Scientific Literacy

Greetings, internet denizens! Today, I’d like to speak with you about science. Yes, science! Now, everyone who has even the slightest clue about what science is knows that it is totally awesome. You can look stuff up in books all day long, but there is no cooler way to understand the universe than through using science.

Naturally, since science is so freaking amazing, the best way to be seen as a smart person is to be scientifically literate. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s find out if you are! Take the test, find out, and come back.



musical interlude


So. How’d you doooo~♫? Did you score 50 out of 50? Because apparently that’s the only way to be scientifically literate.

If you’re anything like me, you wanted to smack the e-ink out of that “science literacy test.” What the hell does it have to do with science literacy? It’s a damn vocabulary test. Yes, you might need to know some of the stuff that’s in there to engage in high-level conversations about specific hypotheses, formulas, models, and so on, but is that the same thing as being scientifically literate? Absolutely not. I’ll say it again for emphasis—absolutely not.

Science literacy, if it has any meaning at all, means the ability to understand the scientific method. It does not have to do with your ability to pedantically churn out game-show knowledge about the periodic table of the elements. What does any of this have to do with being able to figure out whether today’s purported miracle cancer cure is complete bunk or not? Science is the study of the cosmos; specific branches of science study the cosmos at different scales.

Another feature of science that the creator of that test seems to have overlooked? Science is not just physics, chemistry, and biology. Science is not just “hard” science. “Soft” sciences are “real” sciences, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either 1) joking, 2) an asshole, or 3) ignorant of what “science” means. So what does science mean?

Science means you look at data. Empirical facts. Observable things.

Science means you try to explain those observations in ways that fit all the relevant data.

Science means you don’t make assumptions.

Science means you use Occam’s razor to excise unnecessary steps from your explanations.

Science means you don’t try to prove a point—you try to disprove your idea until it outsmarts you and you can’t anymore.

Science means hypotheses that can’t be disproven are useless. (And that includes god claims—buh-bye!)

Science means your explanations must also make reliable future predictions.

Science means you repeat your experiments because sometimes random chance bites you in the ass.

Science means other people do the same thing, just in case you messed up.

Because of these things, science is self-correcting—the more you do it, the better it gets. People who criticize science for “having been wrong” about things in the past fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of science. Our goal as knowledge-seekers is not to be right—it’s to become right. Science is cumulative; we rely on the work of the people who came before us. We use their knowledge to enhance our own. We identify and correct their mistakes, and over time, these mistakes become progressively smaller. Through science, we err toward greatness.

What on earth does any of this have to do with memorizing the atomic weight of Einsteinium?* Absolutely nothing. Knowing a fact makes you no better than a line in a book. Knowing how to use that fact? That’s science.

Scientific literacy is knowing how to avoid being fooled by snake-oil peddlers. Scientific literacy is knowing why homeopathy is bunk and why “ancient Chinese medicine” isn’t medicine. Scientific literacy is knowing why Power Balance bands are a scam. Scientific literacy is understanding why “heritage” bananas are GMOs. Scientific literacy is understanding why the notion of “a” cure for cancer is fundamentally incoherent. Scientific literacy is being able to explain why “non-overlapping magisteria” is impossible—why “magic” and “energy” and “miracles” would be scientifically observable phenomena if they actually existed.

Scientific literacy is knowing how to find real answers to questions. Scientific literacy is not your score on that ridiculous test I made you take. (Sorry about that.)

What I find even more aggravating about this whole misconception of “science literacy” is that it is almost certainly this exact same flawed model that gets presented in our schools—this was certainly my impression from high school, at least, and international test scores don’t seem to suggest a different conclusion. We are deceiving our children into thinking that science is about forcing yourself to memorize ever-expanding lists of monotonous data. This is a problem. We need a different approach. We need to be passionate about science—science is our key to understanding the entire universe; it’s not this dusty relic of decontextualized facts. Science is cool.

* It’s 252, by the way. I know that because people who know more stuff than I do found out and made the information available to anyone with an internet collection. Isn’t that awesome? Yep. So stop sitting around and go thank a scientist.

On Religious Experience

“Seeing is believing.” How cliché. This saying is so common yet entirely without merit. When it comes to scientific analysis, seeing alone is most certainly not believing. One first needs to demonstrate that what one is observing is actually what is happening. (Is that really a lake, or is it a mirage?) Then one needs to repeatedly verify one’s observation in further testing. (It sure looks like a lake, but I’d like to make sure before I walk over there. How can I find out? Aha, I’ll climb this tree to see if it gives me a better view!) Of course, other people must also verify our findings. (Hey, Fred. What’s that thing over there? A lake, you say? Great! Let’s go check it out.)

This is perhaps the biggest difference between the scientifically oriented and, well, everyone else. Perhaps the most relevant personal example I of this I can think of took place a few years ago, just as I was discovering my atheism. I had been involved in a lengthy conversation with a friend, and it eventually turned to religion. I knew very little about the scientific method, and I knew far less about cognitive psychology, so I was not prepared for the revelation that followed.

I was an atheist, I said, because I saw no reason to believe; I saw (and indeed, still see) only reasons not to. I had never had a personal religious experience that could not be explained through entirely naturalistic mechanisms. I cited the wide variety of religious traditions as evidence against the accuracy of all religions, for surely if one of them were really true, it would be demonstrably different from the rest (and presumably followed by the majority of humanity). I mentioned the inconsistencies between denominations and even within shared holy texts. I mentioned the incomprehensibility of a deity who wanted to make its presence known, but not badly enough to actually do so in person.

These reasons were entirely unconvincing to her. She told me about a time that she had been filled with doubts, so she had started reading various books on religion. The one that most swayed her was one by a man who claimed that he had previously been an atheist. She said he started writing his book as a way to disprove religion (which speaks volumes to his reasoning capabilities—religions are specifically designed to be unfalsifiable), but the things he found while doing his research caused him to embrace Christianity as the One True Religion™. What she found most convincing of all was the argument for personal experience—seeing feeling is believing.

The reason she believed in God, she said, was that she had felt an undeniable wave of emotion during a religious gathering. She had raised her hands into the air alongside everyone else, and she had felt elation. Thus, God.

I didn’t really know what to say. This is why I regret not having studied cognitive psychology.

Of course it should come as no surprise that emotionally charged social situations can trigger emotional reactions (even especially profound ones). It’s even less surprising when you take into consideration the fact that she was in a crowd of people swaying to rhythmic music. Peer pressure, a sustained beat, and preexisting religious expectations? If this doesn’t sound like fertile soil for a hypnotic experience, I don’t know what does. This does not add any evidence to the theistic argument, however, because the very same kind of experience found in Christian worship can be achieved through Buddhist meditation. If this experience indicates any connection with a divine power, that power does not seem to particularly care about an individual’s religious beliefs. This also supports the naturalistic position, as these experiences are entirely observable in the physical state of the brain, and they can be activated through external stimulation.

Does that mean that my friend did not feel the emotions she described? Absolutely not. This is crucial—I do not deny the realness of religious experience. It’s just that people are wrong to attribute those experiences to supernatural causes.

This is where the science-minded and the religion-minded butt heads. To the “spiritual” believer, personal experience is the single most important thing.

To the scientist, it’s just the opposite.

Richard Feynman sums it up perfectly: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Perhaps no lie is so dangerous as the one you tell yourself.

There can be no denying religious experience, but we can certainly disagree about attribution. Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian turned atheist, often talks about speaking in tongues. He remarks upon the tingly feelings he used to get while speaking in tongues as a believer. Since becoming an atheist, he has lost precisely none of his ability to do this, and it still brings him the same feelings. My own personal experience parallels this—I can still summon forth, at will, that sensation I used to get during “spiritual” activities.

Reason teaches us to rely on valid and reliable demonstrations of evidence before establishing firm convictions about anything, and this applies equally to issues of religion. If a phenomenon isn’t repeatable, it probably isn’t worth discussing. To the believer, a satisfying feeling may suffice to substantiate religious claims, but a scientist knows that the easiest person to fool is yourself. The cognitive sciences show us that we are pretty terrible judges of our own minds, particularly because we are incapable of perceiving the processes that occur inside our own brains, below the level of consciousness.

If belief in the supernatural is a prerequisite to experiencing “transcendence,” there is no explanation for the otherwise seemingly religious experiences felt by former believers. But belief is clearly not necessary, and the obvious explanation is that these feelings are in no way supernatural; they are simply brain states. Like every other brain state, they are largely similar between individuals and have a wide range of possible triggers. The experiences, then, are entirely real, even if they are nothing more than convincing hallucinations.

Disproving Evolution

Creationists love to try to disprove evolution, but they always miss the mark. Why is that? Well, the most obvious reason is that they simply don’t understand it. That’s what perplexes me so much. How can you hope to attack a scientific model you know nothing about? It would be like telling a Muslim that Islam is wrong because it forces its adherents to eat pork!

When I engage with Christians about specific doctrinal issues in the Bible,* I’m often told that I don’t properly understand Christianity. (This particularly amuses me when I’m using one Christian’s arguments against another’s. See also.) In my limited understanding of the Bible, I am told, I simply do not understand the greater context in which a specific passage (e.g., the pro-slavery ones) is meant to be taken. The Bible has contradictions, and each Christian handles these in their own way. Science works differently; because it’s far less individualistic, there’s less room. The scientific process works only thanks to a vigorous interpersonal process of bias-elimination, falsifiability, and objectivity. It’s a collective process, meaning that many minds contribute to the development of any given theory.

This makes it incredibly implausible that one ignorant creationist (and all of the young Earth ones fall under this category) will find “the one proof” that “evolution is false.” If you’ve thought of it, chances are that some biologist somewhere has already encountered the idea. If your criticism had any merit, the evolutionary model would be rewritten to account for it or discarded entirely.

Within the specific perspective of individual creationists, of course, it’s not all that surprising when they believe their criticism disproves evolution. This is because they are simply mistaken about what evolution is. What they are attacking (and indeed, probably successfully!) is nothing but a straw man—an erroneous construct that does not correspond to the actual position it is meant to refute (in this case, the scientific theory of evolution). If I were to suggest that all Christians are immoral because they are all pro-slavery, this would be a straw man because, while the Bible does advocate slavery, most Christians do not support this practice. Both Hanlon’s razor and personal experience suggest that creationists are not deliberately misrepresenting the theory of evolution; they have merely been grossly misinformed about what that theory says.

Jerry Coyne has a list of seven things that could actually disprove (or seriously discredit) the theory of evolution, and it’s a pretty good, concise analysis. In the event that you come across one of those ignorant creationists, this list can be a helpful thing in answering the question, “How would you know if you’re wrong?” These are concrete, evidential findings that we might expect if the theory of evolution were wrong.

How would creationists know if their beliefs are wrong? If the answer is “we can only know after death,” that should set off a pretty big red flag.

* As time goes by, I do this increasingly infrequently. Why? I've come to realize that most Christians do not
actually believe in the Bible. Instead, they believe in their own personal interpretation of the Bible, which
often actually just means the interpretation that their priest/pastor/whoever has told them to believe.

As an aside, I'd also like to point out that an omnipotent god would be capable of guaranteeing that its holy
book would be instantly and unambiguously interpretable so that anyone in the world would be able to precisely
follow that god's mandates without requiring sixteen years of training in apologetics.

Burden of Proof

It’s kind of interesting how often I run into people who have issues with the burden of proof in rational discourse. Whenever it happens, I invariably feel obligated to put my asshole hat on and call my interlocutor out on their bullshit. The burden of proof is Serious Business(™), and if you can’t follow its single edict, you’re not worthy of being considered an intellectual adult.

Prove your own claims.

That’s the burden of proof. If I say “I don’t believe you,” you are not allowed to tell me to prove you wrong. You said it, so either you prove it or you shut up about it immediately. Even if I can prove you wrong, the onus is on you to prove yourself right. If you can’t demonstrate your rightness, you’re actually just wrong. If I have to go out to find evidence that disproves your argument when you have no evidence for your argument, something is amiss, to put it lightly. (And I think you’re an idiot, even if I’m far too polite to directly tell you so.) Can’t prove a point you want to make? Then don’t try to convince anyone to believe it.

Why is this important?

Well, it’s important because Venus is made entirely out of burnt popcorn kernels. Don’t believe me? Prove me wrong.

What, you want to cite satellite data to disprove my claim? Well, that’s obviously photoshopped. Or entirely fabricated. The man doesn’t want you to know the truth, so he manufactures fake information all the time. I have access to a reliable source who’s proven the popcorn Venus theory, but I can’t reveal my source because that would put the man onto him. Or her. Whichever. And no, you can’t see the data because I burned it to prevent it from falling into the man‘s unsavory hands. He has satellites with sci-fi level spying precision (complete with CSI Enhance! software) and even minor holography. But trust me, it’s totally true. Unless you can prove me wrong…

You can’t, can you? Of course not. This is why the burden of proof is so damn important. Perhaps the most revealing example of this idea comes from a little thing called Russell’s teapot. Bertrand Russell, intellectual badass extraordinaire, used this to illustrate the importance of giving demonstrable evidence to back up the claims you make. The more extraordinary a claim is, the more evidence it requires. (If you’re not familiar with the idea of Russell’s teapot, take the time to read that article now. Don’t worry; I’ll wait for you to finish.)

If I claim “my local grocery store does not carry apples,” you might believe me if I take you there and it has no apples. Does this prove that they don’t carry apples? No, all it proves is that they don’t have apples at that very moment. If you want better evidence, I could interview the store’s employees and customers, and if a coherent, consistent answer emerges, we might be better prepared to ascertain the truthhood of this claim. Still, the danger from believing a lie like “my grocer refuses to stock apples” is very low, and this would be a fairly trivial fact that likely had no real impact on your life (although lying is generally stupid, so there is that). Thus, the evidentiary bar for this claim is not set all that high.

On the other hand, if I claim “China is a lie, and that entire country doesn’t exist,” you will instantly recognize that this is a far more implausible claim. The evidentiary bar for this claim is so high that you can’t even see it from ground level with the naked eye. You might produce your phone from your pocket and point out the Made in China sticker on the back. In order to believe that China does not exist, you might need to be taken there in person, and you still wouldn’t believe it unless instead of China, you saw an endless sea. (You’d probably still be reluctant to accept this premise even then!)

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Extraordinary lazy arguers require extraordinary dismissive reprisals. When someone unleashes an unsubstantiated utterance, I occasionally opt to unload my attempt at its undoing. This should not be necessary, however. If you’re unable or unwilling to back up factual claims, you have no business letting them leak from your brain and slip through your vocal cords. Indeed, if you can’t fulfill your burden of proof, it is highly likely that your beliefs are erroneous, and you should sit down for some meaningful self-examination.

Serious business. The burden of proof. Respect it or be horribly wrong.

The Sin of Pride (or On Being Wrong)

Anyone who knows me ought to instantly recognize something strange with the title of this article: I basically never use the word sin—not outside of mockery, anyway. The very notion of sin as a thing is deeply deserving of a thorough lampooning. It is a manufactured, illusory disease for which the only cure is said to be a treatment, equally illusory, administered by the ecclesiastic—it is nothing more than the adult version of cooties.

Thanks to contemporary culture, however, sin has begun to take on a secular meaning of “any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse,etc.” I generally prefer to avoid using even this meaning of the word, but today’s topic justifies a break from this tradition. When it appears in the form of hubris or conceit, pride is a truly reprehensible state.

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Creativity and the Nature of Science

I adore the creativity of the human mind. There is enough wonder in the world that you could be rendered breathless on a daily basis and still not drink the well dry. We’re capable of coming up with what seems to be a never-ending supply of amazing ideas. I enjoy theses flights of fancy even if they’re not true—as long as they’re not erroneously presented as such. It would be easy to compose a nearly infinite list of things that I would love to have be true, but no amount of wishing is sufficient to make something imaginary become something real (side note: if it’s already true, then you aren’t making).

The problem is that it’s a lot easier to invent an idea than it is to test it, and this means that bad ideas vastly outnumber good ones. “True” hypotheses exist adrift in a sea of error and noise until rigorous scientific study pulls them ashore. Science isn’t always a benevolent force, however, and sometimes things that had been mistakenly believed to be true are cast back into the ocean to drown. “Survival of the fittest” is the guiding rule in the marketplace of scientific ideas, and the strongest models destroy their weaker competitors with ruthless conviction.

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