The Double Edged Sword of Science

Well, it is that time of year when we send off freshly minted graduates off into the real world.  They have sat through speeches imploring them to go out and make the world a better place from their elders and others reminiscing on their times in college before marching to a podium, getting a piece of paper, and discovering that the alumni association is really interested in them.

While the speeches heard quickly fade from memory, GG would like to take a stab at some advice for science graduates….without the need to sit under a hot sun wearing a giant trash bag and the most ill-fitting and unflattering hat on earth.

Congratulations New Scientists! You have completed a degree program viewed as Important by Important People like politicians (very few of whom have completed such a degree) and placement officers (ditto) and your professors (who generally do have such degrees). So you must have done something significant.

Why might this be so significant?  It is because you are now armed with a powerful weapon, a sword of science, if you will.  With this, you can cut through bias to find truth, you can drop superstition in its tracks, drive rumor into retreat and determine how the world really works.  You have encountered and hopefully mastered a mode of thinking that helps you to penetrate thickets of ignorance.

Others will defer to your better judgement because you wield this weapon. Some of you will even command comfortable salaries. Having passed through the travails of an academic program in science, you may find the way forward easier for having suffered to this point.

But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet–remember you are holding that sword of science. It might hurt.

It is something of a double-edged sword, though not exactly in the way this term is typically used. Use one edge to attack nostrums and biases you know to be false, the other to attack those you think true. Use only one edge and that blade will dull, so if all you do is to use your scientific insights to assail the dogmas you know to be false, after some time you will find those beliefs to be more resilient to your attacks, your blade occasionally bouncing off those false concepts only to have the other edge cut you and leave you injured. Using your science only to justify what you think you know now will reveal you to be little more than a partisan unwilling to really seek truth. Once dulled, this blade is hard to hone again.

Use only the other side, attacking only that which you believe to be true, is in many ways less damaging but more wearing.  It is tough work hacking at your existing beliefs, and there is a decent chance, if you were taught well and fairly, that most of those beliefs are well-based and so only deflect your blade and do not fall to it. Hacking repeatedly at these beliefs but not addressing the alternatives can become almost narcissistic; your effort might be better directed at helping others and finding new knowledge.

No, to most effectively use this tool you have earned, you must wield it in both directions. Examining and testing ideas you think incorrect but others think worthy is important, and if done fairly and well can help a broader community reach a better understanding of how the world works. But as you move through a thicket of questions and data, you might find your initial path blocked by a stubborn bush and it might be time to turn to the other side of your blade, to reexamine the preconceptions and assumptions you carry with you. Deviating from a planned path to use that other side of the blade, to challenge your own beliefs, is an important part of wielding this weapon against ignorance, for you yourself are ignorant of some things. Use this weapon wisely and its blade with stay sharp and remain light in your hand.

Richard Feynman said “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.” Do not make the mistake that it is solely a tool to impress others. Practice science responsibly and you will occasionally have the unpleasant discovery that you were wrong about something. If you make that discovery, rejoice, for it means you are using your tool properly. But if all you do is use the trappings of science to justify your current beliefs, the tool will turn against you–and tend to diminish the ability of others to successfully wield the mates of this sword that they too have earned.

So go forth and swing that sword of science, using both sides of the blade.  You have earned the right; your next task will be to show our trust in you is justified.  Good luck.

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