In the twenty-second chapter of The Science of Discworld II, science is not what I thought it was. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Ah, I love having my beliefs or understanding challenged by this book. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Cohen and Stewart say—particularly some of the stuff about religion, as they tend to be a bit too general about it—but this chapter helped me understand what exactly is science. I think you can see even in the review for chapter twenty-one how I got close to what it is, but I still missed the mark. (Hehe.) That’s probably because of lies-to-children, and I think at this point, we can all agree that the education system in America is… not great. At the same time, there’s a very important point the book makes in this chapter: science still involves people crafting stories for one another. Still! Those stories have a different context and aim, but they’re there, aren’t they?
So, I read a lot of the examples in the last chapter as “science” because… well, they utilized scientific principles. That qualifies them, then, doesn’t it? Well, not really, and this chapter does an excellent job of addressing how much intent must go into the act of being a scientist and what counts as science. I don’t think that negates my point that non-scientists were responsible for huge advances in scientific theory, but this helped me to understand the qualifications for science in a way that I didn’t really have when I was still in school.
I did have to study the scientific method at length, and I’m curious if people elsewhere also had to do science fairs in in school. Our framework was a bit more rigorous and defined: We had to come up with a hypothesis. We had to do research on the topic. We had to come up with the parameters to test our hypothesis. Then we had to record and observe it before coming to our conclusions. This was a THING, and it was bigger in elementary and middle school than in high school, though some of those high school level science fairs were INTENSE. I can’t recall the specifics of the many science projects I did—I’m pretty sure one of them was about growing mold?—but as far as I know, this is actually a fairly common practice in American schools. I literally see those tri-fold cardboard stands as science fair displays and nothing else. WHICH REMINDS ME! My sophomore year, I was carrying one of those horrid, awkward posterboard disasters when my bullies drove by—it had just rained—and deliberately got as close to the curb as possible, splashing me and my project with water and nearly ruining it. SO I HATE THOSE POSTERBOARD DISPLAYS ON SIGHT.
Anyway, that was the sort of understanding of science that I had growing up. You came up with hypotheses, and you tried to prove them right or wrong through testing. Obviously, kids aren’t exactly going to have access to the right facilities or tools or technology to conduct experiments that would hold up to rigorous testing. But I think that our teachers at least tried to get us thinking about what went into experiments like this and what it meant to try to learn more about the world. That theme is what spoke to me the loudest in this chapter. At the heart of science, at least according to Stewart and Cohen, is the notion of challenging authority, even if that authority is the teacher you had or the paragon who came before you. That strive to learn more about the world, to craft ideas and theories that challenge our understanding of everything, is super appealing to me. I admit that’s partially due to the fact that I grew up in an oppressively religious household, in a nation that often values one set of religious beliefs above all others. That’s specific to me, and as I mentioned before, I’m not sure I agree that nearly all religions criticize “everything except themselves.” But I know on a personal level, I want scientists to challenge the world. I want them to change it for the better. And it’s surreal to be living in an age where anti-science sentiments have so much power, that this narrative is coming back around again.
There’s a line here about how we, as humans in the modern age, expect “big changes during our lifetimes.” But I wonder how Cohen and Stewart would feel about that sentiment now. I still want big changes, but I’m distressed by those in power ignoring science and scientists. I’m dancing around it, but the way we’re going in terms of climate change? It’s terrifying. We have people who are willfully ignoring warnings from the scientific community because they want to make money now. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s one of the major motivations, and it’s so short-sighted and gross, you know? We truly have advanced as a culture in terms of communication and transportation—that I absolutely agree with—but what are we using it for? How can we expect progress in these areas when there are people determined to bring the world down with them?
SORRY, GOT DARK THERE FOR A SECOND. This stuff gets me HEATED.
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