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QUESTION:

What are your scientific beliefs? Do you feel that science is a bad thing or a good thing?

-- Submitted Anonymously

OSC REPLIES: - May 12, 2000

Good science is good, bad science is bad. Good science badly understood is bad, bad science badly understood is worse. So scientific education is good.

What makes good science good? Rigorous, skeptical examination of one's own evidence, the design of one's own experiments, and of the experiments and designs and data of others. Constant outreach to other disciplines besides one's own.

What makes bad science bad? Building one's career instead of building the sum of human knowledge, pursuing grants instead of pursuing truth, preferring a particular outcome instead of following where the data lead, plus general sloppiness, carelessness, hubris, and laziness -- the normal range of human failings.

What makes good science reporting good? A faithful understanding of exactly what the scientific work proves and does not prove, and careful reporting those exact facts and not pursuing sensationalism or a political agenda. Good science reporting is very rare; the bad kind shows up, not just in papers and magazines, but also in textbooks and science classrooms. Public policy is often made on the basis of very bad science reporting and, in some cases, very bad "science" as well.

Having said that, I must also add that the question "whether he felt that science was a bad thing or a good thing" shows an appalling misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. Was I really being asked if the sum of human knowledge about the natural world is "good" or "bad"? That's why I passed over that question the first time. I could not believe that I was really being asked that question.

And, for what it's worth, science fiction is not writing "about science." It is writing about people, as all fiction is. It merely uses aspects of scientific learning as literary devices to frame or shape the story in ways contrary to the present reality. My choice of science fiction as a literary medium has nothing at all to do with my attitude toward any aspect of science as a body of knowledge or a community of researchers.

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