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Science is Imagination – by Phil Plait

“The mind that’s afraid to toy with the ridiculous will never create the brilliantly original…” – David Brin, Brightness Reef

People don’t understand science.

And I don’t mean that your average person doesn’t understand how relativity works, or quantum mechanics, or biochemistry. Like any advanced study, it’s hard to understand them, and it takes a lifetime of work to become familiar with them.

No, what I mean is that people don’t understand the process of science. How a scientist goes from a list of observations and perhaps a handful of equations to understanding. To knowing.

And that’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not mechanical, not wholly logical, and not plodding down a narrow path of rules and laws.

But it appears to me that this is how Douglas Todd, author of an article in the Vancouver Sun called ‘Scientism’ infects Darwinian debates: An unflinching belief that science can explain everything about evolution becomes its own ideology, thinks of science. He likens it to religion, an unflinching belief that science can explain everything. He calls this – as many have before him – scientisim:

Scientism is the belief that the sciences have no boundaries and will, in the end, be able to explain everything in the universe. Scientism can, like religious literalism, become its own ideology.

Those who unknowingly fall into the trap of scientism act as if hard science is the only way of knowing reality. If something can’t be “proved” through the scientific method, through observable and measurable evidence, they say it’s irrelevant.

Scientism is terribly limiting of human understanding. It leaves little or no place for the insights of the arts, philosophy, psychology, literature, mythology, dreams, music, the emotions or spirituality.

Right from the gate he’s using a straw-man argument. There are many things science can’t explain currently, and no real scientist brushes those fields off as “irrelevant”. And he’s wrong in saying that science leaves no room for all those other studies; it’s our study of human evolution that bring fantastic insight into why we have art, dreams, and mythology in the first place. What a strange notion, that science plays no role in those fields or our understanding of them!

But it’s in his understanding of science where Todd goes completely off course. What he says about science is exactly backwards, and it seems to me that he doesn’t understand the process of science, of how it’s done by real scientists in real life.

First off, there is no such thing as scientism. What he is describing is simply science, because science by its very nature is an attempt to explain all things using natural processes. And he seems to think science has no imagination.

That’s insane. Without imagination, all we can do is categorize the world. Assigning names and numbers, statistics and categories. And while that sort of thing is important in the scientific process, it’s not science itself. Without imagination, science is a dictionary.

And in fact the opposite of what Todd is saying is true. It takes no imagination at all to insert a supernatural explanation in some spot where you don’t understand the process. It’s all too easy to say “the bacterium flagellum could not have evolved,” or “The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain why the Universe is homogeneous everywhere,” and therefore “God did it.” But it takes imagination, soaring, incredible, wonderful imagination, to look beyond the limitations of what’s currently known, and see what could possibly be… and even more imagination to make sure this venturing beyond current understanding still stays within the bound of reason and known rules of science.

You can always insert magic or belief or some supernatural power, but in the end that is a trap. Because someone else who is more imaginative than you will see the actual steps, the process reality made, and then you are left with an ever-narrowing amount of supernatural room in which to wiggle. And once that gap starts to narrow, the squeeze is inevitable. Your explanation will be forced to fill zero volume, and you’re done. Your explanation will be shown to be wrong for everyone to see, and your only recourse will be to abandon it, far too late to save your credibility.

Or to run for the Texas State Board of Education. But that’s certainly not science.

It took a vast leap of imagination for Max Planck to think of gas molecules in the Sun to behave like little springs, oscillating away, able to eject only specific colors of light. It took a leap of imagination for Alan Guth to think that the Big Bang theory wasn’t wrong, but incomplete, and to add inflation to explain why the Universe looks so smooth. It took Darwin’s breadth of imagination to correlate the vast amount of data he collected, and see that it was the unthinking mind of nature that forced species to adapt or die.

It’s all too easy to “pooh-pooh” science, and to say that scientists are black and white automatons who go through the motions of the scientific method, rejecting anything with sparkle or color or surprise. But that conclusion itself lacks imagination. Science is full of wonder, of surprise, of leaps of imagination. If it were anything else, we wouldn’t have probes orbiting other worlds, we wouldn’t have vaccinations capable of wiping out scourges like smallpox, we wouldn’t have digital cameras, the Internet, ever-faster computers, cars, planes, televisions. We wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves, support our population, or look ahead to see where our decisions are taking us… and to see if these decisions are the right ones, and what to do to make them better.

Without imagination, even after all these centuries, we’d have learned nothing.

Science is imagination.        [Tip o’ the lab coat to Bill Rehm.]

By Phil Plait
aka The Bad Astronomer

The Scientific Imagination and Sustainability – by Michael F. Weinstein

In sustainability science, we often speak about “thresholds” or “tipping points,” those that move ecosystems or the processes therein to new stable (or unstable) states.  My own interest in pursuing this discipline did not originate as identifiable milestones, epiphanies or single moments of enlightenment, but rather from individually small, cumulative impacts that gradually drew me into the field.

Among these are my life-long interest in nature, not necessarily as an environmentalist, but as an individual who likes being outdoors and participating in outdoor activities. Over a five year period, when I was between the age of eight and twelve, my parents rented a summer cottage at Rockaway Beach, Queens;  while I enjoyed the beachfront and swimming, I became a true denizen of the Jamaica Bay salt marshes, spending endless hours (to my parents’ consternation) exploring the flora and fauna of these wondrous ecosystems.  It is no surprise therefore, that my professional training and research discipline focuses on coastal ecology and the links between tidal wetlands and fisheries production.  As an avid follower of Ray Forrest’s children’s show, the Forrest Rangers in the late 1940s, I became a biologist by age six.

In my latter professional years, somewhat influenced by graduate student descriptors of aging (i.e., highly experienced) faculty as “silverbacks,” I have become conscious of my own mortality and possessed by the drive to take forty plus years of learning and turn it into some kind of legacy. After all, I must have learned something in that time that might constitute “sage advice” for future generations.

But I try to not be a hypocrite. I believe in a balance between ecology and economy, together protecting the ecosystems that sustain us and afford humankind maximal quality of life.  I am also keenly aware that we cannot have it both ways.  Creating the balance requires compromise, sacrifice and trade-offs that will leave some stakeholders unhappy — the root cause of the “we versus them” mentality that too often pervades the dialogue of sustainable development.

The solutions to resolving the emerging differences that will arise on the path to long-term sustainability will, in part, require the continued development and refinement of conflict management and social learning.  Nowhere is this more manifest than in the call for a new “social contract for science” championed by Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — better communication of existing knowledge, and better guidance about decision making in the face of uncertainty.

Toward that end, I believe there must be transdisciplinary training of a new generation of scientists with the “savvy to work at the policy-science interface,” along with changes in university curricula to accommodate this training.  The “new contract” will be predicated on scientists’ willingness to engage the public and address the urgent needs of society; disseminate new knowledge widely in order to inform decision-making; exercise good judgment, wisdom and, most importantly, humility (often scientists appear arrogant and “above the masses” in assessing their own importance); and, finally, recognize the magnitude of human domination of the planet.

Transdisiplinarity is critical because a sustainable biosphere is not only ecologically sound, but economically feasible and socially just.

The Institute for Sustainability Studies at Montclair State Universitywill build upon four major “pillars”: (a) the biological system emphasizing the intertwined fates of humanity and the natural resource base — biodiversity, restoration ecology, and conservation biology are essential components; (b) the geophysical system addressing climate and biogeochemical cycling and grounded in efforts to understand the earth as a system; (c) the social system concerning itself with how human institutions, economic systems, and beliefs shape the interactions between society and the environment; and (d) the technological system enhancing basic technological knowledge, designs, and processes that produce more social goods with less residual environmental damage. 


Humans are a true force of nature; more than most species, we have created the ecosystems we live in; and, like the weather, forecasting the consequences of our actions is extremely complex.  Understanding the interplay of multiple interacting drivers (along with a healthy dose of stochasticity), will require highly sophisticated systems tools to build confidence in the accuracy of our predictions.   For example, if you ask the simple question – “Have human activities warmed the earth?” — the answer has required a huge investment in human intellectual capital, highly advanced systems models, and a decades-long debate to reach general consensus.

Salman Rushdie probably did not have sustainability science in mind in 2005 when he commented in an interview, “It seems to me that the nature of true tragedy is when something is so badly broken that, with the best will in the world, you can’t put it back together again, and what was broken has to stay broken.”

Undoubtedly, the world’s ecosystems are increasingly “broken” and may reach new thresholds of irreversible decline.  To address this issue, sustainability scientists, decision-makers and ecosystem managers world-wide have joined the debate on how best to reverse the trends of past centuries. The challenge is to reconcile society’s desire to conserve, preserve, restore and rehabilitate the life support systems that surround us and their concomitant natural variability, complexity, resilience and biodiversity while at the very same time ensure the reliable and predictable provision of goods and services from these very same systems.

From October 25-27, 2010, two dozen of the world’s top scientists will convene before an audience of 400+ attendees at Montclair State University in a forum to address sustainability challenges and discuss what is working, and what is not; and how we can do better.  The symposium will provide a fertile ground for “cross-pollinating” ideas, and offer a platform from which to assess progress, present current research, and discuss emerging curricula in sustainability science; identify information gaps and new data requirements; and evaluate current models and other forecasting tools.

Dr. John Sterman of MIT, a symposium participant, offers this provocative observation as a context for the coming debate: “As the world changes, decision makers and the scientific community increasingly recognize that we are not only failing to resolve the persistent sustainability problems we face, but are in fact causing them.”


— Michael F. Weinstein, PhD. Director, Institute for Sustainability Studies, MSU