21 July 2009

Truth for the hard of thinking

ThalesScience is hard, according to common expression. After all, when something is easy, what is it compared to? “It ain’t rocket science,” which ends the race in a dead heat with, “It ain’t brain surgery.”

And this feeds into people’s feelings of inferiority where science is concerned. There is this idea that science can only be practiced by the very bright.

This is strange, given that arguably, science was conceived as a way that anyone could find truth about matters. Let’s compare science to the other methods of finding truth that preceded it.

Philosophy was a way of getting at truth that was always seen as an intensely rarefied and intellectual endeavor. In other words, it really was only for smart people. The first Western philosopher, Thales (pictured), was said to have fallen into a well while contemplating the stars. The maiden who rescued him asked how he could know what was in the heavens when he did not know the ground at his feet.

Religion was another way of uncovering truth. But much religion revolves around revelation. Those not blessed with revelation had to hope to be blessed with faith. But those not blessed with faith were kind of out of luck.

Science was a way for both smart and stupid people to get at the truth.

Not very bright or blessed by the divine? Here’s what you do. Look for patterns. Stick to numbers and things that are verifiable. Make predictions. Do tests. Compare the outcomes with predictions. Do that, and you will get answers to your questions. In other words, science spelled out methods that anyone could use. In that sense, science is emphatically not the elitist exercise it’s come to be seen as.

How did science become seen as something that only geniuses could do? That’s some idle speculation for another post.

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