Sunday, February 20, 2011

What's more scientific: science classes or Wikipedia entries about science?

Katja Grace, in her excellent blog called Meteuphoric, says:

This is how science classes mostly went in high school. We would learn about a topic that had been discovered scientifically, for instance that if you add together two particular solutions of ions, some of the ions will precipitate out as a solid salt. Then we would do an experiment, wherein we would add the requisite solutions and get something entirely wrong in its color, smell, quantity, or presence. Then we would write a report with our hypothesis, the contradictory results, and a long discussion about all the mistakes that could be to blame for this unexpected result, and conclude that the real answer was probably still what we hypothesized (since we read that in a book).
(In a follow-up post, she gives some specific suggestions for how we could teach kids to think scientifically.)

Freeman Dyson writes in the New York Review of Books (via):
Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon’s law of reliable communication. Shannon’s law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.

The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries. We do not know how much of Shannon’s theory of information will remain valid when quantum devices replace classical electric circuits as the carriers of information. Quantum devices may be made of single atoms or microscopic magnetic circuits. All that we know for sure is that they can theoretically do certain jobs that are beyond the reach of classical devices. Quantum computing is still an unexplored mystery on the frontier of information theory. Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Jason (the commenter) said...

If you tried disproving something said in a Wikipedia article based on original research it wouldn't be allowed. So they're not scientific, not scientific at all.