I graduated from the University of Manitoba Computer Science department in 2007. Despite what my degree says, I’m not a scientist. I think of myself more as a “science cheerleader.” Science needs cheerleaders, because science is so important.
We humans tend to pay much more attention to those things that confirm our preconceived notions than to those details that don’t fit our theories. We have a marked tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses — presumably why Sylvia Browne remains so popular.
A study of Australian workers conducted in 1987 found that only one per cent of the workers rated their workplace performance as below average.
We’re hardly unbiased observers of our surroundings. The way that we see the world is coloured by many things, our egos foremost amongst them. Perhaps when it comes to evaluating our own skill at Monopoly we can be forgiven if we see ourselves through rose-coloured glasses; when our callous assumption that we outperform our contemporaries affects the quality of our work or the safety of our driving, concern becomes warranted.
But what about when it really counts? If your child is sick, do you want your doctor to tell you, “Well, this medicine seems to work pretty well most of the time, in my experience.” Perhaps you would be more comfortable if she said, “Well, this medicine was been shown to work in multiple large, randomized, controlled trials.”
Unfortunately, many people find the first statement just as reassuring as the second. We tend to find personal experiences and anecdotes convincing, despite how biased and unreliable our personal experiences can be. But there are many cases where we simply cannot afford to let our petty biases influence the way we see the world. And that’s where science comes in.
Science is the quest to understand ourselves, our universe, and our place in it.
At its root, science is merely a systematic search for knowledge. As science has progressed, scientists have identified problems and biases in the way we mere humans observe the universe around us, which has led scientific inquiry to become a self-correcting process. In medicine, for example, experiments are blinded, randomized and controlled in an attempt to prevent the biases of the examiner from affecting the result, whether unwitting or deliberate. Replication by independent researchers is one of the cornerstones of science, working to weed out simple mistakes or outright fraud.
Science is skeptical by nature. Scientific skepticism is a systematic process of doubt. Put simply: question everything. Don’t just take claims at face value. Skepticism tells us that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that we should proportion our belief in a proposition according to the evidence provided for it. While skeptics are frequently dismissed as arrogant and closed-minded, scientific skepticism is, at its core, an intellectually humble exercise. The success of the scientific endeavour requires us to admit our imperfections. If science is seen as ever-changing, it is only because scientists are willing to admit to their errors and to learn from them.
As the scientist and educator Carl Sagan said: “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
Gem Newman is a member of the Winnipeg Skeptics