IN THE NEWS
An interesting coincidence happened a couple of days ago. Since we both had the day off, my wife and I went to Santa Cruz. We didn’t have a plan, just a desire to see where fate took us. (On a sunny, warm day on the Northern California coast, it’s unlikely fate will take you somewhere unpleasant.) We saw a sign for the Seymour Marine Discovery museum, part of a UC Santa Cruz marine biology research center. It seemed promising, so we turned off.
Boy, were we happy that we did. The museum is small, but well worth making the trip. Not only are the exhibits fascinating (be sure to see the crabs that camouflage themselves—I won’t spoil the surprise), but they also did an excellent job of explaining how, in each case, the scientists do their work. One exhibit about the mysterious drop in the Alaskan sea otter population actually walked you through the right and wrong ways to phrase the questions the scientist should ask in this case. Brilliant! I wish every zoo, planetarium, and museum like this one did a better job of educating the public about science itself. (Especially in areas like cosmology and evolution, vastly misunderstood by the people skeptical of or hostile to science.)
The coincidence happened when I was reading several quotes by scientists, posted at one exhibit. To my surprise and delight, one of the quotes was from Jacob Bronowski, whom I lauded a couple of posts ago. Bronowski’s pithy observation was that impertinent questions lead to pertinent answers. A great point, and yet another maxim worth remembering these days.
And, as you can probably guess, I’m pretty horrified by the Bush Administration’s assault on science. It’s part of the same hostility to impertinent questions and uncomfortable answers behind the Administration’s conflicts with the intelligence community. CIA analysts are a sort of social scientist, trying to divine the state of the wiorld, including the presence or absence of threats, from a confusing mass of normally imconplete data. Their work has echoes in the combination of deduction and inference that astrophysicists have to make, since they can’t put their topic of study into a lab for repeated experimental trials. They analyze, predict, and if the prediction is wrong, go back and fix the hypothesis. It’s a profession so close to the border of science and politics that, perhaps, it’s surprising that we haven’t seen more frictions between one group of people who have to take decisive action, and another group that has to be tentative about the analysis that informs these decisions. Or, perhaps, it’s just a credit to past Administrations that they understood the nature of intelligence work enough not to punish analysts for providing the most pertinent facts and analysis, in their professional judgement.
Anyway, I’ve veered off from the visit to Santa Cruz. I am actually able to enjoy myself, believe me. I don’t spend all my waking hours thinking about politics and war. It was good to see my old friend Jacob Bronowski again, granted some well-deserved recognition.