Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Doggerel #121: "Eureka!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Contrary to what you see in movies and outside Archimedes's favorite bathhouse, science doesn't really come from startling revelations made by a single person. At least not very often, anymore.

Science is usually a team sport that requires a lot of hard work. In the early days, before we had a large understanding of the human-scale world, bright individuals could discover quite a lot. A lot of the knowledge we now take for granted wasn't around back then. The problems science deals with these days are growing more subtle and more expansive.

In medicine, you can't just give a pill to a guy and expect his results to be typical. You have to give it to an experimental group and compare them to a control group and pay attention to how it affects different people in different demographics. That's a lot of work. You may suddenly have an inspiration that leads you to think Chemical X would have beneficial effects, but don't presume that your intuition about the complexities of the human body is as straightforward as Archimedes's realization about displacement volume.

In physics, scientists have to deal with tiny particles, velocities, and so forth that don't follow our everyday Newtonian expectations. A physicist may have some potentially ground-breaking idea to untangle some knots in a superstring, but he still has to show how the math and/or experiments work to support it.

In biology, critters can come up with all sorts of unexpected defenses against our efforts to control them or whatever. With the vast time scales involved in evolution, you might get blindsided by some of the shorter-term thinking of your squishy brain. That's why you have to refer to the large body of evidence that's been collected.

I'm sure more examples could be dropped in the comments. The point is that science doesn't end with sudden realization, thought experiments: You have to test your ideas in the real world. Many of the woos out there just don't get that. "It's just an idea! Why do you have to criticize it?" is one of their common complaints. They don't realize that new ideas demand to be explored.

No comments: