Friday, September 29, 2006

What is science?

I would emphasize consensus: Science is the attempt by skeptical and curious men and women -- let's call them scientists -- to gain consensus knowledge of the world, by trying as best they can to minimize cultural bias (tradition, religion, politics, ethnicity, gender, etc.) and let nature have its say.

To this end, they have devised a number of tools to ply their trade: quantitative observation, mathematical language, peer review, institutionalized doubt, the principle of parsimony, and -- above all -- the willingness to say "I don't know."

It is because scientific knowledge of the world is consensus knowledge that those of us who are scientists only in spirit embrace it with confidence. And, of course, we recognize that modern medicine, sanitation, technology, and wealth creation all stand as monuments to the effectiveness of the scientific way of knowing.

But it is precisely because we recognize the limits of science that we mind too poets, artists, musicians, and all who give creative expression to our intuition -- amply confirmed by the history of science -- that there is more to the world than what presently meets the eye. "What is spiritual about the manifest is not the part that leaves tracks in the snow," says Mary Oliver in one of her aphorisms.