If superheroes were real, Elon Musk would be Science Man. Or Technology Fella. Or Engineering Dude. Or Business Acumen Person. What the hell. He’s smashing it on every front, and that’s why we should all know who he is and what he’s doing. Because he’s literally trying to save the human race.
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This is my friend Sutton, who volunteered for a harmless experiment in classical conditioning. Let’s start by poking him in the eye.
All life on Earth is connected. Whether you’re a marine worm or a marmoset, the same genetic code proliferates your DNA. That’s the basis of Evolution 101.
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Wow! Science! Zap!
Now that I’ve got your attention, I would like to share some extraordinary things about science.
When the uninitiated think about science, they imagine lab coats and test tubes and Einstein’s bad hair day. That’s the enduring memory of science class in school, and the stock footage you watch on the news when big pharma has a new money-making drug to share.
But as a system of developing objective knowledge across multiple disciplines, science is of course much bigger than that. It comes from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge, and is characterised by systematic observation and experimentation.
“Wait a second,” you say. “This already sounds terribly boring. Just what kind of website is this?” Don’t worry, I pat you reassuringly on the head. If it sounds boring, that’s because it is. You’re allowed to say that. Science comes to life when you apply these standard but necessary rules to the real world. Then you can make exciting discoveries about it.
The critical downside of religion as a truth-seeking system is it doesn’t allow us to build any new knowledge for ourselves, nor does it provide ideas we can examine and test. It’s all doctrine. Maybe you’re fine with that, because your life is perfectly comfortable based on faith, and you have no desire to push the boundaries of critical thought. It’s a perfectly natural human desire to follow an authority figure who’s meant to be looking out for us. That’s exactly how we grew up, in the shadows of our parents.
Instead of descending into a religious essay, I’ll make my point sharp. Religion is a vehicle for control. It despises original thought. It sticks to its guns in the face of contradictory evidence. And that is the mark of insanity.
Science is the opposite. Science demands objective truths on which we scaffold our way to enlightenment. The past few centuries have seen our world transform its industry, its technology and its medicine thanks in whole to science. It’s how we get to invent space rockets and electric cars and augmented reality which make our lives a whole lot better every day.
“Science is different to all the other systems of thought…
you don’t need faith in it, you can check that it works.”
Brian Cox, Particle Physicist and author of Why Does E=MC2? (And Why Should We Care?)
Imagine your day without the inventions of science.
You wouldn’t get very far at all, unless you currently thrive semi-naked in the wilderness. (My congratulations if you do.) For narrative purposes I’m assuming you don’t, and your ongoing survival can be credited heavily to the four underlying principles of science:
1. Empiricism is the idea that accurate knowledge comes from direct observation. Empiricism means there is no scientific validity to things we can’t measure, like ghosts, telepathy and homeopathy. They could just as well be made up.
2. Testability says hypotheses (our tentative ideas) must be falsifiable. Claiming I have super powers, but only when no-one’s looking, leaves testability high and dry because you can’t prove me wrong, and I can’t prove me right. Religion is untestable.
3. Parsimony, or simplicity, is drawn from philosophy. In other words, when confronted with two possible explanations, choose the one that makes the fewest wobbly assumptions. The cult of Scientology makes wild claims which are far from parsimonious.
4. Determinism means the universe is bound by cause and effect (and that’s exactly what we observe in reality). So belief in fate, karma and even conscious free will have no scientific backing as they all imply multiple superfluous causes for singular effects.
Once you start looking at the world through this simple framework, it all starts to make a lot more sense. Go ahead and wrangle with it, pull it apart, try to prove it wrong. That’s exactly what science loves to do, until we find the best answer our human brains can create.
If you need any further incentive to pursue your love affair with science, chew on this for a bit. Our modern world provides ample proof of the applied scientific framework, so that its study now takes an astonishing number of forms:
And this is why I am enamoured with science. It gives us a reliable framework for discovering reality.
Why Fox Pokes Cats
It’s cool to witness kids using empiricism to explore the world.
My son, Fox, is five years old and loves animals. He’s also autistic. So when I tell him “don’t poke the cat,” his non-verbal brain doesn’t understand me and he goes ahead and pokes it anyway. His experimental method is to poke the cat repeatedly until he gets a response. Psychologists call this bottom-up processing: make no assumptions about poking cats, only scaffold your way up to future conclusions.
Finally, the cat hisses at him or scratches him and runs away, and he makes new conclusion about cats. They don’t like being poked by him. Oh and their claws are sharp. The next time Fox meets a cat, he doesn’t have to go through the whole experimental rigmarole of poking it senseless to see what will happen. Now he’s top-down processing: we start with an already-established conclusion.
Top-down processing is great for efficiency, but we tend to over use it, especially as adults. This is bad because we fail gather basic data in the light of new situations, and we forget our open-minded schema which would have led us to empirical truth. Instead we work from top-down assumptions, fuelled by all kinds of infectious sources: word-of-mouth, the internet, Hollywood. How many mums now consider themselves experts in immunology ever since Andrew Wakefield went on an anti-vaccine rampage in the 1990s? Dangerous stuff.
So, I’m proposing we put on our science filter to help us make better decisions. A kind of rationality-lens to help us navigate the media minefield of pseudo-science and the religious doctrine of non-science. So we can make good choices about diet, medicine, climate change, genetic modification, education, and many emerging areas where evidence-based science can light our way. Let’s cast off our top-down assumptions, adopt a questioning approach, and play in ways we haven’t done since we were five years old and poking cats.
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
~ Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist and author of Cosmos
If superheroes were real, Elon Musk would be Science Man. Or Technology Fella. Or Engineering Dude. Or Business Acumen Person. What the hell. He’s smashing it on every front, and that’s why we should all know who he is and what he’s doing. Because he’s literally trying to save the human race.read more
Our relationship with dogs has bestowed them with intelligence for inferential learning, something which sets us apart from all other life on Earth.read more
Enter any number into a calculator and divide it by zero. What do you get? UNDEFINED. What in the name of Turing’s testicles does your calculator mean by undefined?read more
This is my friend Sutton, who volunteered for a harmless experiment in classical conditioning. Let’s start by poking him in the eye.read more
All life on Earth is connected. Whether you’re a marine worm or a marmoset, the same genetic code proliferates your DNA. That’s the basis of Evolution 101.read more
Do you even lift, bro? This is the mating call in BroScience: those who measure their self-worth by the amount of weight they can lift.read more