Science, Truth, and Practice

Science is a word that is being bandied about quite liberally in the fire service these days. It might be a good exercise to talk about science for a few minutes. We should ponder what is considered science, what is the goal of science, and how it can affect our lives as firefighters. Many commenters today express the belief that science is the new religion. True scientists bristle when they hear that comment; science is not religion. They also bristle when they hear ignorant people say things like “The science is settled.” The great Karl R. Popper said it this way: “The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.”

The rewarding thing for the folks involved in science is that it’s never settled; there’s always more they’re looking to learn, and they continually question what they hold as established although there is little or no reason to doubt these beliefs. Scientists are just curious people who dispassionately love to question everything.

Popper also added, “The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of irresponsible dreams, of obstinacy, and of error. But science is one of the very few human activities – perhaps the only one – in which errors are systematically criticized and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why we can say that, in science, we often learn from our mistakes, and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress there.”

Our great nation’s most influential early writer and part-time scientist Thomas Jefferson once said, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” President Jefferson was giving us license as Americans to question everything like legitimate scientists. He’s right; we should be bold in our questioning and we should be inquisitive about everything.

Firefighters today are questioning many beliefs, and we are deeply involved with science and research. But we should be deliberate and cautious as to how we interpret the conclusions and how we incorporate those interpretations into the evolution of our tactics.

The great Francis Bacon, when commenting on science, those who study it, and those who interpret it, gave us this incredible quote: “The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use. The reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes the middle course; it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.”

It is good that the men of experiment are like ants, for they should gather and collect data and use them to analyze situations, methods, and phenomena. They should then shed this light and allow the practitioners to interpret it, to assist them in the evolution of their methods and responses to phenomena.

The reasoners are another sort altogether; these are the folks who build those cobwebs where they try to catch others, demean others, and elevate themselves and their opinions. You find a lot of them online. These folks believe themselves morally superior by disassociating themselves from our history and established methodologies and casting aspersions on those who don’t fully embrace the “new science.”

Seasoned firefighters – the real practitioners in the fire service – have always been like the bee. They understand science, societal norms, normative behavior, and politics, and they respect them; they take from them as much as they can, and they digest it and use it, adapting it organically to our mission, growing our tactical options without hesitation under our own control and our own direction.

But what then is a scientific truth? There is a definition of “scientific truth”: “explanations and theories that correctly predict new results from new observations or experiments bring us closer to a true understanding of nature and the rules by which it operates.”

You don’t have to be much of an historian to know that what we once called “science” is not “true” today. The world was once flat, the sun orbited around the earth. It is clear to anyone involved in science that science is actually a self-correcting industry and what we know to be “true” is constantly evolving and adjusting its positions as new knowledge and facts are revealed by folks who continually question the science of the day’s completeness or accuracy.

We were blessed to have men like Newton and Descartes who in the 1600s participated in helping bring about the Age of Enlightenment and create what we now call the scientific method. Their theories gave rise to the use of reductionism in trying to explain how things work. Today modern researchers deal with what is called dynamic complexity and things like subatomic particles that Newton and Descartes could not account for in the 1600s.

Luckily for us, there are many scientific communities that differ on issues and that are determined to find the truth regardless of what folks call them. The most dangerous thing that could ever happen would be a “one-room schoolhouse” where the government or some other incompetent version of that leviathan controlled all scientific study. Learning would stop because big powerful governments don’t appreciate opposition or dissent. The Spanish Inquisition comes to mind.

Richard Feynman, the Nobel peace prize-winning physicist, once said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” He also said, “If you thought that science was certain – well that is just an error on your part.” Let’s keep on studying, but let’s stay skeptical; things change.

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