What is science? or, Here be Dragons.
It was very interesting to read Jack Cohen's article on the demise of Archaeopteryx: in it he highlighted a worrying issue - that of the need for certainty in our society. All good science and scientists are in the business of 'changing their minds' - that is, continuously developing theories that are the best stories we can tell that offer the simplest description of the available evidence.
It's clear from that definition of science that, every time new information comes to light (as Jack refers to in his article), or every time someone comes up with a better (i.e. simpler) description, our theories evolve. This means that we need to present science as more than just 'facts' - there are some truths, for sure (though we could debate for years what we mean by that!) - and it is this making sense of facts that real science is about - the sensemaking suggests areas in which we don't know enough facts, and so we then go about designing experiments that will fill that gap, give us some more information, and allow us to refine our theories once again.
It is this discovery of gaps, the filling of gaps, and the reinterpretation of evidence, and the making up of stories, that makes science an adventure, a worthwhile use of human resources both intellectual, physical and financial. It is this that excites most scientists - but this is not the science that most schoolchildren would recognise. The excitement of discovery, the re-evaluation of what we thought to be correct, the fantastical creations of new stories to explain things that could and should be used to develop enthusiasms in the young, to help bring on the next generation of intellectual explorers.
I was recently on holiday with my 5 year old son, and we were exploring castles and ancient fortified towns. Whilst stories of defence and siege didn't yet grab him, we had great discussions about dragons and where they'd live, how they could move about without being seen (they fold their wings about them, silly), and so on. Interwoven into this I could discuss principles of flight, light bending (for dragon invisibility, silly), food intake and excrement, and other semi-scientific topics. And whilst the core story may be more fantastical than reality, there is sufficient useful science in there to start to interest and develop his curiosity in this. He's not certain about dragons now - are they still alive now, or where they just around with knights and dinosaurs (those two periods are somewhat overlapped in his mind at present)? I'm happy to help him slowly discover the truth - one part of which is that truth can be an evolving concept. Mind you, he seems to know that bit already.....
The need for certainty makes us intolerant of politicians too - any politician who changes their mind is regarded as a turncoat, a betrayer of those who voted for them, and so on - and yet i the light of changed circumstances, new evidence, whatever, it may well be that they were right originally and they are right now - a change of perspective is the correct position to take. Yet so pilloried for it are they that they try not to state too clear an opinion or position on anything if they can help it, and are then labelled as evasive, dismissive, or hesitant. With the ever-recorded digital imprint of their most innocuous utterances, expressions and glances being analysed by millions, whether journalists or YouTubeists (no, I'm sure it's not a word, but you know what I mean), any change in direction is highlighted, derided, laughed at and generally demeaned. But life is not unchanging - so why should we want, even need, our politicians to be certain unchanging either? Maybe we need to cut them some slack - and maybe the debarcles in the Murdoch media will help here, as we are forced to confront that newspapers (at least, some journalists and some editors and some proprietors) are not necessarily paragons of virtue, propriety and unchanging, unswervingly correct behaviour all the time either.
Scientists are not always right. indeed, many would argue that their raison d'etre is to prove others wrong, in fact - and therefore, as part of the scientific community, to be proved wrong themselves as well. Perhaps this is what distinguishes scientists from politicians - one category know that they could be wrong.....
addenda: 29th August
Another example: the large hadron collider appears to have failed to have found the expected evidence for supersymmetry, which is the currently preferred model of how the universe operates. Dr Joseph Lykken makes the most beautiful comment: "It's a beautiful idea. It explains dark matter, it explains the Higgs boson, it explains some aspects of cosmology; but that doesn't mean it's right." I can see that some would find this frustrating. For others, this is why we are scientists.