I am a scientist.
You never really hear people saying this. They call themselves by their job titles, as in "I am an organic chemist", "high energy physicist" or "Lie algebra theorist", but they never really claim to be scientists. I do refer to myself as a scientist sometimes, but only to highlight my knowledge of science, not as something which truly defines me, at least I have always thought that it didn't describe me as well as "mathematician". Well, all this is going to change.
I recently came to think that saying "I am a scientist", is actually a very deep statement, an almost religious statement. In fact, "scientist" should be my answer to those questionnaires where they ask you for your religion (like the recent UK census -- I replied "Jedi" to this question actually -- despite Aubrey's disapproving look -- but if you cannot have fun while filling the census, what is the census good for ?). This should be the answer because it describes much more accurately what I am than, say, "atheist". Let me explain.
If religion can be described as the set of fundamental postulates (almost axioms) that you propose yourself to accept before starting to think about the world then, science is a religion. It is a religion where the original postulate, in singular since there is only one of them, says "I will take as fundamental rule of my thinking of the world that there is no mystery, that the world is explainable using nothing else that logic and observable facts"; and just to make sure that we exclude the accidental possibility of misinterpreting observable facts, we really mean observable facts, facts that any sane mind would not dispute (insane minds, beside religious believers, also include post-modernists, and also probably string theorists as well, but that's something else...), facts like 'the apple just fell from this tree'.
I realised that I am a scientist, in the strong, quasi religious, sense of the word, recently after hearing our (Chinese) housemate say "I avoid washing my hair in the evening because, unless I have lots of time to dry them they would be a bit wet, and it is bad to sleep with undried hair". Upon asking why, I was told "... because it gives you headaches 20 years later". I was on my way to digest this and already trying to come up with something, when the real blow to my mind came as the follow up sentence "I know you don't believe that, but that's because you are a westerner, it's Chinese medicine". The housemate in question then left without giving my mind time to reboot.
I remember, and I guess that Aubrey will always remember all her life, how pissed and nuclear I went to bed that night. Passed the obvious fact that I always get extremely pissed off when hearing Chinese people talking about Chinese medicine as if it was somehow outside the scope of logical reasoning (or maybe above the intelligence of westerners), often with the underlying statement that Chinese medicine only works on Chinese people, as if Chinese people are somehow instance of a different species, separate from other (non Chinese) human beings, what really got me is the fact that it looked like as if had I asked her (yes, the housemate is a her) to justify or explain it, I would have offended her.
That day, I fully realised that being rational, atheist, logical etc, are nothing else than results of a much deeper phenomenon: the fact that people like me, strongly reject (and often feel bad about) un-proven beliefs.
So now, you might say "Pascal, not everything can be proven, above all the way that you, mathematician, must define 'proving'". Well, this is where another feature of science comes to play. I call it the principle of least surprise. The universe has the principle of least surprise embedded deep inside it; for instance, you rely on this principle to cross a road open to traffic with the confidence that you will make it alive to the other side. This said, I don't think that people refer to the universe's principle of least surprise, they rather mention the Occam's Rasor principle (lex parsimoniae), sometimes stated as "all things being equal the simplest explanation tends to be the right one". I dislike this statement, because, first, I don't things that all things are equal and, second, "simplest explanation" is not well defined. Indeed, in many ways, that a guy in the sky created the universe in seven days (well six days actually), is way simpler than the actual history of the universe, so simple than even religious freaks (with their limited intelligence) manage to understand it (and end up believing it). A better statement of the principle would be "the explanation which makes the least use of new concepts/hypothesis and could have been deduced from the current knowledge (even before being observed) is likely to be the right one". For instance Neptune (the planet) was not discovered by direct observation but its existence deduced from mathematical calculations. The existence of the planet was necessary, given Newton's mechanics and the already computed/observed trajectories of the other planets as knowledge base.
Now, here is the tricky part: our knowledge base increases with time, and some of the things scientifically minded people put their trust in, evolve with time. But rather than being a problem (some might prefer the Bible which has been at version 1.0 for longer I can remember, and will never be upgraded), this is actually a good thing! We don't have all the answers now, but not having all the answers now is not a reason for filling the holes with religious shitness. Just wait until the set of observable facts we have access to increase in time. (HLC anyone...)
Anyway, coming back to the hair thing, I carefully explained to Aubrey (as if all this was her fault) the difference between baseless correlations and causality. She was already asleep when I finished actually.
Maybe science is a religion, I don't care if people call it that way, as long as it remains the religion where people don't get lazy about their own knowledge and have the reflex to always think (and say): If I don't understand it, cannot observe it (without any doubt, meaning everybody can see it, not yourself and your clique only), cannot explain it (from existing knowledge) or compute it, I won't believe in it. And beside, Science has yet another virtue, best put in words by Randall Munroe: It works, bitches!
My take on string theory was friendly (^.^). I recently read Answering a critic from a cartoon [motls.blogspot.com], by Luboo Motl, whom, I hope, I will meet one day :-)