Science isn’t common sense

A photon – both a wave and a particle of energy – erupts from the surface of a star. Hurtling through the enormity of space at light speed, it travels for two hundred years in a mostly straight, unimpeded line. Suddenly, it is flying through an increasingly dense mass of atoms. The photon hits a lens, flashes through it and slams into a cluster of cells, hyperpolarising them. A chemical signal is triggered, sending a signal to a data processing centre. The centre interprets the signal and feeds it into the difficult-to-define world we call consciousness.

I see a miniscule, twinkling dot. A star.

Eyes: like a camera, but with less manual control settings.

The idea that what we see as a star is, in fact, the complex interaction of an ever-expanding sphere of ageing photons (if time is even relevant for a photon) centred on an astonomically distant ball of raging gas, with our eyes… well, let’s just say it’s not what would spring to mind by looking at a clear night sky for a few minutes. That’s because our senses and minds aren’t equipped to give us explanations of natural phenomena. They’re evolved to keep us kicking long enough to parent the next generation.

That was mostly well and good when we, as a species, ran around hunting and gathering. However, common sense – the things our senses can pick up and interpret on casual observation – just doesn’t cut it in modern society. In a recent interview on Wired, Simon Singh put it well:

“Science has nothing to do with common sense. I believe it was Einstein who said that common sense is a set of prejudices we form by the age of 18. Inject somebody with some viruses and that’s going to keep you from getting sick? That’s not common sense. We evolved from single-cell organisms? That’s not common sense. By driving my car I’m going to cook Earth? None of this is common sense. The commonsense view is what we’re fighting against. So somehow you’ve got to move people away from that with these quite complicated scientific arguments based on even more complicated research. That’s why it’s such an uphill battle. People start off with a belief and a prejudice—we all do. And the job of science is to set that aside to get to the truth.”

So if science isn’t common sense, what is it? That’s a difficult question to begin to answer, but I offer a broad response: it’s a filter which seeks to sort, record, analyse and compare our sensory observations and ideas, so that we can build a more accurate picture of reality. While it’s not the only such filter people use, it is the only one which has delivered, and continues to deliver, large and steady advances in our understanding of the universe around us.

Why am I saying this? Because most people – myself included, until my Honours year – don’t really think about what science is or is not. The word ‘science’ enjoys respect and gives an aura of credibility, but do we know how it works, or whether something deserves to be called scientific? I hope that, in my career, I can help people not just to understand scientific information, but the essence of science – the thinking and power behind it. There’s a whole universe out there, and to really get to grips with it and be inspired, a scientific outlook is an amazing asset.

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Categories: Science | Tags: | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Science isn’t common sense

  1. Liam

    Good post!
    Indeed, common sense is what helps us get by in our own little worlds. Within the century, city and culture we live. Science stretches far wider and things that make sense in our bubble of reality don’t necessarily apply to a rock – billions of years old, hurtling through space.

  2. Jess

    Science is often framed as an institution, as something monolithic, like a church, which spouts ‘rules’ which are based on a simple set of ideas, which people are punished for ‘transgressing’. And an awful lot of people don’t seem to appreciate that new information and changes of opinion in the scientific community are good things rather than bad.
    I saw a great presentation by Bronwyn Parkin who is doing some great work on scientific literacy in primary schools – she says that science is often framed as a sort of a mythbusters-style circus, and this is a huge obstacle to instilling real scientific literacy (which is quite tedious!).

    • Both good points. It’s made more difficult because scientists in the public sphere often refer to “the science” or “science says” – plus the love of a good story, where people rather think of adversarial challenges to prove or disprove, or think of science as advancing by epiphany (rather than long hours and incremental advances!).

  3. Pingback: Sunday Science: Some of My Favourites | David Robertson

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