Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Scientific Uncertainty

(I'm not sure I can tie this one back to books or writing in any way, but this blog is where my brain wanders around unsupervised so I'm going to share - cuz it's Christmas and the entire publishing industry is shut down anyway.)

So I read this article on genetics, heredity, and the changing scape of what we Know Is True. Cool article. But at the end my reaction was, "Duh." Which I think is probably not the reaction they were going for. Mendelian genetics "facts" have always seemed grossly oversimplified to me, so I'm not even remotely surprised to find they aren't absolute, but my "Duh" extends beyond that - to the very principle of scientific certainty.

I'm fascinated by the evolution of scientific knowledge over the centuries. Everything we Know For A Fact was something we once Knew Couldn't Possibly Be True. New discoveries in our understanding of the universe almost always come from the realization that everything we were sure of was wrong. So why is it that present day scientists are always surprised and resistant when a new theory that flies in the face of accepted facts crops up?

I have a conflicted relationship with science. I love the possibilities, but the idea of concrete knowledge, of fact, seems unscientific in and of itself. Certainty defies the scientific principle of not assuming anything. Hypothesize, test, hypothesize again, test again, exhaust your options & theorize... but then somewhere between the lab and the classroom scientific premises transition from theories to facts. And whenever there is that leap, it is a leap of faith. My sister, a science teacher, has an almost religious relationship with science. It is her certainty. But how do you maintain certainty in the details when the overarching truth is a principle of uncertainty?

For me, science tends to fall into three categories. The stuff we just make up to assign categories to things around us (why do I need to know that genus?), the stuff we take our best guess about to describe the way the world really works (physics! yay!), and all the stuff we don't know yet which is going to be as obvious to us as of course the world is round in a century or two - what this article refers to (metaphorically) as Dark Matter. I love that stuff.

But maybe it mostly appeals to me because Dark Matter is a giant what if - and as a fiction writer, that's my favorite part. Though I can see that if you were a scientist who'd built your life around a certain strain of scientific truth (for example genetic research for disease markers) and you found out that the premise on which your research hinged (Mendelian genetic theory) was flawed, that would be a hard pill to swallow. I wonder if the historic persecution of scientific revolutionaries had anything to do with scientific resistance. Could it instead have been about the human element? Of the simple fact that if that New Truth was accepted, then all the hard work of a lifetime is thrown out the window? It's hard enough to admit you're wrong when it's a small thing... when it's your life's work? Ouch.

Hmm... there's a character in that.

1 comment:

Vivant said...

I read that article too. Fascinating, and I enjoyed your take on it.

It reminded me of what I experienced years ago when I dated a college professor and socialized with his colleagues. I expected professors to have an abundance of intellectual curiosity and be open-minded, but I found most of them to be extremely entrenched in their beliefs and resistant to other possibilities.

I would love to see our educational system focus on teaching children to think and become life-long learners rather than being so regimented. But that's another whole diatribe!