Science, such a sweet mystery

Aug 17, 2012 By David P. Barash, Los Angeles Times

I have been teaching and doing research at the university level for more than 40 years, which means that for more than four decades, I have been participating in a deception - benevolent and well intentioned, to be sure, but a deception nonetheless. As a scientist, I do science, and as a teacher and writer, I communicate it. That's where the deception comes in.

When scientists speak to the public or to students, we talk about what we know, what science has discovered. Nothing wrong with this. After all, we work hard deciphering nature's secrets and we're proud whenever we succeed. But it gives the false impression that we know pretty much everything, whereas the reality is that there's a whole lot more that we don't know.

Teaching and writing only about what is known risks turning science into a mere catalog of established facts, suggesting that "knowing" science is a matter of memorizing: this is how cells metabolize carbohydrates, this is how works, this is how the information encoded in DNA is translated into proteins.

In my first college-level biology course, I was required to memorize all of the and what they do. Even today, I can't stomach those darned chemicals, and I fear the situation is scarcely much better at most universities today.

Paradoxically, the strong point of American higher education - our talent as a nation vis-a-vis, say, China - is that we are supposed to be more open to innovation and original thinking, whereas they are more "into" rote learning. It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.

There's plenty to communicate because we are surrounded by mysteries, far more than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy. But don't get the wrong idea, Horatio: Mystery is not the same as mysticism, and I'm not referring to some sort of ineffable, spiritualistic claptrap beyond the reach of natural law and human understanding. Just as "weeds" are plants that haven't yet been assigned a value, scientific mysteries are simply good questions waiting for answers.

I'm not thinking here of the obvious unknowns, such as "Is there life on other planets?" or "How many particles can dance on the head of the CERN accelerator?" Rather, there is plenty we don't know about the things we think we understand. Nor is this a problem or a momentary lack of closure. Science is altogether dynamic and wonderfully incomplete.

Looking just at my field, evolutionary biology, the unknowns are immense: How widespread are nonadaptive traits? To what extent does evolution proceed by very small, gradual steps versus larger, quantum jumps? Why does sexuality occur at all, since it is fully one-half as efficient in projecting genes into the future compared with its asexual alternative? What is the purpose of all that "junk "? Did human beings evolve from a single lineage, or many times, independently? Why does homosexuality persist? Why do women - unique among mammals - conceal their ovulation, possess conspicuous non-lactating breasts and experience orgasm, as well as menopause? Why is the life span of men so much shorter than that of women? Why do we have such big brains? Why are we conscious? Why do we age, sleep, dream, blush, cry or yawn? This is but a partial list.

Don't be discouraged, however. "Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious," writes Richard Dawkins. "Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: It gives them something to do."

And we've got plenty to do. We might start by acknowledging our ignorance. We could then revel in the numerous hypotheses that have already been proposed to rectify that ignorance; there are, in fact, a dozen or so potential explanations for each of the mysteries listed above - we just don't know, yet, which ones are the most promising.

There is a difference between science as a body of knowledge and science as the pursuit of the unknown. Ideally, there would be no tension between the two because it's only by pursuing the unknown that we obtain knowledge. And yet, these two aspects of science coexist uneasily. This wasn't always the case.

Between 1751 and 1765, the Encyclopedie was published in France. It endeavored to summarize all human knowledge in its 18,000 pages of text, 75,000 different entries and 20 million words. Its primary editor, Denis Diderot, was one of the heroes of the Enlightenment, and indeed, the Encyclopedie represents a culmination of Enlightenment thought, which valued reason, science and progress - what we know - above all else.

It is paradoxical testimony to how much we have learned in the intervening 250 years that today no one could seriously entertain the prospect of summarizing all human knowledge in a book, or series of books, or even via the Internet. And yet, the temptation remains: to rest on our laurels, to celebrate our truly encyclopedic knowledge, to teach it, write it, speak it, learn it, demand that it be mastered as if what we know now is enough. (Or, worse yet, to glumly conclude that we have reached "the end of science.")

To be sure, we need to keep celebrating and transmitting what we know, but, at least as important, we had better keep our eyes on what we don't know

if the scientific enterprise is to continue attracting new adherents who will keep pushing the envelope of our knowledge rather than resting satisfied within its cozy boundaries.

"There is a crack in everything," writes poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen. "That's how the light gets in."

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User comments : 14

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Tangent2
2 / 5 (4) Aug 17, 2012
Very well said, and I completely agree. Until we get rid of our ignorance and arrogance, we will struggle longer and harder than is necessary to meet our end goal, complete knowledge on all that is and will be.
PeterD
2.1 / 5 (7) Aug 17, 2012
What science knows, compared to what science must figure out, is a pinhead in an Olympic sized swimming pool.
Deathclock
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 17, 2012
What science knows, compared to what science must figure out, is a pinhead in an Olympic sized swimming pool.


What the average American knows compared to what science knows is a flea on the moon...
ryggesogn2
2.2 / 5 (10) Aug 17, 2012
"But it gives the false impression that we know pretty much everything, whereas the reality is that there's a whole lot more that we don't know."

How refreshing!

"Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve."
Max Planck
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (8) Aug 17, 2012
And, yet, when I said that "scientists" exude a sense of absolute and utter certainty, that what they understand is all there is to understand and they understand all there is to understand about it, I was frequently attacked, condemned and challenged to "prove" it by giving specific passges where "scientists" said that in so many words!
And, as for giving courses so much about what we don't know, what is Barash's explanation for how they will come to know it if there aren't courses about what we do know? And wouldn't an entire course on what we don't know run the risk of intimidating many not even to try?
And how ironic that Barash should opine on what we don't know, then pronounce subjects "beyond the reach of natural law and human understanding" as "claptrap"! Maybe if they stopped pronouncing it claptrap out of hand, many would be able to understand it! After all, "natural law" is only "principles discovered so far", not all the laws of reality!
slack
5 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2012
It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.


My answer is that we already do!
All University-level courses in those subjects, if followed up, will give students the information Barash wants to disseminate.
Remember: to know what you don't know, you must first know what it is that you DO know!

By the way Julianpenrod - you're on the wrong Website.
Try:
http://www.numerology.com/ or
http://www.astrology.com/

:)
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (9) Aug 17, 2012
It can be asked if slack will verify that numerology or astrology never once worked for anyone? slack will say that the fact that numerology and astrology are not legitimate becaue they presumably don't work all the time or for everyone. If you had a spinner on a dial divided into one million sections, is it within the bounds of accepted "science" that it will land on every number? Will it land on any given number consistently, every time? Is the fact that it doesn't land on the same number every time you spin it indicative that it's not in accordance with "science"?
alfie_null
3 / 5 (2) Aug 18, 2012
The article encourages proponents of unpopular views to argue more, not to argue better. This doesn't help advance science. It only decreases the signal to noise ratio.
amiano
5 / 5 (1) Aug 18, 2012
A very well written piece overall. However though I agree with the sentiment against mysticism for mysticisms sake, wisdom is in knowing which questions can even be answered in a meaningful way. There is a body of theory and many areas in which scientific practice falls far short of "the reach of natural law and human understanding," and probably cannot be approached. Even in something as pure as math, Godel and Chaitin inform us of this underlying foundation of mystery prohibits a Theory of Everything. There are countless physical phenomena which will forever elude our investigation.

On the other hand, how does one know what is unknowable and what is worth pursuing? Ceding that decision to a dogma, whether religious or of a particular science community, no matter how well-established, is a self-defeating strategy.

Jotaf
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 18, 2012
Julianpenrod, you kinda missed the point of the article. You cannot attack established theories because there are some other open questions. Scientists know some things, and don't know some other things; but the crucial bit is that they can quantify their certainty.

There are a few who are a bit more eccentric, but the large majority are perfectly capable of admitting ignorance in many respects. They will not, however, tolerate that a hillbilly just comes along and tears down facts proven and debated over hundreds of journal articles, based on a gut feeling and some google results.
BLAST OF SHIT IN THE FACE
3.3 / 5 (7) Aug 18, 2012
It can be asked if slack will verify that numerology or astrology never once worked for anyone? slack will say that the fact that numerology and astrology are not legitimate becaue they presumably don't work all the time or for everyone. If you had a spinner on a dial divided into one million sections, is it within the bounds of accepted "science" that it will land on every number? Will it land on any given number consistently, every time? Is the fact that it doesn't land on the same number every time you spin it indicative that it's not in accordance with "science"?


Are you having some kind of hallucinatory fit or something? Your "spinner" argument is totally ludicrous, and to be clear, the reason science doesn't take astrology and numerology seriously is because every time they are tested (in the few cases where testable predictions are even possible!) they never work better than statistical blind chance would indicate.
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (10) Aug 18, 2012
Jotaf says it's wrong to "attack established theories because there are some other open questions". Where is Jotal's proof there are only "some" open questions? How does Jotal know, ahead of time, that the sum total of open questions stops at those acknowledged at this moment? How is Jotal certain the "eastablished theories" will fit everywhere and every time in the future? Until you lknow all the questions, you are not necessarily in any position to say the open ones are only a minimal number.
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (9) Aug 18, 2012
The individual who cannot resist inserting vulgarity only demonstrates how little they can "defend" their agenda. It's not surprising someone promoting the New World Order line would need to resort to profanity. PhysOrg doesn't seem to mind how much their image declines. As for astrology and numerology, like the spinner that the vicious individual attacks, maybe they only work intermittently for each subject, not every single time! The spinner is a manifestation conventional "science" accepts, but it never hits the same point constantly, over and over again! Tracks in cloud chambers don't follow the same path over and over! Only as often as "statistical blind chance would indicate". Why do astrology or numerology have to? Because the foul mouthed individual says they have to?
Jotaf
5 / 5 (4) Aug 19, 2012
It doesn't matter whether there is a small or big number of open questions. You can ask anything you want. The established science is accepted, while pseudo-science is not, because it works better than said pseudo-science. The fact that predictions may be refined in the future is a feature, not a bug.

If you can build a car with your theory of aether or numerology or whatever, be my guest.

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