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Pick of the Week: The Basics of Science

I’ve been busily preparing for the International Enneagram Association board meeting and conference next week and unable to post as much as I’d like, but I did want to get out this pick of the week before leaving for Fort Lauderdale….

My inclination in both my education and the early part of my career was more toward the humanities than anything else, so I am grossly undereducated when it comes to the sciences. Later in life, however, I came to appreciate how important the sciences are for all of us as we try to make sense of our world–whether it is trying to make better business decisions, better decisions regarding the health and well-being of our families, or better decisions about who we should vote for.
I’m often surprised at how easily people fall victim to the misinterpretations or distortions of science, whether it be the distortion of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” (a term actually coined by Spencer) by the Wall-Street types or a distortion of the observer effect in quantum physics by the New-Age crowd. As with any other tools, the sciences can be misused and abused to further our preexisting biases or agendas.
To overcome these tendencies, it is helpful to spend some time with a good primer or two on the basics of science. Understanding what Darwin really meant or what the observer effect really is, for example, can help us past our biases and illusions about the world and how it works. My two favorite such primers are: “The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science” by Natalie Angier and “Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy” by Robert Hazen and James Trefil. While Angier is a more engaging writer, her style can seem a little too cute at points and she lacks the simplicity and crispness of Hazen and Trefil’s book. Either one is a very worthwhile read.
Note: Whenever I write about science, I get emails or comments stating the obvious “well, science doesn’t address values…” or “you’re just a scientistic reductionist” arguments in defense of less than rigorous ideas. I am not saying science addresses values, nor am I advocating logical positivism, nor am I undervaluing the importance of subjective experience. I am not saying that reading, say, Richard Feynman has any anymore inherent value than reading Virgil or the Upanishads. I am saying that an accurate understanding of science helps us see the world more clearly and can help free us from illusion.