The Public Debates On Science
With conspiracies and Devil’s advocates dominating the scientific field, many are left to ask what scientific discoveries hold truth. As science increasingly becomes disputed, Dr. James Zimring, professor of pathology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, explores in his new book how much people should trust what they read, learn, and observe in our natural world.
WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with Dr. Zimring and asked him what people can expect from his book and science in general.
* This story had production assistance from WMRA's Sara Amin
WMRA: Dr. Jim Zimring, thank you so much for your time today.
Jim Zimring: Thanks for having me.
WMRA: So, your new book is, “What Science Is And How It Really Works”. So, my first question is going to be, what is science and how does it really work?
JZ: Well, there’s 420 pages of poetry that await you, that you can read about it. It’s a complicated topic and it’s my view that a misunderstanding of how science works and the basis of the claims, causes a lot of problems in the dialogue we have broadly, about what we believe based upon evidence.
WMRA: So, what kind of problems then, arises from that?
JZ: You know scientific pursuits have made remarkable technological progress over the past two three centuries, but those technologies sometimes lead people to believe that you can have scientific proof. And things are never proven to an absolute certainty, even in science, so when we get into societal debates about global warming or a great many other things, people will say “well it hasn’t been proven yet” and someone who waits for proof, waits forever.
But on the other side, is the opinion that science is just another view of the world and that may be true when it comes to issues of spirituality and the meaning of life, but when it comes to issues of natural phenomena, that’s a dangerous view because science has developed specifically to ask those questions and is particularly suited to that.
WMRA: Is there a time in history that we can look to where we got science wrong, and it did great harm?
JZ: Over and over again. All of the attempts that science has made to predict and control nature, or understand nature, how often does it get things right and how often does it get things wrong, compared to other approaches? So, if you compare the number of things science gets right and the number of things it gets wrong, it gets things wrong from time to time but not very frequently. And so, focusing just on the failures, misses the overall fraction.
WMRA: There’s a term that you talk about in your book, the term “deniers”. What is the difference though between a scientist who rejects a theory and someone who just denies it?
JZ: Someone who looks at evidence and rejects a theory, can be a reasonable scientist. Someone who looks at evidence and rejects a theory despite the evidence, is a denier. Science is if nothing, data driven and evidence driven, and ideas cannot come from your instinct or the strength of your conviction. They have to be tied to empirical observation and that’s the difference between someone who rejects a theory based on evidence and someone who is a denier per say.
WMRA: For someone like yourself, it must drive you crazy when you see things like “The Flat Earthers” and how a debate like that has actually become almost real in a weird way. Like, that must make you nuts!
JZ: Well so, the Flat Earthers are a very interesting example. If you accept their premises, then their conclusions are quite reasonable but their premises get back to this issue that you brought up earlier on a denier. If you say to a Flat Earther, here are millennia of evidence that the Earth is round, the Flat Earthers would say all of that data is made up. And that’s why they’re not scientists, that’s why they’re deniers.
However, I need to say this, this is very important. Setting all that aside, after you discount all of that stuff, the way that the Flat Earthers are going about things, is very scientific. They have created experiments, where they’re going to shine a light over a three-mile body of water and see if the light is at the same height three miles away, as it is here. And they said, well if it’s not the same height, then the Earth must be curved, and they did the experiment. And what happened?
The light was a different height, so they should reject the idea that the Earth is flat but instead of rejecting the idea the Earth is flat, they said well actually the light was bent by the atmosphere or something else happened.
I think it’s a dangerous movement, not that it would be dangerous if the Earth were flat. But the idea that we can just discount all scientific knowledge as one big conspiracy.
WMRA: But Jim don’t you know that space is fake?
JZ: Right well, so that’s the regrettable reality is that anything can be a conspiracy. I mean for all I know I’m not being interviewed on the radio with you right now, I’m having a very strange dream, or I’ve been put in some sensory deprivation box in the matrix by people that are trying to manipulate me. So, once you go down that path you’ve kind of given up on any sort of real science because the evidence means nothing.
WMRA: Dr. Jim Zimring is a professor of Pathology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, his new book is “What Science Is And How It Really Works”. Dr. Zimring, thank you so much for your time today, I really enjoyed this.
JZ: It’s been my pleasure, thank you.