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Word of the Day: Science

Word of the Day: Science

I decided to write Word of the Day for a few reasons. One reason is that I just find it fascinating that language exists and allows us the opportunity to express complex ideas with a nothing more than vibrations in the air. Language is an amazingly powerful tool that can be used to bring people together under a common purpose. It can also be used to create tension and divide people. That's the other main reason I started this column. I have found that definitions change over time. Sometimes this is a completely natural process, but it can result in disconnect from the original idea that was being conveyed and lead people to unwittingly make decisions under a misguided belief that the disconnect is insubstantial.

That's why I wanted to talk about the word science. If we trace the etymology of this word back to it's Latin roots, it's a word that indicates knowledge or information. It denotes a kind of certainty. It's used to describe knowledge or expertise in a particular area as well as the whole of human knowledge. Later philosophies were built up around how to achieve this certainty of knowledge, and what mostly has emerged from that is what we typically call the "scientific method" today.

Today most people are referring to the scientific method when they talk about science. This is a method of creating hypotheses and building a repeatable test suite that can demonstrate that your hypotheses aren't wrong. Other scientists then will check your experimental processes and verify your work. At this point you can start to call your ideas "theories", but they still aren't considered facts. For this reason we have very few scientific "laws" which are essentially real facts. Thermodynamics is a field where we have done significant enough research that scientists are happy to consider some of our observations laws.

Problems emerge when we start to treat a hypothesis as a theory or law and make decisions based on ideas that haven't been adequately tested. This can lead to catastrophe. Unfortunately this is exactly what is happening in our scientific community today, and this predates any of the pandemic response. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it's not something that those in charge are unaware of.

In the modern day scientific community, the process of having your work verified is known as peer review. This is the point when people are supposed to make sure that the outlined experiments are testing for the right things and provide the expected output. This typically happens during the publication process for a particular study as is well explained in this American Thinker article from 2016. As the author points out historically this process has led to some pretty significant mistakes, and some pretty bad ideas have been considered scientific fact as a result.

Another interesting article on this topic was written in the Guardian in 2017. Stephen Burnanyi points out that the industry behind scientific publication is an incredibly lucrative one, built on the backs of tax payers the world over. "It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill." The publishers say their work is essential for the distribution of scientific works, but it seems like both governments and scientists see through the scam despite continuing to engage in a "perverse and needless" process. The article goes on to somewhat explain how the scientific publishing industry got to where it is today.

Scientists are well aware that they seem to be getting a bad deal. The publishing business is “perverse and needless”, the Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen wrote in a 2003 article for the Guardian, declaring that it “should be a public scandal”.

After WWII the scientific publishing industry was generally not very profitable. The British government created a new scientific publisher by merging a British and German publication into one which was run by ex-intelligence operatives. One of the people who was put in charge was Robert Maxwell. It's quite interesting so if you have the time I recommend reading the full article. What I wanted to point out about Maxwell though is that his life is not one without controversy. The Guardian also wrote an article on his life which is worth the read. His death is shrouded in mystery. Some say he fell off of his yacht while others believe he may have committed suicide. Still others say he was assassinated by Mossad having been suspected to have been an agent. There were no witnesses to what actually happened so no one will ever know for sure.

The interesting take away from all of this is that science is a useful tool, but the scientific community is vulnerable to mistakes and corruption as easily as any other industry. There are known flaws in the information gathering and sharing models currently in use which may lead to incorrect assumptions being made. I believe the scientific process demands skepticism in order to remain unbiased. If we continue to berate people who disagree with us on issues which have not been substantially proven to be one way or another, or we take action on incomplete science, we do a disservice to the body of human knowledge and risk the safety and well-being of all mankind.

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Jamie Larson