I don’t like to pigeonhole myself too much with regards to where I stand on certain issues that I believe are deeply complex and to some extent have no obvious “good” answer. That said, I think that I laid out, in an e-mail to a student, some things that I deeply believe underlie the scientific endeavor. These are the themes that I try to build the Frontiers course around. So at risk of a little bit of pigeon-holing, here are those themes and some of my thoughts about them:
The Awe of Nature: this theme comes up time and again and I would argue is the backbone of the vast majority of science. It is the purest motivation of the scientist and is a feeling that drives us to keep asking questions and open up new frontiers.
Questions, not Answers: this is more of a slogan than a theme. Obviously, science is partly a collection of facts (subject to revision). But science truly *lives* at its frontiers, where it is all about the questions that we try to answer (and to some extent the methods that we need to develop to answer the questions).
Science and Society (or is it Science vs. Society?): We come back to this again and again in the course–it is rather inevitable. Science is a human activity and it is pursued in a social context. Since science is done by people, there is a community of scientists and all the politics that goes along with that. In addition, science is embedded in broader society and must make contact with it. Sometimes this results in uncomfortable situations where new discoveries force us to confront old ideas and potentially even deeply-held beliefs and values. This is one of the sources of conflict between science and society. We’ll often argue about whether it has to be this way or not over the course of the course.
The Unknown (or how to know how much you don’t know): The frontiers of science constantly confront us with the limitations of our knowledge. Moreover, they confront us with the limits of our methods to gain knowledge. Often our techniques improve (usually based on new discoveries put to use), but there are things that will never go away. On the smaller, less philosophical scale these are:
a) Random error in measurement. You can never totally get rid of it!
b) Systematic errors (or bias) in measurements. Again, almost any method we employ to explore some aspect of the world has inherent biases. We’ll see examples of this throughout the course. Sometimes we can take these biases into account–and certainly where we can we must–but sometimes we may not even be aware of them.
We deal with these issues using statistics to try to estimate how much we don’t know–how uncertain we are about our results. This is why some basic statistical concepts and techniques will form an important element of our course. We’ll review/learn about things like means, standard deviations, standard errors, distributions, and the way various issues of measurement affect these things.
On a broader, more philosophical note, the question of how to know how much you don’t know is hopeless. As Donald Rumsfeld once put it: there are unknown unknowns: the things we don’t know we don’t know. There is no method I know of to guard against that *except* the fundamental aspect of science that is keeping an open mind and always being ready to scrap old ideas if they prove to be wrong, and to improve them where improvements need to be made. That said, it doesn’t take much time to think about this question to realize that there just may be frontiers to our knowledge that we may never cross–at least not scientifically. It is easy to ask questions (questions that you will confront in courses like Lit Hum and CC: what is The Good, The Beautiful, The Just?). This isn’t to say that science has no bearing on these things. It may shape our understanding of these questions–it may tell us things about ourselves as human beings that give us new tools for asking these questions. But it seems that in the deepest sense, these questions cannot be completely subsumed into science. Some might argue that where they can’t be made scientific, they should be thrown out as nonsensical. I don’t share that view, but I look forward to debating it with students who might.
The question of The Unknown brings us right back around to The Awe of Nature. A lot of the time, you’ll hear that science erases Nature’s mystery and eliminates our sense of awe since it just reduces Nature to a bunch of parts that work in some fixed way to produce the world we see around us. I can’t force you to feel otherwise, but I’ve always felt that knowing more about what is going on “behind the veil” enriches the mystery and wonder. This is partly because it forces us to contend with the question of where the ultimate boundaries to our knowledge truly lie and to appreciate how wonderful it is that we can comprehend all that we can (it seems a lot to us, but probably it isn’t much compared to how much we potentially could know).