Why Is Science Such a Powerful Tool?
Science benefits from objectivity and its own sort of power law. Personal experience can’t beat it, in most cases.
Humans are inherently subjective creatures. We view our world in a very subjective way, and evolution even suggests that we haven’t evolved to view the world as it is. Instead, we rely on heuristics that allow us to make rapid decisions. Unfortunately, these heuristics, while useful for every day life, are powerless in making complex decisions in the technologically and socially rich environment that we have created for ourselves.
Luckily, we have science. But why is science useful? Honestly, there are times when I question the utility of science, not because I don’t think that it is useful, but rather because it’s difficult to give a non-scientific justification for science. But I can say a few things about the power if science.
Objectivity Through Statistics
First and foremost, science is a system of falsification. It takes our assumptions, and rips them apart. It therefore drives us away, at least in the long term, from our own personal biases. Humans are good at finding patterns. The human brain can find patterns in a lot of very noisy data sets. But the human brain also tends to find patterns, when there is no pattern to be found. It is also subject to confirmation bias, which skews our own perceptions towards our preconceptions.
It is for this reason that statistical analysis is so important in science, and in many ways, science is nothing more than statistical proof by contradiction. Through statistics, we can determine how reasonable it is to observe some phenomenon, and if it is unlikely, given our assumptions, we throw out our assumptions, at least provisionally. This method is systematic and objective.
The Power Law of Science
But there’s a greater power to science, and that is a sort of power law that science enjoys. If personal experience is useful, than scientific experience is exponentially more useful.
Understanding nature is like trying to piece together an unimaginably complex puzzle, when we have no idea what the puzzle is even supposed to look like in the end. Maybe each of us has a few pieces. And in a lifetime of experience, we may even gain thousands or hundreds of pieces of the puzzle.
But through scientific inquiry, we all gather various pieces of that puzzle, and we can take those pieces, and work to fit them together. For each question, there are often hundreds, if not thousands of researchers around the world that are seeking to piece together their various parts of the puzzle. We are awake and experiencing the world for about 16 hours a day, even if we’re not actively thinking about our puzzle. In a year’s time, we have collected 5,844 hours of experience.
This number alone is phenomenal of course. But if let’s say that a scientist spends just 2 hours a day on a research question, and suppose there are 100 researchers who are researching the same, or at least similar topics. In a year’s time, those 100 researchers have accumulated over 730,000 hours of experience working on the puzzle, and through scientific discussion, all of those researchers are able to benefit from that full 73,000 hours of experience.
But there are literally millions of scientists and other researchers, all over the world, and we can build on the experience of past researchers, each person, through science, is therefore able to utilize lifetimes of experience to help piece together the puzzle that is our universe.
There are even methodologies which allow us to methodologically aggregate these experiences. They’re called systematic reviews and meta-analyses. There are also other similar procedures, usually involving other types of data which are not easily evaluated numerically. One systematic review may aggregate dozens, if not hundreds, of studies. Therefore a systematic review is itself the sum total of upwards of hundreds to thousands of hours of person-hours of research.
Personal experience, no matter how diverse, is therefore no where as informative as the multiplicative power of scientific inquire, especially when combined with the systematic attempts to identify our faults in our own understanding, and statistical analysis which drives away subjective analysis. Science is simply far more powerful than personal experience, and only in certain more subjective instances is there any reason to ignore science over the experience of one individual, or even a handful of individuals.
Abusing the Null Hypothesis
There are few mathematical concepts, that are regularly used as the null hypothesis, and yet so heavily abused as well.