As a person with a lifelong passion for scientific pursuit, I found it quite perplexing that I became so annoyed with the pandemic rally cry of “Follow the Science.” In times past, I would have considered it a dream come true to have so many unscientific people speaking out in support of science. Alas, it often takes a long time for me to understand myself. And, that understanding usually comes when I least expect it.
So, I am indifferently reading a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Covid when the final paragraph smacked me upside the head. I quote: “Another lesson is that science evolves, and there’s no shame in admitting error. Most scientists were wrong about what it would take to achieve herd immunity.”
That’s it! What was really bothering me is the underlying notion that science evolves. Since I spent my life immersed in what I call the “hard sciences” as opposed to the “social sciences,” it all now makes sense.
My brain is most comfortable in the more or less black-and-white world of real science.
I realize that I have condescendingly thought of social science as not really science. Valuable to society, but nonetheless, not real science.
In my logically comfortable brain, a hard science experiment devised for a fixed set of parameters has only one outcome—not the right outcome, just the outcome. And, the outcome will not evolve over time. For example, if you measure the time it takes for your internet information to travel to and from a satellite in a fixed position, there will only be one outcome—not several depending on whose theory is used, or whether the trip was made a hundred years ago or today.
The social sciences are a different beast. Experiments are difficult, if not impossible, to design. Therefore, social scientists depend on models when the problem complexity thwarts defining an equation or studies that rely on surveying people or other studies.
In either case, multiple outcomes are expected along with fights over whose theory is more right than others’. Unfortunately, this can lead to results influenced by personal agendas and even, God forbid, politics. So yes, this kind of science evolves over time. We have all seen this in the field of medicine where the accepted scientific advice on food and medicine is a lot different today than it was 30 years ago.
I have always loved the absolute world of science precisely because it is devoid of opinion and there is no shame in being wrong. In fact, being wrong is a scientist’s best friend and leads to a fuller understanding of the problem. Just think of Thomas Edison and how many times he failed.
Even though I’m not made for the social sciences, I see enormous value and hope that opinionated outcomes can get out of the way of the natural evolution of that science. It’s the only way to better outcomes.