting or revising the hypothesis). Next, it illustrates the procedure with classic examples such as models for the atom. Then it applies the scientific method to the topics mentioned above. For example, the existence of aliens is treated as a hypothesis. Evidence is gathered and examined. Conclusions are drawn. The two authors find that "To date, there is not a shred of credible evidence to support the belief that extraterrestrials have visited us."
The Roswell incident often arises in discussions of aliens. In June 1947, several people observed dazzling lights arranged in a saucer-like fashion streaking across the night sky near a United States Army airforce base in Roswell, New Mexico. Particularly suspicious were the actions of the Army Air Force who roped off a section of land. Subsequently, a civilian found some wreckage consisting of metal foil, cardboard, sticks and other materials. The US Army announced that a weather balloon had crashed, and then instigated a campaign of secrecy, thereby adding a certain mysteriousness to the event. Rumors of aliens circulated, and the US government's silence led many to believe that the US was involved in a cover-up.
Indeed, it was. As both books reveal, the object that crashed in New Mexico in 1947 was a reconnaissance spy craft designed for cold war operations. The US government did not want the Soviet Union to find out about any aspect of its intelligence-gathering program.
Throughout his book, Robert Park criticizes the media for its role in propagating nonsense. As an example, the Roswell incident was exploited by TV programs such as NBC's Unsolved Mysteries, CBS's 48 Hours, CNN's Larry King Live and FOX's Alien Autopsy. It only takes a small amount of misreporting by the media to create a myth that will require years to rectify.
So why do many people believe in scientific absurdities? Dr. Park argues that evolution has shaped the human brain into a "belief machine" that tends to want to accept ideas even when they are false. The brain has a hefty appetite for ordered structures, logical relations, patterns, associations and explanations. The placebo effect illustrates this: If a person is told that a medicine will cure a sickness, and the person believes this, then the person will feel better after taking it even if it consists of pure water. Many alternative-medicine treatments are based of this effect: homeopathy, pain magnets, touch therapy and certain herbs.
Robert Park also identifies other factors that lead to voodoo science: flawed experimental methods; not asking whether a result is reasonable; focusing on that which supports a hypothesis and ignoring that which does not; working in secrecy instead of subjecting ideas, research and proposals to open dialog and feedback; and not doubting that something is wrong when the evidence begins to indicate as such. In recent times, more and more scientists work in secrecy afraid that someone will steal their ideas, results or inventions. In the opposite direction, some experimental groups have announced their conclusions to the press before submitting them to the peer review process (for an example of this, see Jupiter Scientific's report on the anomalous magnetic moment of the muon); the motivation of such experimentalists is public recognition and media attention, which are often important in getting funded. In the case of cold fusion, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann committed both of these strategic mistakes.
Another problem is the difficulty that congressmen have in evaluating scientific and technological projects. These leaders are usually not well versed in science. Should they spend money on the space station, and, if so, how many billions of dollars should be budgeted? Do senators have enough scientific acumen to judge whether the US should proceed with an anti-ballistic missile defense system?
Science education is most successful
In the Heavens Gate incident, confusing the spiritual and the physical led to violence. This, of course, is usually not the case. In 1995, the Natural Law Party succeeded in getting its candidate John Hagelin, a research Ph.D. physicist and professor, on the presidential ballot in all 50 states. This party believes that transcendental mediation can cure the ills of the nation. Despite his unusual platform, Dr. Hagelin was granted ample television airtime. Although he stop short of saying it directly on national TV, it was clear that he felt that if everybody in the country simultaneously mumbled the appropriate mantras for poverty to go away, it would. In their Project to Reduce Violent Crime, members of the Natural Law Party managed to use mediation to reduce the number of murders in Washington, DC, at least that it what they announced. Statistics indicated otherwise as the book Voodoo Science points out.
Both books are well written. Voodoo Science is the more enjoyable to read because it is narrative: the stories of misguided science are entertaining. One weakness is that it is a bit repetitive. For example, Joe Newman and his perpetual "energy machine" surface again and again. It would be better to tell the story once in a single section. Quantum Leap is punctuated with delightful scientific cartoons by Sidney Harris. It also functions well as supplementary reading for a general introductory science course because it better illustrates scientific methodology. It is particular valuable in helping people to decipher what is bogus and what is not in a modern society fraught with high technology. It is thorough in its treatment. For example, the chapter on divination dismisses fortune telling, palmistry, numerology, graphology (the analysis of handwriting), scrying (the use of an object such as a crystal ball for seeing the future), the Ouija board, I Ching, tarot cards, and astrology.
It is important for a scientist to develop enough physical insight to be able to judge the likely outcome of an experiment without doing it. Likewise, it is important for John Doe to have enough physical intuition to know when something is the real McCoy or simply bogus hocus-pocus. It is a question of knowing the difference between lead and gold, and that can pay dividends in our modern society. Both books do not sufficiently emphasize the best reason for studying science that is given at the beginning of this review: We live in this world; we should know how it works.
Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud and Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction are available through the internet at Amazon.com. Click here to order Voodoo Science and Click here to order Quantum Leaps. Jupiter Scientific participates in Amazon.com's Associates Program.