In my town a certain kind of sign has become very popular. These signs announce, “We Believe”, followed by a variety of statements. There appear to be various producers of the signs, as there are different varieties of the signs, but they all contain more or less the same statements. And one of these statements is, “Science is Real”.
I am not fond of these signs. They hurt the cause of science. Why? Two reasons.
First of all, these signs lump science in with various social-political causes. The “No Human Being is Illegal” statement on the signs, to chose one example, is one that various arms of the Catholic Church generally support. But the statement pertains to immigration in the U.S., and that is a divisive issue: exhortations from the pulpit notwithstanding, Catholics disagree over it at times. In all likelihood readers of Sacred Space Astronomy have diverse opinions on it. I hate seeing science listed on a sign with divisive issues; that just makes science appear to be the sort of issue over which people divide. I can just see someone looking at one of those signs and saying, “Well I sure don’t care for much of what is on that sign, so I guess I don’t care for science, either!”
The second reason these signs hurt the cause of science is because they portray science as a thing in which to “believe”. Science is not a thing that “we believe”. In the movie Miracle on 34th Street, New Yorkers come out in support of Santa Claus (or, specifically, in support of an eccentric man who insists that he is indeed Santa Claus). They display signs and buttons that say that “We Believe in Santa Claus”. Science is not like Santa. We do not believe that science is real (or true). We know it.
We know this, as much as we can know any physical thing, through reproducibility. We test and replicate results. We can calculate and say, “here is where the sun will be in the sky at such-and-such a time on such-and-such a date”, and then test to see if indeed it is there. We can show that our ideas are true regarding how the position of the sun changes over time, or at least we can show it insofar as we can show any physical thing. We can say “if I collide two pucks together on a smooth icy surface, here is how they will behave”, and then test to see if they do behave in the manner predicted. Believing is not part of the picture (outside of a broad belief that the universe is knowable and understandable and not random, so that tomorrow the sun’s position will not suddenly start changing randomly and hockey pucks will not start wildly curving and zigging and zagging on their own).
Granted, not all science is positional astronomy or simple two-body collisions. But then, those hockey pucks themselves are not the sun. The sun will be exactly at that point in the sky where our science calculates it will be. The hockey pucks will probably behave very much in they manner we calculate, but not exactly. There might be some irregularity in their manufacture, some unevenness on the ice, etc.—sources of what scientists call “error” or “uncertainty” that can have a noticeable impact on their behavior. Good science keeps track of that uncertainty. Hockey pucks in turn are much simpler to understand than the trajectory of a virus when someone in a room sneezes. There the sources of error might be so great that we cannot make a meaningful prediction, and cannot get reproducible results, and such great error is part of science, too.
Personally, I want to make my own sign for the front of my house. This sign would be free of all error. The sign would say,
IN THIS HOUSE WE KNOW
The interior angles of a plane triangle sum to 180°
A thing cannot both be and not be
An object in motion remains in motion with constant velocity unless acted on by a net external force
Kentucky basketball is the highest form of sport
Science is real
How about that sign? Doesn’t that all make sense?
Maybe I should just leave science off my signs, too.