Friday, March 09, 2012

What is science?

I think this snippet from Origins, by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith, gives a good explanation of why science works so well.

Science depends on organized skepticism, that is, on continual, methodical doubting. Few of us doubt our own conclusions, so science embraces its skeptical approach by rewarding those who doubt someone else's. We may rightly call this approach unnatural; not so much because it calls for mistrusting someone else's thoughts, but because science encourages and rewards those who can demonstrate that another scientist's conclusions are just plain wrong. To other scientists, the scientist who corrects a colleague's error, or cites good reasons for seriously doubting his or her conclusions, performs a noble deed, like a Zen master who boxes the ears of a novice straying from the meditative path, although scientists correct one another more as equals than as master and student. By rewarding a scientist who spots another's errors -- a task that human nature makes much easier than discerning one's own mistakes -- scientists as a group have created an inborn system of self-correction. Scientists have collectively created our most efficient and effective tool for analyzing nature, because they seek to disprove other scientists' theories even as they support their earnest attempts to advance human knowledge. Science thus amounts to a collective pursuit, but a mutual admiration society it is not, nor was it meant to be.