Living scientifically involves at least two important steps:
1. Examining every habit and belief (or at least the major ones) to check for scientific accuracy
2. Finding and implementing beliefs and behaviors that have predictive power
Scientific cause and effect determines everything that happens in the world. Whether or not an individual spends a lot of time focusing on scientific evidence, science still determines every aspect of a person’s life. I’m a huge fan of scientific information. I’ve read lots of information on science including popular books, works on the history of science, thoughts on the philosophy of science, press releases, textbooks, academic papers, and posts by blogging scientists. I’ve come to the conclusion that all of science can be summed up with two defining factors. These two elements are:
1. Explanatory power: This means that a certain theory explains some phenomenon in the universe better than other explanations.
2. Predictive power: This means that a scientific explanation can predict some aspect of the universe.
There’s a huge amount of work involved just in scientific speculation and getting to the point where a theory can be tested. I think it’s fair to also call that work scientific. The reason is that all of the preparation is focused on the ultimate goals of achieving explanatory power and predictive power. Dr. John Timmer, who has a PhD in molecular and cell biology and teaches at Cornell, outlines some other goals of science:
Other important aspects of science include:
• natural law
• peer review
Groups like Quantified Self and Evidence Based Living are working to help people use data and research to improve their lives. There are many papers with useful predictive power stashed away in some corner of the Internet that would be helpful to many individuals and organizations. Data-mining thousands or even millions of papers to find explanatory and predictive power is an exciting area of scientific research. The predictive power of a theory is one of the best features of science. Predictive knowledge gained from science has huge implications in running a business or a society. Finding better predictors of longevity is a major goal of medicine.
Many people have trouble making up their minds about various ideas. I’m one of those people. I’ll read about something and completely change my worldview. Then the next day I’ll read about an opposite interpretation of the same thing and change my opinion again. There has to be a better way, and I finally found it. The key is to pursue scientific truth. Millions of scientific papers have been published in the past few decades. These papers have relevance to human life and decision-making. It’s important to focus on science-based research that has explanatory and predictive power. I need to cultivate the ability to change beliefs and actions in an instant if replicable scientific evidence shows that something in the world has changed or proved me wrong.
Here are some barriers to pursuing scientific truth. I encountered these problems in the past and hope to avoid them in the future:
• Being swayed by irrelevant news:
The key to getting the most accurate information about a topic is to find which side has the better explanatory and predictive capabilities. It’s difficult to do that if people get their news from journalists and politicians instead of replicable science-based research. It’s best to search for sources of information with explanatory and predictive power, since those items the basis of what science is. This technique can work for many scientific topics, since everything in the world is determined by science.
• Wanting everyone to like you:
If you’re the type of person who wants everyone to like you, it’s easy to be swayed on divisive topics by which side has the greatest hostility. Many people have an inherent desire for self-preservation. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I would change beliefs based on which side seemed more aggressive. If people from a certain religious organization or political party seemed more hostile, I would agree with them. If people from another religious organization or political party seemed meaner, I would then agree with them.
That’s the wrong way of going about it. Hostile internet commenters are probably mentally ill. Mean people in general are also probably mentally ill. There’s nothing wrong with mental illness per se. It’s just that if you think of people as repositories of information, hostile individuals are sharing corrupt and inaccurate information. In fact, the hostility of a commentator or side of the debate may be a contrary indicator. The anger may indicate that the person or organization has turned to emotional arguments since they know the evidence isn’t on their side.
Scientific cause and effect determines everything that happens in the world. Global events will become more exciting as research from biology and physics gains more precision and begins to influence every aspect of human life as we know it. Everything happens for a reason. I don’t mean that in a spiritual way. We live in a universe of causality. Giving up new age belief systems and embracing science is the most effective way to save the world. Science can also unify the people in the world. It’s possible to talk about nanotechnology or molecular biology with another person without regard to their race or cultural background. Some of my most fulfilling conversations have happened this way. It doesn’t matter what demographic category a person belongs to as long as he or she has a basic understanding of the topic. Science is a shared language that transcends the barriers that separate people.
Science is also based on greater precision than folk wisdom. Continually updated and science-based information also provides better knowledge than the study of history. History only tells you what was possible. Science tells you what is possible and what can become possible in the future. One way to get started with this involves determining the relationships among people and institutions and events to gain a better understanding of them. That sets up the potential to think of all the possibilities of how these entities can influence each other. Then you can begin the work of predicting the actions of individuals and organizations. Arguing about what should be done about a situation isn’t very effective if you can’t predict potential outcomes. Scientific information can be turned into indicators like KPIs and dashboards to accurately understand the world on a moment-to-moment basis.
Systems thinking is an important conceptual model to have in a scientific decision-making toolkit. In systems thinking, you examine how a potential choice will affect a variety of variables and outcomes related to the decision. Scientific information sometimes focuses on single variables. Isolating individual pieces of evidence is important in scientific research. It’s also important to combine the entire corpus of evidence to understand how all the experimental results interact. One way of doing this is to engage in systems thinking. This involves thinking of every entity in the world and every scientific result as part of a complex system with multiple interacting parts.
In addition to generating new information, there’s a need for people who will synthesize and process information. Maybe artificial intelligence and better algorithms can become even more effective at searching for trends in information. Systems like EUREQA analyze scientific information. IBM’s Watson supercomputer is already making medical diagnoses. A potential next step is to enlist its capabilities in processing all of the published scientific information in certain areas of study.
It’s also important to gain precision when studying human behavior. In research that involves human subjects, it’s important to pay attention to actions instead of survey data. It’s more valuable to find out what people do instead of just what they say. Most psychology studies involve homogenous groups of undergraduate students. A way around this situation is to use greater precision in measuring human biology by studying diverse groups and using techniques from neuroscience.
Many individuals and companies base their goals on intuition or conventional wisdom. It’s important to base goals on scientific evidence instead. An organization can examine their goals and rank their value and ease of accomplishment using scientific evidence. By evidence, I mean published peer-reviewed research in addition to the results of tests conducted by the organization. Strategic planning and strategies in life and business need to incorporate scientific evidence.
The rise of citizen science – science outside the system – has an important role in the future of research. Scientists are sometimes worried about their careers and reluctant to take risks. Some professors and researchers are courageous enough to ignore unscientific conventional wisdom and pursue research that potentially offers better explanatory and predictive power. There is still a need for people to perform daring research that has a high chance of failure. Science hobbyists have fewer professional constraints. As the cost of research equipment continues to drop in price, open source scientists can accomplish more than ever before.
Living scientifically goes beyond simply earning money. Some politicians and pundits and education leaders say there’s a shortage of scientists. I don’t think that’s true. If there really was a shortage, postdocs would be earning $140,000 a year instead of $40,000 a year. If money isn’t a good motivator for going into science, what other forms of motivation could get the public interested in scientific fields? Many people want to get rich, find love, be healthy, and look good. In other words, they want to get paid, get laid, and get made. Scientific interest would dramatically increase in the world if scientists provided a greater focus on how to achieve those goals.
The scientific method can not only be used for making discoveries, but also as a useful thought experiment for decision making. When thinking about a decision, one strategy is to let socially conditioned ideas fall away and think purely in terms of cause and effect, action and reaction, decision and outcome. Some people are opposed to giving up their belief in right and wrong and acting only on cause and effect terms. That’s why this is just a thought experiment. It’s not an embrace of moral relativism. It’s not about discarding emotions. It’s an extra tool in your toolkit for thinking of decisions in terms of their most basic components.
If those reasons aren’t enough to live according to scientific evidence, there’s another argument. There’s no escaping from science. It’s a system that even rich people are subject to. There’s no way of avoiding it. Everytime you’re in accordance with science, you win. Everytime you go against science, you lose. Some people talk about major scientific failures of the past as a reason to be skeptical of the scientific method. It just means it’s important to increase the level of precision or improve the experiments. Scientific failures are the result of designing poor experiments or measuring the wrong things. Even wealthy people can’t escape science. They have advantages insofar as they can gather more data, hire better scientists, and create better experiments. But no matter what they do the scientific method is still in effect. Science can be very subversive. Results of experiments can overturn widely held belief systems. Scientific findings can change entire societies. The application of science can disrupt established power structures and create entirely new ones.
Many successful people keep lists of goals for short-term and long-term scenarios. Here’s an interesting way to set and keep track of goals in a way that incorporates reality and science. Start by creating a list of goals with the following categories:
1. Physical and mental health
5. Material goods
6. Social contribution
7. World events
Next, go through and rank goals in each of the categories on a graph, with the two axes as follows:
1. Label one axis as “effort required to accomplish”
2. Label the other axis as “scientifically plausible”
As you acquire new information while working on the goals, update the goals and their placement on the graph.
The future of science is incredibly exciting. Let’s live scientifically.
Update: My post Resources for Living Scientifically describes some ways of finding accurate scientific information.