Want to win? Want to be right? What do you want?
Life consists of stories. Science is part of life. Don’t deny that. Enjoy it. 🙂
He felt the sweat running down his back. What in the world had just happened?
He had lost a debate. That was what had happened. He looked out over the auditorium. People were arguing and discussing with each other on the way out. The spotlights still churned out heat as if they were miniature suns.
His opponent, a sleak, tuxedo-wearing man he would not have bought a car from, even a new one, approached him.
«Thank you.» the man said. «That was fun.»
«It was wrong.» he answered, reluctantly shaking the other man’s hand.
«Hey! All fair and square!» the man said. «Gotta show two sides of the coin sometimes, too, you know. Anyways, gotta go. Nice having met you.»
Off his opponent went, leaving the scientist standing there by himself, still sweating. Honestly now, if it came down to it, what had just happened?
He knew he was right. Dinosaurs were not put in place by some deity to fool humanity! What an absurd notion to ponder; and the people in the audience were not that stupid. Believing that they were, meant to lose all faith in humanity.
It was pointless. Some people simply did not accept the reality around them. One part of him tried to tell himself that anybody finishing at least some grades in school should have gotten to the point of realising the superiority of the scientific process. Gut feelings and intuition were not very likely to lead to knowledge. An uncomfortable question crept up in his mind:
Did he fight through his studies to just be told that reality did not matter? The whole point of taking up science was to understand what reality was.
He remembered vividly all those nights in the lab as a young graduate student, trying to figure out what his data had meant, what that peak in the data had meant. He sure knew what it had meant, but the cause of the peak was hard to isolate. Yet, he had spent two years trying to prove his intuition right –
Still, he thought, I was, and I am a trained scientist. I did stop by myself. I did move on to other things. In science, after all, one does not prove things right. Nobody can prove anything right.
Intuitively, of course, he understood very well what had happened just right now. His opponent had argued from the gut. Religion came from the gut. The brain, in an ethereal sense of the word, was not involved at all in this.
What do facts matter to the gut?
He remembered his own education – which had begun in his childhood, he realized. To him facts had mattered a lot! And whatever facts he had been able to gather as a boy, had only egged him on to dig deeper and find out more. As his mother had put it many years later: “Of course, you want to study science, dear. And as well you might!”
After all, you did get into science because you were curious or because you liked some aspect of it like designing complex experiments. Some of his colleagues at university simply enjoyed thinking in the same way that a fly-fisher enjoyed not having to. The point was: You got into science because of some human emotion or other.
There was more to it, too: When applying the scientific method, when conducting experiments, it was, when it came down to it, still all about who you were as a human. How easy it was to see something in your data that was not there, how easy to just believe the more experienced colleague! There were so many pitfalls, which, to borrow from his opponent’s language, “led you astray from the path to truth”. So many opportunities to make gut decisions based on intuition, that you could not count their number.
Outside the lab you would make decisions like that. It was the way you would judge a situation in real life, how humans treated real life. His opponent had argued from real life in the debate, and had treated him like another human in the process. He must have, at times, even managed to sound more scientific to the untrained ear by invoking the big questions from the gut. For, again, what did science do if not look for real life?
Real to whom?
Strangely, this question made him feel better. He felt his interest aroused and made the decision to consult with one of his social science colleagues back home on campus, get pointers on what to read and how to compare what he read with his own experience.
This meant, too, that he could prepare better for a debate like this in the future. He knew now, that this was more complex, more intricate, more human, than he had thought. It tickled both his fancy, curiosity and, not least, his competitiveness.
Perhaps what that debate was really about was not what science, or any holy book for that matter, said. How else could you explain a holy book commanding to slay someone and then have people reading a message of peace in those words? No, perhaps the most important thing was why people did science – or trusted some interpretation or other of a holy book.
He snapped his laptop shut louder than strictly necessary. The headlights had gone and the cleaning lights had come on. An elderly lady with a broom in her hands gave him a weird look.
Time to go home and study, he thought. I will win the next one.