Name: Paul Grobstein
Subject: Welcome, and let's get rolling
Date: Sat Sep 2 09:47:38 EDT 2000
Biology is, of course, the study/science of life (see entry in Pandora's WordBox, which is itself worth poking around in). So, to get started, let's think a bit about
We're not interested in the dictionary definitions here, but in what you actually think (both certainties and uncertainties). Jot your thoughts down, and let's see whether they change over the semester.
- what is "life"?
- what is "science"?
If that seems too easy, here's a tougher question: what's the relation between science and life? My assertion is that, in important ways, they are very similar, maybe even in some sense the same thing. That trigger any thoughts in your mind? Don't be shy. Every one's thoughts are relevant: any thought may trigger a new and interesting one in someone else's mind, and someone else's may do the same in yours. That's life.
I'm looking forward to the semester, to sharing thoughts (and observations) here in the forum, and elsewhere in the course. Hope you are too. Welcome.
Name: Jakki Rowlett
Date: Tue Sep 5 19:48:34 EDT 2000
Science, like life, is a matter of trial and error, of overcoming adversity, of striving toward something "better." And, like many other disciplines (e.g. philosophy, art, literature) science endeavors to answer the important universal questions: Who/What are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
At least, this is what I tell myself, as an English major, to keep from waking up in a cold sweat at night worrying about my lab science.....
Name: Katie Kaczmarek
Subject: What is science?
Date: Tue Sep 5 20:07:28 EDT 2000
As another English major, I feel that science is comparable to mythology. Both started out with people wondering about the world around them and trying to find explanations for what they saw. However, in mythology people came up with stories to explain what they saw, whereas in science people come up with (hopefully) logical, incontrovertible explanations for natural phenomenon.
This is also an explanation for why science can't "get it right." Just as we now believe the ancient myths to be untrue, so we discover that science is also sometimes just as inexact. Many times we cannot find the right answer, just one that is less wrong than the previous one.
Name: Caroline Dyar
Subject: my thoughts
Date: Wed Sep 6 01:23:40 EDT 2000
Chaos and diversity uphold life, pushing all to survive through evolution. Although structure is necessary for balance and successful development, without the variation, life would not exist. The world would have fallen apart long ago if it were not possible for organisms to adapt to arbitrary challenges. Anyway, everyone knows all this, but to me, it explains what life is. The amazing limbo between order and disorder could be studied and investigated forever without any certain conclusions. Life is a constantly evolving flow of changes that build on past developments, all boiling down to the same base unit of life - the atom - but spanning out into so much more. Overwhelming and simple at the same time. And science is that constant pursuit of understanding which runs just behind life’s fast paced evolution. If there was a way to pause time and development, perhaps we could try to “get it right” and have a clear perspective of all of life’s nuances, but we still could not tell where certain changes were leading or how a new-sprung characteristic would affect everything. So even with time stopped, there would be no conclusion to answer all questioning.
Name: Paul Grobstein
Subject: On science/life
Date: Wed Sep 6 13:31:21 EDT 2000
Thanks for enthusiasms/thoughts, both here and in class. Several things people said I wanted to remember. The "science" as a way of making money one, of course. And, related to it, is the idea of wanting to manipulate, control. Both would, of course, tend to cause "mistakes", and hence contribute to not "getting it right". And both are, of course, part of science, which is certainly, as someone else pointed out, subject to cultural influences. Since wanting to make money, and wanting to manipulate/control are widespread in the culture, it would be odd if one didn't find them among practitioners of science.
But, as I argued today, there is a deeper reason for "not getting it right", and another cultural aspect that's relevant: the inclination/preference of non-scientists to have definitive answers (an inclination to which, I agree, media contributes). Maybe the latter would be less of a problem if people in general (scientists included) were clearer about the deeper reason. It relates to the thoughts that science tends (necessarily) to be focused rather than broad, and to the notion that things are in fact always changing while scientific inquiry tends to imply some stasis. And to the notion that science should really be thought of not as an outcome or set of outcomes but rather as a process (thanks to whoever pointed that out). It really IS just a process of continually collecting new observations, summarizing them, analyzing the implications/predictions of the summaries, testing those by collecting new observations. Ad infinitum. From that process comes all the hypotheses, rules, laws, and, yes, "whys". So, you can never "get it right", but can always "get it less wrong"?
Yep, this too, of course, is a "summary of observations". So, don't "believe" it, but do see whether its useful in relation to your own observations. And let me know.
Name: Robin Reineke
Subject: Knowing V.S. Understanding
Date: Wed Sep 6 17:23:20 EDT 2000
There is a zen proverb that states, "The more you know, the less you understand." I think this proverb ties in with our discussion in class today about science "getting it right" or "getting it wrong" as well as the question of scientific process. I think it raises an interesting question. Where is the line between knowing and understanding? If we can't really know anything, can we truly understand anything?
Name: Rachel Hochberg
Subject: Sudden Mind Boggling Thought!
Date: Wed Sep 6 19:03:06 EDT 2000
If science can never give definitive answers and never provide the Ultimate Truth, then it follows that science can never perfectly predict the future, which was a point raised during class today. Could this be why such oddities as fortune tellers, clairvoiants and palm readers are automatically pushed aside and disregarded as "occult" and therefore some kind of farce? If so, is it possible that "magic" (not magic tricks or magic shows, but Druid ceremonies and ancient Egyptian rituals) is truly science that has been overlooked? Much of what ancient civilizations perceived as magical now has a scientific explanation. Is it possible that by making new observations about arcane phenomena, important new "summaries of observations" could be made?
Name: Joan Steiner
Subject: "Good Science" vs. "Bad Science"
Date: Wed Sep 6 19:23:50 EDT 2000
In terms of what is "Good Science" and what is "Bad Science", one would have to consider the morals and values of the questioned individual. Depending on what the person feels is "right' or "wrong" will depend on what they consider good or bad when it comes to science.
For example, someone who is Pro-life would consider the scientific process of developing an abortion pill or a "morning-after" pill to be wrong, or "bad science". Whereas someone who is very much concerned with the development of advanced contraceptions and the reproductive rights of women would look at this as "good science". The same would apply for the recent works in genetic research.
Name: Jill McCain
Subject: Science as our knight
Date: Wed Sep 6 22:29:29 EDT 2000
I think one of the deeper reasons behind society wanting to find, or wanting science to find, the "truth," would be the psychic need for stability. We try to eradicate the feeling that the world is unpredicatable. When cancer is diagnosed, when a baby is born with health problems, when an earth quake kills hundreds of people, we are left with a feeling that our existence is precarious. I think we all latch onto scientific discoveries as our knight in shining armor to save us from the unpredictables. When any new information comes about that might help in the fight against the unpredictables, we want to believe that it is the end-all, cure-all in saving us from unpredictability.
Name: Gloria Ramon
Subject: Is there any progress in science?
Date: Thu Sep 7 14:43:43 EDT 2000
One of the many reasons why I never liked science in school, and still have a hard time enjoying it now, was because there was never a concrete answer. I believe that is what most people look for, the conclusion to the problem, or the answer to the question. What I think people overlook is that "life" is always changing and science must change with it. Because these changes occur , better observations must be made and hence you're moving further away from ignorance.
So, is there any progress in science? Yes I believe there is. If science can adjust to the changes in life, then progress is being made.
Name: AndrEa Miller
Subject: on occult , art and science
Date: Thu Sep 7 15:00:27 EDT 2000
Reflections on Rachel's Sudden Mind Boggling Thought --
"...If science can never perfectly predict the future, Could this be why such oddities as fortune tellers..are automatically pushed aside and disregarded as "occult"...is it possible that "magic" is truly science that has been overlooked?"
What I think I hear you saying, is that perhaps people discount fortune tellers because of their apparent certainty in predicting the future? Intuitively this sounds right to me. Moreover, as everyday scientists (a la Grobstein's definition)I think we tend to have a healthy scepticism when predictions are based on information that we have no access to. Perhaps we tend to respect scientific research more (or NOT, given the class discussion!) because, in theory, at least, we CAN go back and look at the prior observations the current prediction is based upon. And maybe this is one distinction between what we were calling "good and bad" science.
Although, that being said, I really hesitate to single out certain forms of inquiry as somehow "good" and other methods of making observations "bad" or somehow lesser. Rather I tend to think about different forms of inquiry in terms of their use. Maybe what the fortuneteller, as an "everyday scientist" is trying to accomplish is entirely different than the lab scientist. (but that is another discussion altogether)
Name: Jeanne Braha
Subject: Mulder's Problem
Date: Thu Sep 7 15:07:40 EDT 2000
I hope nobody tells the X-files crew that the truth is not out there. That show is a prime example of the cultural desire for explanation and concrete answers that we've been discussing. The general idea is that lots of bizarre stuff happens in the world, but all of it can be explained by either Scully's "science" (i.e. physics, medicine, chemistry, etc.) or a conspiracy of humans who have concocted the scheme.
Of course, on a smaller scale, this certainty, especially predictability, is a nice comfort. It lets us prepare ourselves for whatever may come our way and raises the odds of a positive outcome. But Mulder (and the rest of us) might be taking things just a little further than really necessary....
Name: Katie Kennedy
Date: Thu Sep 7 17:48:34 EDT 2000
As I mentioned in class, I feel like science is a puzzle - and for this particular puzzle we have no guide as to how it looks as a finished product. There is no picture on the box that shows us what we are building, I am not even sure it comes with those simple perameter pieces that give you an outline to work in from. In science now, all we are doing is working towards completing this gigantic puzzle, fully knowing that because of its complicity and vastness (if that is a word) we will not be around to see it in the end. Sometimes we find out that the piece we thought fit perfectly into a particular empty space does not fit at all. Sometimes we find that several pieces fit there. Sometimes it seems as though, and perhaps often is the case, that there is no piece to match said space.
Name: Jakki Rowlett
Date: Thu Sep 7 17:56:38 EDT 2000
Gloria - When I was in school I hated Science, and Math for that matter, for exactly the opposite reason - because they were so rigid. There was no discussion, no possibility for opinion, interpretation, etc. It was what it was - accept it - learn it. Science was being taught as the new religion when I was a kid - "Throw away all your silly superstitons people! We have Found the Answer and ITS Name is SCIENCE!
Now, admittedly there has been a big, (gaping even) lapse of time between then and my return to school at the college level, but the thing that has struck me most is how the FACE of SCIENCE has changed. Now we are presented with a humbler (aw shucks m'am we scientists aren't perfect), more flexible (see above student comments regarding clairvoyance, X-Files, etc.,) more accessible (hey guys! We're ALL scientists ;) What the hell happened?
(P.G. - is this all Thomas Kuhn's fault? And y'all are just back-pedalling now, or what?)
That's a VERY interesting question. Yeah, Kuhn (and, more generally, the quite new field of history/philosophy of science) probably had something to do with it. But so too did science itself. As indeed it should: if it is actually fundamentally about "getting it less wrong", then it should "self-correct". And good scientists are familiar enough with history to know how sweeping and unanticipated a number of "getting it less wrong" changes in science have in fact been. The switch from classical physics to relativity and quantum physics is probably the most dramatic twentieth century example. But there are a number of others, of which the work of Godel and Turing on logic and computability may be the most generally significant. And there are clearly ones in progress (the universe, it has emerged in the last decade, is not only expanding but accelerating in its expansion, which indicates something SERIOUSLY wrong with some quite fundamental ways of thinking about things), some of which we'll talk about in class. A last thought (for now, this really IS an interesting question; thanks for raising it) on "what happened" ... There is a relevant historical/sociological angle. "Science" exploded during and after the second world war, in terms of both money invested in it and the numbers of people doing it. And much of the "arrogance" of science has to do with this period. Really good scientists have always known, and were generally quite willing to acknowledge, that it was "getting it less wrong" rather than Truth that was their business. So, in some ways, I suspect we're returning to an understanding of both the value and the limitations of science which is more open/honest than that provided during (and used to justify) an explosive expansion.
Date: Thu Sep 7 18:56:02 EDT 2000
I think science is an attempt to make sense of life with the purpose of increasing human knowledge of the world and its inhabitants, as well as for the betterment of human living. However, as we try to make sense of life, we often find ourselves more confused than when we had started. Moreover, while there have been significant improvements in living conditions as a result of science and technology, there has also been a widening gap between the rich and the poor, which again leads to the question of whether science = money.
This is true in many ways because it seems that those who have money are the ones that are able to push for research for specific causes. Also, the knowledge gained from such research is then used to benefit those who can afford to pay for the ends of such research. However, I think that in the long run, these gains in science and/or technology will serve to benefit everyone.
Subject: Science as Truth
Date: Thu Sep 7 20:36:28 EDT 2000
I feel like if the general population knew the true pursuit of science (getting it wrong), we would all be both mentally and physically healthier. Because the media has become the spokesperson for science, “science” has reached a godly, if not omnipotent, status. “If 9 out of 10 doctors” say something is a miracle cure, I think that many Americans would rush to their nearest drug store without further investigation and submit their bodies to the latest treatment. People have begun to trust pharmaceutical ads over their own mind and body. Every ailment merits a trip to the pharmacy. Our collective hypochondria and belief that “science is always right” (or at least more right than I could ever be) has fed the economy and cast science in a greedy light. Meanwhile, people are becoming immune to antibiotics, hooked on sleeping pills, and are losing control of their bodies in the name of science. I wonder what the future holds.
Name: Meghan McCabe
Subject: science and what not
Date: Thu Sep 7 22:22:03 EDT 2000
The more I think about the subject, the more I believe that science is a process of understanding rather than a set of rules. It is based on, as we discussed in class, observations made from experiments. This is probably why the scientific community doesn't take clairvoyancy seriously: because it seems to be based on a set of beliefs rather than observations made from experimentation.
However, I recently read a book involving scientists studying personal energy and how it relates to interpersonal psychology. While it was very spiritual, it also involved much research and observations from experimentation. Perhaps "magic" does invlove experimentation, albeit different from what many scientists consider experimentation. This got me thinking: does evidence have to be tangible to be considered valid?
Name: Trudell Smith
Subject: getting it right
Date: Thu Sep 7 23:24:21 EDT 2000
I think science should be interperted as a progress lingering towards the truth instead of THE TRUTH. I have been a speculator in several classes where I was being lectured to and this year for the first time I was a participant.
I also think people should be open-minded about things they learn. I think schools have engraved in our heads that whatever is taught is the truth, which have lead us father from the truth and closer to ignorance. I think that we all can be scientist because we all have the ability to analyise and draw a summary of observations. For we all ask questions and seek understanding, only we do it subconciously.
Name: sujatha sebastian
Subject: Why can't we get it right?
Date: Thu Sep 7 23:45:19 EDT 2000
The question "Why can't science get it right" makes the assumption that there is something to get "right". It is not science that needs to correct itself, but rather society. "Getting it right" means that there is a specific method which one must use to acquire an exact result...the correct result. After reflecting upon the last class's disscussion I realized that the purpose of science is not to attain an exact result or solution. The purpose of science is to make better and better predictions (as Proff. Grobstein explained). Society has a problem with this idea and science's "lack" of exact answers. It does not easily accept the fact that science may not provide the "correct solution". It is this thinking pattern that prevents us from looking at science as a tool to further our understanding the world.
Name: Jess Hayes-Conroy
Subject: Thoughts on Science and Life
Date: Fri Sep 8 00:09:20 EDT 2000
In response to some others and playing devil's advocate for a second--I think science can't always be portrayed as constantly changing--at least not to the general public. I'm not saying to lie--but even though technically we are all scientists, we do not all have an equal understanding of science. For example, if we never say "yes, deforestation is having negative consequences on the planet," nothing might ever get done about it. Plus, while "trained" scientists see ever-changing science as a beautiful and wonderful aspect of their field of study, many others without this great insight may feel very insecure by the statement.
About science and life---they are in many ways, the same thing. In science, we learn about life. We are all alive and we are all part of science. In life therefore, we also learn about science. And life, like science is broader than imaginable. Science and life are very interconected. I'm wondering this: We can say, for sure, that science is always changing. But can we say, for sure, that life is always changing? Maybe that is where the distinction comes in.
One more little thing. About science being focused versus broad. It is both at the same time. It is focused but still must include a VERY broad picture. I think this is why people always assume scientists can't be religious. They assume that there isn't enough room for more than one explanation.
Subject: getting it right
Date: Fri Sep 8 00:43:21 EDT 2000
The proverb that Robin brought up fits in very well to what many of us seem to be trying to say. We all have some understanding that the biological world is extremely complex. Even if some of us are "humanities-focused" and we tend to leave all of what we would call "scientific" discovery up to the "trained scientists" we recognize that the more people discover about our world, what we don't know grows exponentially. In terms of getting it right we have to realize that we can't expect the "trained scientists" to really know anything with conviction (ie what substance will next be discovered to cause cancer or be in some other way harmful to our health) but just "understand" as Robin was saying the process of discovery they are taking part in.
Name: Joe Santini
Subject: green grow the rushes-o
Date: Fri Sep 8 08:29:16 EDT 2000
Science has the nitty problem of being too often defined in terms of itself. Like money: instead of becoming a means to an end, it becomes the end. This is shown in two ways; one, in the hate and fear of science by the populace, and two, in the overarching "need" to experiment and master the world. [note: i have to admit I do not believe that this mastering-the-world complaint is really valid for most of the world's science-related problems. those problems, like deforestation, the disappearance of species, etc. are largely due to Ordinary Men who simply want to own and control things, not necessarily scientists.]
People in America are taught science largely the way people teach history: as a series of mundane facts. I just started reasing Loewhen's Lies my Teacher Told Me and I'm starting to realize how widespread THAT issue is... As a result they end up uninterested in the sciences, not because they are uninteresting, but because they are presented so: without the contradictions, without the humanity. It has nothing to do with the technical terms, large words, or logic involved. I think people can respond to big words as well as little ones. But when it comes to the perfect people described in the textbooks, their great intellects which are nearly worshipped... people can only bear so much before they crack. The true story behind the history of Darwin is more interesting than what's reported in most textbooks... but textbooks are presented as authoritative.
And then people leave school. In a culture of instanteous gratification and understanding, processed through sound bites and computer bits, such lack of exposure to interesting material takes on humongous proportions - and being forced to listen to it creates feelings of resentment which never, entirely, go away (witness the rise of the term "egghead," among other insults, which relate entirely to the stereotype of the smart-but-boring scientist.)
Science does get it right. The difference between a science and a philosophy is that the philosophy is often without substance. If it is a religious philosophy it is entirely taken on faith. The sciences allow us to measure and analyze and determine: to see the facet of reality given to our senses and try to understand it. The process may lead to errors - may lead to mistakes - but by and large, we have progressed in our understanding of the universe. And this progress is shown by the fact that the results of science are visible outside of science. Children no longer die during birth as much as they did in the past. Computers allow people to once again form communities in an extended world. The medical advances alone are enormous and powerful. Science became, and will continue to become, ever more part of our lives. There's nothing dangerous about it. The danger comes when it is not carried out completely, or thoroughly; when people try to make money instead of discover knowledge; when a premium is placed on fast results, and when the public cries out for a solution to a problem... and the scientist, in a hurry for fame or under pressure from a funder, caves in and hands over something he's been working on (but he won't give it to his own children, under pain of death.)
enough babble - i have to go to class!
Name: Nimia Barrera
Subject: Fear of Science
Date: Fri Sep 8 10:24:46 EDT 2000
As as a child, science was the part of the day where you got to do "cool things" that you later had to explain. It was about learning about the world we live in and having some fun. As the years pass by and we reach high school, though, the fun part about it was lost. We are forced to look, listen, and learn about the scientific method and if you don't learn, you don't know what you're doing (according to the teachers). The fear of science starts here and it makes you want to run away screaming.
It seems that the teachers in high school were more preoccupied with cramming as much material as was possible in the heads of the students than actually making sure they were learning and understanding what science involves.
Science is all around us. It's in everything we do, see, etc. Instead of striking the fear of science in students, teachers should be more worried about trying to get their students to enjoy and understand what they do. They should teach that science is more than just lectures and written experiment. They should teach that there is more to it than just writing notes all class period, and making up hypotheses, and then trying to explain things in a "scientific method."
Name: Srabonti Ali
Subject: my comments
Date: Fri Sep 8 10:55:46 EDT 2000
science is an explanation of life. science is the reasoning behind our irrational behavior. science, in answering questions, awakens new and even more confusing questions. it is all about learning, just like life. as for why we can't "get it right" i dont think we are necessarily getting anything WRONG, but we are constantly learning new things and making new discoveries.
Name: Jeff Oristaglio
Subject: general reactions
Date: Fri Sep 8 18:45:23 EDT 2000
Thank you all for writing in the forum. There are a lot of interesting thoughts and perspectives. I thought I might comment on a few of the ideas which happened to spark my interest.
Regarding Robin's old Zen proverb, it is known in science that any good study generates more questions than it answers. If this is true then we do, in a sense, become more ignorant as we make more observations. (Have you read Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? The main character in the story raises this same question.) I suspect that most scientists would try to argue that as more observations are made, our models (i.e.- hypotheses) eventually reach a level of sophistication and predictive power that would allow us to answer most of the questions that might be asked about a phenomenon (of course, you can always ask more questions!). Therefore, we can eventually increase our understanding (decrease our ignorance), if we work hard enough.
But one obvious weakness in this counter argument is that it assumes the existence of some absolute truth which, of course, no one knows to be the case. Could it be that reality changes as we learn more about it? Sound silly? Maybe not. There is a class of experiments in a branch of physics called quantum mechanics which demonstrates clearly that particles (ex- photons and electrons) will behave differently depending on how closely we watch them!
On another note, Joan made a comment about the role of personal values in distinguishing good versus bad science. It is important to realize that the "goodness" of science can be judged independent of one's values. The scientific studies taken by a company to develop a medication could be of very high quality (i.e.- be the result of good, focused questions and ingenious, well-crafted experimentation), and this could be true regardless of how one feels about the implications of the drug's creation.
Jill had a very interesting remark regarding people being uncomfortable with unpredictability. I find this interesting because, as a scientist, I am often frustrated with the lay public's distaste with the inability of science to provide "the answers" with sufficient finality. In the past, usually during some acute spasm of pessimism, I used to think of this as simply being indicative of a contagious simplemindedness and ignorance pervading our society (especially American culture). Your comments brought up a different view which surfaced in some past conversations I had with Professor Grobstein. I think people ARE uncomfortable with the capriciousness and unpredictability of life, and to a certain extent, do, as you said, look to science as a way of combatting that. But when the limitations of the scientific method are exposed, people sense a mismatch between what they thought science could deliver and what it actually does deliver. This seems to cause some angst.
In response to Jackki's comments regarding the change in the "face of science", I will simply agree with Dr. Grobstein's remarks. One reason why Godel's Theorem and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle are regarded as two of the most brilliant and important advances in 20th century science is that they both set limits on what can be known. This took mathematicians and scientists completely by surprise- especially mathematicians!
Finally, Joe had some interesting thoughts about problems in the teaching of science and history. It is true that we humans seem to have an inherent proclivity to oversimplify history, distilling it down to the contributions of one or a select few individuals or causative agents. It is true that the story behind Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection is much more interesting than we are usually taught, as are those of the inventions of the lightbulb and the computer, and the discovery of the New World. Einstein once remarked that people were uncomfortable with the "impersonal accretion of knowledge." He felt that the names which become associated with particular inventions or discoveries are somewhat arbitrary. (If anyone can find that quote for me I would appreciate it!)
Thanks again to everyone for writing in the forum. Lots of interesting stuff to go around!
Name: Leila Ghaznavi
Subject: why can't science get it right
Date: Sun Sep 10 22:29:02 EDT 2000
A little late, but better late than never:
I think the reason why society puts so much pressure on science to be "right" is that with the disillusionment of religion people turned to science to give us answers and a feeling of control over the world around us. Science is the modern religion thus when it is 'wrong' we feel insecure because our security blanket is showing a weakness.
See Serendip's general Biology forum area for a contribution by a visitor from outside the class.
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