Mar 24, 2008
…and if you only care about scientific issues that are controversial, you will end up with a head stuffed full of garbage.
The media thinks that only the cutting edge of science is worth reporting on. How often do you see headlines like “General Relativity still governing planetary orbits” or “Phlogiston theory remains false”? So, by the time anything is solid science, it is no longer a breaking headline. “Newsworthy” science is often based on the thinnest of evidence and wrong half the time—if it were not on the uttermost fringes of the scientific frontier, it would not be breaking news.
Scientific controversies are problems so difficult that even people who’ve spent years mastering the field can still fool themselves. That’s what makes for the heated arguments that attract all the media attention.
Worse, if you aren’t in the field and part of the game, controversies aren’t even fun.
Oh, sure, you can have the fun of picking a side in an argument. But you can get that in any football game. That’s not what the fun of science is about.
Reading a well-written textbook, you get: Carefully phrased explanations for incoming students, math derived step by step (where applicable), plenty of experiments cited as illustration (where applicable), test problems on which to display your new mastery, and a reasonably good guarantee that what you’re learning is actually true.
Reading press releases, you usually get: Fake explanations that convey nothing except the delusion of understanding of a result that the press release author didn’t understand and that probably has a better-than-even chance of failing to replicate.
Modern science is built on discoveries, built on discoveries, built on discoveries, and so on, all the way back to people like Archimedes, who discovered facts like why boats float, that can make sense even if you don’t know about other discoveries. A good place to start traveling that road is at the beginning.
Don’t be embarrassed to read elementary science textbooks, either. If you want to pretend to be sophisticated, go find a play to sneer at. If you just want to have fun, remember that simplicity is at the core of scientific beauty.
And thinking you can jump right into the frontier, when you haven’t learned the settled science, is like…
…like trying to climb only the top half of Mount Everest (which is the only part that interests you) by standing at the base of the mountain, bending your knees, and jumping really hard (so you can pass over the boring parts).
Now I’m not saying that you should never pay attention to scientific controversies. If 40% of oncologists think that white socks cause cancer, and the other 60% violently disagree, this is an important fact to know.
Just don’t go thinking that science has to be controversial to be interesting.
Or, for that matter, that science has to be recent to be interesting. A steady diet of science news is bad for you: You are what you eat, and if you eat only science reporting on fluid situations, without a solid textbook now and then, your brain will turn to liquid.