Friday, October 05, 2007

The limits of science

Most scientists know as much about science as a fish knows about water. And because of this, scientists often fail to note the limits of science and, more broadly, the limits of the rationalist approach to problems.

An editorial in The Scientist by Richard Gallagher points to this issue, as a companion piece to the lead article on framing science, noting that he once thought the world would be better if run by scientists, but now he knows otherwise. Why? Because public life must account for the irrational as well as the rational.

When AIDs activists challenged the scientific method over the ethics of medical research, they were greeted with scorn initially. But now the conduct of science is different because of public activism from non-scientists. The changes could never have come from inside, or certainly they never could have come about so quickly. This change is a scientific success, but elements outside the purely rational were necessary for the change.

Then there's the old will-o'-the-wisp, inspiration. What is the source of the "eureka" moment for a scientist, when some major discoveries seem to crystallize into clear view from seemingly nowhere? Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is a fascinating account of things such as this, and they're certainly hard to pin down. Are they rational? Maybe, but not in the traditional sense.

Many of us want public policies to be informed by science, and some of us have widely varying approaches and even divergent goals. I wonder how we can integrate our goals, align our approaches, and push this boulder uphill together? Will our differences prevent us from working together? Do we need to attack religion and "superstition?" Or can we work around the edges of people's irrationality? Can we -gasp- figure out what parts of irrationality to embrace?

What would be the experience of a goldfish jumping between two fish bowls? Would the world seem somehow broken in the interim?

This is what I'm thinking as I head off to Framing Science in Seattle. Thanks to Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney for teeing this up and taking the first big lumps in this year's version of the ongoing debate. I think there's more to come.

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