How To Be Annoying and Unproductive

There is a misconception about science that seems to be common among non-scientists. That misconception is that science is about interpreting the world, about putting words together in a way that helps to provide a psychological frame for understanding the phenomena of the world. This is definitively not what science is about.

Science is not about inventing poetic phases that invokes a strong inner feeling about, say, gravity. It’s about discovering and describing the regularities in the world. It’s about proposing objective, unambiguous hypotheses about the world, and then testing them experimentally.

To illustrate the difference, imagine I have a silvery-colored metal ball:


Then I paint it red. Have I changed the ball’s color by painting it? Most people would probably agree that the ball is now red:


Now I scrape off some of the paint, and we see that underneath the paint the ball is still silvery-colored:


Does this mean that painting the ball did not really change its color? Or maybe once the paint was applied to the ball, the paint became a part of the ball and hence the ball really was red? Or perhaps the ball only appeared red, but in some sense retained a hidden silveryness.

This kind of speculation is not science. It is only the path to an annoying and pointless argument over semantics. Two people can argue this way for ages, even though they both completely understand everything that matters about the situation.

There is sometimes a tendency to ask questions like “Was the ball ever really red?” and then attribute some kind of deep paradoxical wisdom to the fact that both “Yes” and “No” seem like acceptable answers. But this is to worship your own confusion, practically the antithesis of science.

Language is frequently ambiguous. If we suspect that the person we’re talking to actually misunderstands the situation, then may it be helpful to provide some further analysis. But when someone says “the kettle is boiling”, we know they mean the water in the kettle and not the kettle itself is boiling. In practice language is usually imprecise, open to interpretation, and full of literary devices.

This is why scientists use mathematical equations to describe the world. Language is often ambiguous but equations are not. If you understand what the equation for a law of physics says, it should not be necessary to add any further interpretation to that law.

When people try to add an interpretation to laws of physics, the result is frequently the following type of nonsense:

“Airplanes utilize the truth that the Law of Lift supersedes the Law of Gravity. If at any time the airplane fails to utilize the superior Law of Lift, then the Law of Gravity takes over, with devastating possibilities.”

-Mark D. Bristow[1]

When scientists refer to the law of gravity, this is what they mean:


No hermeneutics required. Physicists don’t refer to “superior” laws “superseding” other laws. Adding this is not only unnecessary, but is likely to give the impression that the law of gravity ceases to operate when a plane is flying, which is not just unnecessary but literally false.

Idiomatically, the pessimist sees a glass as being half empty and the optimist sees the glass as being half full. The scientist, wishing to see the world as it really is, frees his world view of these unnecessary judgments by measuring the volume of the cup and the volume of the water it contains, and sees that the volume of the cup is 2 times as great as the volume of the water.