7 February 2017

Why so many people still don't understand science


The longer an argument remains unsettled the more it devolves into an argument of semantics. We're all logical beings to varying degrees and with sufficient logic and reasoning we should all eventually agree on everything. But the opposite appears to be true, as a species we seem to agree very rarely.


A lack of education of one or more parties is usually blamed for disagreements which is an inarguable certainty but knowledge itself is too broad a stroke in my opinion. For a few years now I've felt that language had something to do with our apparent plateau of general education. I thought that if we teach enough science and English we'd somehow be able to push through these doldrums of general education that keeps religion and superstition alive (and thriving).

But being knowledgeable just isn't enough. I tend to get very frustrated when discussing religion and pseudoscience with people and that frustration seems to be a result of my inability to be sufficiently articulate. But the frustration is compounded by the fact that I actually don't know why I can't explain myself properly.

I think I may have figured it all out. We need tighter consensus on definitions. The English language (and I'm sure most others too) is filled with words and phrases that are excessively broad in their definitions. Science is all about precision and accuracy and I'm starting to think that general everyday language (or at least the way we use it) just isn't good enough.

Words like "god", "soul", "love" and sadly even more scientific words like "energy" and "power" have decaying consensus in their definitions. I often find myself asking someone to define "god" and one often gets responses like "our minds cannot comprehend what god truly is". While that's very poetic what I'm actually asking is that the user defines what exactly they are referring to, the reason why they use that word in sentences at all.

Is this god a conscious being? A physical being? A being at all? Maybe god is just a synonym for universe? Are you maybe saying that the universe is conscious? If so, what motivates it? Have you perceived this god or this just anecdotal? I don't expect these specific questions to be answered but i do expect some kind of clear definition and sound reasoning to back it up and then could we please get some consensus so that we're all on the same page when "god" is discussed.

Having hundreds of disagreeing religions is a major knock for religious credibility. This definition consensus is obviously only required if you wish to discuss the topic with the likes of myself. If you're happy to believe what you believe in your private capacity then there's no need to explain yourself. But if you want to use your religion to justify public policy for example, being clear about what you're talking about is a minimum requirement.

Another good example on this topic is the definition of the word "energy": the property of matter and radiation which is manifest as a capacity to perform work. If you type [define energy] into Google you have to expand the results in order to get the scientific definition because the poetic stuff has effectively hijacked the word.

We're even offered words like "spirit" and "sparkle" as synonyms. No Google! Those are not synonyms for the capacity of matter to perform work. Google is obviously not to blame, this is a result of general consensus and a flaw in the way we use language, allowing it to constantly evolve at the expense of blurring our collective understanding of the physical world.

Science does it's very best to reign this in using universal constants like pi or the speed of light to define very important words like metre or gram, even then those definitions are regularly debated. People not accustomed to the more precise definition might pick up a sentence with the word "energy" in it for example, and fill in the blanks in their understanding to reach easily digestible and culturally supportive conclusions.

The fundamental difference between science and religion is that religion claims to know, and subsequently adapts definitions to fit that "knowledge", whereas science clearly defines it's own reliable and reproducible concepts and then uses those to gradually build a clearer picture of a perspective (not divine truth) that can then be conveyed. Science rarely, if ever, claims to know something with absolute conviction. It simply balances the credibility of information on top of more credible foundations. If it topples, it's discarded.

While scientific studies often offer conclusions, the primary focus is always on the observations. I'll be the first to admit that many studies often omit certain data in order to nudge an uninformed public towards a conclusion that's favourable to the corporations funding those studies. But the published observations themselves are rarely outright falsified. It's the general public that jumps to unreasonable conclusions to sate a need for a simplified reality.