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Zapatista University Chapter 3: How Science Works

by Ezra Niesen Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009 at 7:31 AM

Any Third World farmer knows more about biology than the president of the United States, because farmers spend all day working with plants and animals. Here’s my ongoing series on the biology of imperial politics. The complete book can be read on my site. Feel free to translate it into Spanish or any other language.

Science is a way of studying the world that’s different from any other way of studying the world. In a lot of ways it works better than any other way of studying the world. In some ways, science is difficult to learn how to use. But in other ways, science isn’t nearly as complicated as most people think it is.

In one way or another, every other means of studying the world is humanocentric. You can learn a lot about your local area by seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and touching the things around you. But the whole world is gigantic. You are just one little speck on the world, and so is everyone else. It isn’t possible for one person to learn about every local area in the world in the same way, because no one could live that long. That means that if a person wanted to learn as much about the whole world as you know about your local area, he would have to figure out a different way to do it. That also means that if a person learns a lot about one area and assumes that the entire world must work the same way, he’s going to believe a lot of things that aren’t true. If he then acts upon his beliefs, he’s going to make a lot of mistakes.

Also, in one way or another, every other means of studying the world involves a person’s emotions. In a lot of different ways, people try to figure things out, think they discover an answer, feel like the answer is right, and then believe that it must be right, just because they feel that it’s right. But what if your feelings are mistaken? Then you run into the same problem. You end up believing a lot of things about the world that aren’t true, and you make a lot of mistakes.

For most of the things people try to figure out and most of the decisions they make based on the things they believe to be true, a humanocentric way of looking at the world works pretty well. But there are some situations where that humanocentricism doesn’t work very well.

If you’re a farmer you already know that humanocentricism isn’t always the best idea. If you feel like you’ve gotten enough rain in a year because you have enough water to drink, but then you look outside and see that your crops aren’t getting as much water as they need, then obviously you haven’t gotten enough rain that year. Humanocentricism doesn’t work when plants and other animals are involved.

For people who make bigger decisions, that’s a bigger problem. In Europe there are a lot of factories and the countries are a lot smaller than the United States or Mexico. If the smoke that a factory gives off creates a lot of acid rain, but the acid rain falls in someone else’s country hundreds of miles away, the factory owner can’t just look around and see the results of his actions. If he feels that burning a lot of coal in his factory and making a lot of smoke is a good idea, and doesn’t know about the acid rain, he won’t realize his mistake and change his mind, like you would’ve if you made a small humanocentric mistake on your farm.

As you know, presidents of countries and other government officials make a lot of big decisions that affect a lot of people. If they use a humanocentric way of making their decisions, they’re going to make a lot of mistakes that affect a lot of people. That was a big problem that the Club of Rome discovered: Politicians were using a lot of humanocentric points of view to make their decisions, and they didn’t realize that there are a lot of ways humanocentricism can lead people astray. So they were making a lot of big mistakes.

Scientists have figured out a way to solve these kinds of problems by being very careful in how they interpret their discoveries. They make sure not to depend on their feelings to determine whether or not something is true about the world. They remember that whatever they see with their eyes only gives them one little piece of information about the world. One little piece of information all by itself doesn’t prove anything. Scientific discoveries always depend on a lot of clues that all show the same thing to be true.

Scientists call this objectivity. Objectivity depends on five basic things. They are: observability, universality, self-consistency, reproducibility, and debatability.

Those five basic things aren’t difficult. You do them all the time.

Suppose you grow a certain breed of corn you farm, and your neighbor grows a different breed of corn on his farm. He tells you his breed is better, because it produces twice as much food as yours. What would you want to do before you would believe him?

First of all, you would want to see all this food he says he’s producing on his farm. He could just as easily say his breed of corn can grow 10 times as much food as yours, or 100 times as much food, or any other number. But if he can’t show you all that food, his saying he can grow it doesn’t prove anything. That’s what scientists call observability.

Let’s say your friend does show you all the food he said he grew. What else would you want to know before you believed him? Your neighbor is saying that his breed of corn can produce twice as much food as your breed of corn. But there are a lot of other things that could make his farm produce twice as much food as your farm. He could’ve planted twice as much corn as you did. He could’ve watered his corn differently. He might have different soil on his farm than you do. If his breed of corn really does produce twice as much food as your breed of corn, then his breed of corn would produce twice as much as your breed of corn no matter what conditions it grew in. If his breed of corn only produces twice as much food when it grows on his farm, then it isn’t the breed of corn that grows so well, like your neighbor said, it’s some combination of the breed of corn and one or more other factors, like water or soil nutrients. This is what scientists call universality. Did your friend discover something that works under all conditions, or only under certain conditions? In order for your neighbor’s claim to be universal, his breed of corn would have to produce twice as much food as your breed no matter what conditions it grows in. If that doesn’t happen, then your neighbor hasn’t discovered a breed of corn that grows twice as much food as your breed, like he claimed to have discovered.

Something else you would want to look at would be to the way you were growing your corn. This overlaps with universality a lot in this example. It’s different from universality because here you aren’t just looking at how much food his corn produces, you’re also looking at how much food your breed of corn produces. When your neighbor said that his breed of corn produced twice as much food as your breed of corn, he was talking about a pattern of how things happen in the world. This is what scientists call self-consistency. If it is true that your neighbor’s breed of corn produces twice as much food as yours, then that means that if you plant the two crops beside each other in the same field, no matter where the corn grows, what kind of soil it has, or how much water it gets, his breed of corn will always produce twice as much food as yours. Maybe there are some growing conditions where your breed of corn would produce twice as much food as his breed of corn. Whatever happens, if you can find any conditions where his breed of corn doesn’t produce twice as much food as your breed of corn while they’re both growing in the same conditions, then the pattern of his breed corn growing twice as much as your breed isn’t true. Once again it would mean your neighbor hasn’t discovered what he claimed to have discovered. If he has discovered what he claims to have discovered, it will be the results that prove it. Your neighbor is not the judge of how much food his crops produce. The judge of how much food his breed of corn produces is the crop itself.

Something else you could do to see if your neighbor’s breed of corn really did produce twice as much food as your breed would be to grow some of it yourself and see what happens. Something else you could do would be for both of you to give some of your seeds to another farmer to grow, or 10 other farmers to grow, or any other number. If your neighbor shows you twice as much corn sitting in baskets as you have after the harvest, that doesn’t prove he grew it all. He could’ve snuck out to the store some night and bought a lot of corn and brought it home to show you. If his breed of corn really does produce twice as much food as your breed of corn, then anyone could grow the two breeds of corn together and prove it, without his being able to cheat. This is what scientists call reproducibility. If your neighbor has discovered what he claims to have discovered, then anyone can repeat the same process and get the same results.

Finally, in order for your neighbor to prove what he claims to have discovered, you have to be allowed to disagree with him. If he held a gun to your head and told you his breed of corn produced twice as much food as your breed, what would you say? “Oh, yes sir, I believe you 100% absolutely,” or something like that. In addition to being allowed to disagree with him, you have to be able to ask him questions about how he did it, to find out why he believes it is his breed of corn that produces twice as much food as your breed, instead of the way he grows it. So you could ask him how he grew his corn, and then you could grow some corn the same way. You could also grow some corn differently to see what happened then. If he claims to have discovered that something is true and you can’t look for reasons that it might not be true, then he hasn’t proved that his breed of corn grows twice as much food as your breed. All he’s proven is that he can prevent you from disagreeing. This is what scientists call debatability.

As you can see, this process of your friend claiming to have discovered something and you figuring out if what he’s claimed to discover is true, is just a process of reasonable people figuring something out.

That’s what scientists do. They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years, so they’ve figured out a lot of things this way. Some scientists have been exceptionally good at figuring things out this way, so they’ve figured out a lot of things most people couldn’t figure out.

As you can see also, science depends on the same things democracy depends on: people’s participation, people being allowed to have different ideas, and people being able to work out their disagreements by talking about them as reasonable people. That’s a big reason I can say that if I show you how to use science to help win your revolution for democracy, we will all be better off.

Science is not a democracy in the sense that people get to vote for whatever they want. Politicians who don’t understand how science works keep trying to do that here in the United States, and it keeps getting us into trouble. People can’t vote on how they want the universe to work. But scientists can’t vote on how they want to the universe to work either.

Science is not a democracy in the sense that everyone is equally good at it. Some people are a lot better at it than others. But that’s true of every occupation.

Science is a democracy in the sense that everyone can learn about it. Democracy depends on personal empowerment. Personal empowerment depends on informed decision making. Informed decision-making depends on people having accurate information. Discovering accurate information is the whole point of science. The more accurate information people have, the more personally empowered they will be. So this is another way that a revolution for democracy is also a revolution for science.

The biggest problem people have with learning how to use science—which is something everyone, including you, has to be careful of—is that if you aren’t willing to look at all the evidence and see what it means, whatever you’re using isn’t science, it’s humanocentricism. If you only look at the evidence that proves whatever you want to be true and ignore the evidence that conflicts with what you want to be true, that isn’t science. That’s propaganda. A lot of people, like politicians, Capitalists, and religious leaders, love to get hold of scientific information and say that it proves that what they’re saying is true. But if other evidence contradicts what they’re saying, then what they’re talking about isn’t science at all. It’s just them making things up and telling other people what to do, just like politicians, Capitalists, and religious leaders always do.

No one is immune to making this mistake. Scientists escape it because they have been very careful to learn how to recognize it and how to counteract it. As farmers, you have a lot of practice at avoiding humanocentricism on your farm because there are so many other living things on your farm that you depend on.

This is another way that the whole world is like a farm, and that scientists have learned a lot about how to be farmers for the entire world. The world is full of living things that all depend on each other. Being farmers for the whole world depends on people learning how not to be humanocentric. You have already learned a lot about how not to be humanocentric. The question is, what will it take to make the Capitalists learn it?

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