Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Marching for Science is Like Marching for Air

According to the Wall Street Journal, the March for Science last week “drew tens of thousands to more than 500 rallies world-wide.” The organizers proclaimed the purpose was because of attacks on science.

I am not sure how people can attack science. And where are these bleeding hearts when people tell the same stupid economist jokes every time I show up at an event? People attack economics all the time but no one really seems to care. And what about meteorology? How would you like to be a weather forecaster at the annual gathering of Florida Flood Insurers?

What is this thing called science that people braved inclement weather and dog poop as they strutted their stuff in 500 places around the globe? It seems to me what these people really want has little to do with saving science and everything to do with promoting their own agendas. So let’s get into it.

Science is an elusive topic. Most of us discuss it by describing its characteristics or elements. For example, hard sciences include biology and chemistry. Defending biology and chemistry is a little like promoting spinach and kale. Yuck. Or you might discuss science by mentioning microscopes or lab coats. While all that helps one get closer to describing science, the truth is that such an approach is at least incomplete if not very misleading. You can know a lot of biology and/or walk around in a cool lab coat but neither brings you much closer to the definition of science.

Science is elusive but simple. Science is anything that uses the scientific method. That’s all there is to knowing the definition of science. Tuna, wake up. This is getting more exciting.

Using terms like “the scientific method” is a lot like talking about diminishing total factor productivity. It sounds technical and difficult. But the scientific method is way cooler than disco music. It is like the air we breathe – it is right there in front of us making life better and easier. It’s very practical and useful.

Here is my list of steps involved with defining the scientific method:

1.    Pose a problem – e.g. people drive too fast
2.    Think up a reasonable explanation for that problem – people love the excitement of going fast
3.    Study the problem – when police officers give people speeding tickets, have them ask the people why they were speeding. Sir, were you speeding because it was exciting, or are their other reasons why you were speeding?
4.    Compile the data from a sufficient sample of speeders and draw a conclusion – 10% of the people said they speed because of the excitement. 90% said they speed because they forgot to look at their speedometer. We can reject excitement as the main cause of speeding. 
5.    Solve the problem – suggest that all highways present signs that say “Drivers, please look at your speedometer more often.”
6.    Keep studying the problem to see if the solution worked.
7.    If you aren’t satisfied with the degree of problem remediation, go back to step 2.

Wasn’t that fun? But that’s all there is to the scientific method. It works for all sorts of problems and questions. That’s what makes it so cool. Because you use science does not mean you will always get things right. But it does say you will always strive to get improvement.

What is also notable is that scientists NEVER (am I yelling?) say they proved something. They ALWAYS say they either rejected or failed to reject a reasonable explanation for a problem. In the above example, we rejected the importance of thrill seeking in speeding. We did not reject the importance of driver attention. But we didn’t prove anything because the next study may find a new outcome – yup, distracted driving might be more important as a cause of speeding in your next scientific study. And then there is always JD.

In a nutshell, the scientific method never really ends for any important problem because we assume that important problems are complicated and because the world changes over time. The number of truly immutable scientific laws are very few. The Law of Gravity is one of them. That baby works well nearly all the time. But much of what we call science and cause and effect are temporarily held conclusions and truths. That means we expect that they will need to change and be revisited.

If that is science, I don’t really know anyone who is trying to stop scientists from doing their thing. The group behind the March for Science seemed to implying that some people don’t believe the facts, models, and predictions about climate change. But that seems odd – because the true basis of science is to be skeptical. The true foundation of science is knowing that models are incomplete and static, data are notoriously fallible, and truths are both durable and fleeting.

Unfortunately what I hear in the March stuff is asking that people not be skeptical about today’s models. They are asking people to stop questioning. They want folks to support them in taking a political position.

One more point. What is good today is that real scientists are studying climate change and environmental issues. These people are asking the right questions, and I am optimistic that their hard work will produce a better world.  I realize that a slow pace of policy remediation has its risks – but so does rushing to conclusions. Let’s let the scientists duke it out in an open and competitive scientific space without interference from either the political left or right. Only then will we eventually get the best results. I don't see how marching does much to accomplish that.  


  1. Yes, we get your "draft."
    Suggest you go to that much better school a bit north of you to get it right. They love JD too.

    1. Yes, Butler is a very nice school. :-)
      Who doesn't like JD?

    2. Not Butler!
      The one renowned for Science and Engineering.
      Dare I say "Purdue"?
      I think they invented JD.

    3. Ha ha. I was just pulling your leg. :-) They don't call those people up north boiler makers for nothing!

  2. I like it! Prof, you missed your calling. You shoulda been a philosopher! The main lesson I took away was that there's no such thing as "settled science." Even gravity is still up in the air.

    1. I have a doctor of Philosophy in Economics! So I must be a philosopher! Some scientists take umbrage that nothing is settled and I would think gravity does a pretty good job. But then we used to think that blood-letting was a good treatment. And wasn't the Earth flat for a while?

    2. You mean it has changed shape? Pretty sure I fell off the edge last week.