Science News Should Make you Happy

(This post is 3 years old, but gravitational waves are STILL awesome, so read on)

I am quintessentially a nerd. I love words, gaming, and science, and when I see science in the news, I get happy. You should too! 

But don't fake it. Never fake happiness for something you don't value. 

Instead, think about what science means: science is the pursuit of the not-wrong by trying to prove yourself wrong. This is not typically how we think about science, but keep your mind open to this definition for a moment.   In the meantime, let's perform a science experiment. 

We buy a McDonald's happy meal, and after playing with the toy, eating the burger, sucking down too many free refills, and dipping most of the fries in ketchup, we are left with one solitary fry that has fallen to the floor. I say "I have heard that a Micky D's fry will never go bad if left out." After you (thankfully) ignore the fact that I said "Micky D's," you deny my claim. We decide to test it.

We quickly realize that we don't know how to prove "never." Like most things, it is impossible to empirically show that the fry has never gone bad; if it survives until the day World War III turns the world into an over-cooked PopTart, can we be sure that it doesn't go bad the following day? We can't, because it is outside our possible experience. So instead of trying to prove that we are right, we simply aim to prove that we are not wrong. 

We can put the fry in a variety of different environments. We can set it on a windowsill and check in on it every once in awhile. We can get part of it wet or freeze it or warm it up. In putting it through a number of different stresses, we are trying to find out which will make it mold or degrade in some way. Each new idea is an attempt to find something - anything - that will prove ourselves wrong. If the fry passes every one (and they do... it's gross), we have to conclude that we are, conclusively, not-wrong (probably). 

Science doesn't generally go so far as to say it, but it is inherent in the scientific process that our current understanding-of-basically-everything could be wrong. And this is wonderful! This means science is just like us! Science is fallible! Just like us, science is the repetition of failure until failure becomes less probable.

Actually, science is the better version of us, because we often don't want to admit we are wrong. Science celebrates that wrongness. Scientists spend a lot of time trying to prove each other (and themselves) wrong, and when they do it is a momentous occasion. It doesn't matter the topic; if scientists were able to prove incorrect a common assumption, that news would be everywhere. Issues like vaccinations, GMOs, vapor trails, sugar, gluten, flu shots, round earths... scientists are desperately trying to prove that these things aren't safe, or useful, or true, and science allows for that to be a complete possibility. It becomes less likely the more we are able to prove, but the possibility is always there.

The reason I found myself thinking about this was that scientists have just announced that they have found observational evidence of gravitational waves, a portion of Einstein's theory of relativity that has yet to be proven sufficiently not-wrong. This is exciting! Gravitational science is growing up. It's starting to avoid making the same mistakes. We should be proud and happy!

What's more, the person in the video explaining the science of the discovery is a woman! Women do not get nearly enough coverage or credit in the sciences, yet have been integral throughout history in helping science become more and more not-wrong. Making the discussion of science one that is not only inclusive but - in the case of this video - led by women is a phenomenal development 

So be happy for science. And be proud of science. And be more like science: make mistakes and, over time, try to learn to be as not-wrong as possible (but always consider the possibility that you might be).


(Originally Published Feb 12, 2016)