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Why absolutism has no place in research, according to University of Houston

Absolutism has no bearing on the scientific process. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Science, like politics, can elicit polarizing opinions. But with an ever-expanding body of knowledge — and the especially dizzying flurry of findings during the pandemic — is it fair to say that views on science are becoming more extreme?

Measuring the polarization

“A standard way of measuring polarization in the U.S. is asking Democrats and Republicans how warmly they feel toward members of their own group and members of their outgroup on a feeling thermometer from 0 to 100,” said Jessica Gottlieb, professor at the UH Hobby School of Public Affairs. “The difference in ingroup-outgroup warmth is then considered a measure of polarization. This has been measured by the American National Elections Studies systematically over the past several decades, and indeed the level of affective polarization has been increasing in the U.S.”

“Absolutism is the culprit.”

In an article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “How Extremism Went Mainstream,” the author notes that “the tools that authorities use to combat extremists become less useful when the line between the fringe and the center starts to blur.”

Science has traditionally been one such tool. However, this extremism — where everything is black and white — in politics, has made its unfortunate way into academia. John Lienhard is a professor at the University of Houston and host of “Engines of Our Ingenuity,” a national radio program which has been telling stories of how creativity has shaped our culture since 1988. According to Lienhard, extremism — as seen within the scientific enterprise — goes by a different name.

“Absolutism is the culprit – the need on the part of so many of us to know The Right Answer. The absolutists in the world will glom onto whatever vehicle suits them – religion, politics, education, and ultimately, science itself,” said Lienhard. In other words, good scientists amend and revise, while “the absolutist finds the honest practice of science hateful,” he says, “because science is a way of life where everything lies open to question.”

A series of approximations

In an article entitled, “If You Say Science Is Right You’re Wrong,” professor Naomi Oreskes introduces this quote by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg:

“Even though a scientific theory is in a sense a social consensus, it is unlike any other sort of consensus in that it is culture-free and permanent.”

Well, no. Even a modest familiarity with the history of science offers many examples of matters that scientists thought they had resolved, only to discover that they needed to be reconsidered.

Some familiar examples are Earth as the center of the universe, the absolute nature of time and space, the stability of continents and the cause of infectious disease.

Absolutism in science is dangerous. Good scientists know how important it is to ask probing questions. In his book entitled, Science versus Absolutism: Science Approaches Truth by a Series of Approximations, the chemist T. Swann Harding asks the question: “What are scientific laws?” He goes on to answer:

“Most people appear to regard them as singularly exact and unalterable things … to violate them brings swift retribution. They are unchanging and eternal in character. Yet the so-called laws of science are really rules pieced together by man on a basis of much observation and experiment.”

In the past, so much of science was just plain wrong – until another researcher came around and amended the original belief (think Galileo). How are our modern times any different? There are still many situations where scientific thought has needed to be amended. Even as recently as the COVID crisis, researchers were revising their thoughts about the spread and contagiousness of the disease.

Allowing for dissent

In a Scientific American blog, Matt Nolan writes that “Dissent in Science Is Essential–up to a Point.” In it, he said, “It is the public who pay the price when marginalized science informs policy. History reminds us this is unsafe territory.” However, Lienhard adds that Einstein set limits on the validity of Newton’s laws just as nuclear fission provided an amendment to the conservation of energy law. There is always a new question to formalize where experimentation is being conducted.

Referred to as the “file drawer effect,” another predicament occurs when a researcher does not get the answer they were expecting, and therefore, decides to not publish the negative findings. Every answer is meaningful. And sometimes a negative answer — or no answer — is an answer.

Dissent, and perhaps a certain measure of disappointment, is a critical part of scientific inquiry.

The Big Idea

Science can be thought of as the best we know to the degree we understand a given problem at a given place and time. Absolutism has no bearing on the scientific process and in some cases actively obscures and colors that understanding. And that’s not black and white at all; that’s about as gray as it gets.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Check out these conferences, pitch competitions, networking, and more all happening in September. Photo via Getty Images

From networking meetups to pitch competitions, September has a smorgasbord of opportunities for Houston innovators.

Here's a roundup of events you won't want to miss out on so mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

Mark your calendars for November 8 for the annual Houston Innovation Awards, and nominate your company or another deserving business by September 19.

September 5 — Tech + Tequila Talk: Houston Innovation

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential, will delve into the most recent developments within the Houston Innovation Community, shedding light on Houston Exponential's latest initiatives. She will also provide insights into upcoming events, including the highly-anticipated Tech Rodeo and the forthcoming Innovation Awards Gala. After all of that education and conversation, unwind with an authentic tequila tasting and network with tech industry peers.

The agenda:

5:50 pm - 6 pm: Sign-in/Registration

6 pm - 6:30 pm: Tequila tasting

6:30 pm - 7 pm: Tech talk

7 pm - 8 pm: Networking & Tequilas

This event is Tuesday, September 5, from 6 pm to 8 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

September 7 — Venture Houston 2023

Venture Houston 2023 is a major event for entrepreneurs, venture investors and ecosystem builders to plug into what is happening in Houston. Come learn how you can decarbonize in a digital world, connect with Houston's best founders, corporate leaders and top tier investors, and develop meaningful relationships.

The agenda:

7 am - 8:45 am: Registration

8:45 am - 12:30 pm: General Programming

12:30 pm - 1:45 pm: Networking Lunch

2:00 pm - 4:15 pm: General Programming

4:15 pm - 6 pm: Networking Cocktail Reception

This event is Thursday, September 7, from 7 am to 6 pm at Stude Concert Hall. Click here to register.

September 8 — Inspire & Transform: Celebrating Women In Data

Hosted by the Houston Chapter of Women in Data and Solidatus, this event will feature influential women who have made significant contributions to the field of data from the City of Houston, Exxon, EY, Google, Houston Methodist and more. The event will discuss and debate "The Intersection of Data, AI and Sustainability" and "What Does Good Look Like" through insightful panel discussions, and networking opportunities. Price of admission is $10.

The agenda:

9 am - Check-in and Network

9:15 am - Welcome

9:20 am - Panel 1: The Intersection of Data, AI & Sustainability

10 am - Networking Break

10:10am - Panel 2: "What Does Good Look Like"

10:45am - Scholarships Awarded

11am - End of event + Networking Opportunities

This event is Friday, September 8, from 9 am to 11 am at 200 Park Place. Click here to register.

September 9 — Revolutionizing Your Work: Eight Innovative Ways Entrepreneurs Can Leverage ChatGPT & AI to Scale, Grow & Succeed

Discover how successful entrepreneurs are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and ChatGPT to drive their businesses forward. At this event, you'll gain valuable insights from industry experts who have leveraged AI and ChatGPT to grow, scale, and succeed. Learn how these technologies can enhance customer experiences, streamline operations, and drive innovation in your own entrepreneurial journey.

This event is Saturday, September 9, from 12:30 to 1:30pm at The R.O.C.K. - Broadway Campus. Click here to register.

September 13 — Small Business Exchange

The Small Business Exchange, powered by US SBA, is a lively and informative event designed to connect small business owners and entrepreneurs.

At the Small Business Exchange, you'll have the opportunity to network with like-minded individuals, share your experiences, and gain valuable insights from industry experts. Whether you're a seasoned business owner or just starting out, this event offers a unique chance to learn, grow, and collaborate.


This event is Wednesday, September 13, from 11 am to 2 pm at SBDC Office. Click here to register.

September 21 — 20th Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Forum

The Energy Tech Venture Forum, hosted by The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, will showcase energy tech innovations to shift towards a more sustainable, reliable and lower carbon future across interactive panels, inspiring keynotes and over 50 dynamic venture pitches, leaders.

At the 20th annual conference, discover more than 90 new technology ventures commercializing energy transition innovations and meet investors looking for disruptive energy technologies that can accelerate clean and renewable energy. Check to see if you are a Rice Alliance member or sponsor to confirm your free registration. Rice university faculty and staff can also attend for free. For non-Rice community members tickets are $245.

This event is Thursday, September 21, from 7:30 am to 5:15 pm at Rice University. Click here to register.

September 21 — UH Energy Symposium: Plastics, Chemicals, Circularity: What’s Next?

Focusing on the multifaceted nature and enormity of the challenge, this discussion will focus on what circularity means for the future of production and consumption, meeting consumer demand, and creating and preserving utility across the value chain, while addressing emissions reduction and waste management through new technologies, standards, regulatory mechanisms like extended producer responsibility, and stakeholder engagement.

This event is Thursday, September 21, from 6 to 7:30 pm at the University of Houston. Click here to register.

September 23 — OPEN Houston 11th Annual Conference

Head over to the OPEN Houston 11th annual conference which will focus on the important players building Houston’s emerging technology and startup ecosystem. Hear from and connect with the founders, executives, investors, and other leaders that are building Houston’s innovation economy. Admission is $25-$50.

The agenda:

9:00 AM - 10.00 AM - Registration

10.00 AM - 10:30 AM - Mayor Sylvester Turner Welcoming

10:30 AM - 11:30 AM - Keynote by Andrew Yang

11:30 AM - 12:30 PM - Founder’s Panel

12:30 PM - 1:30 PM - Lunch

1:30 PM - 3:30 PM - Business Pitch Competition

3:30 PM - 3:45 PM - Award Ceremony

3:45 PM - 4:00 PM - Happy Hour

This event is Saturday, September 23, from 9 am to 4 pm at Moran Hotel. Click here to register.

September 27 — Space IT UP: Demo Day

Presented by ITA and ASI in collaboration with the Space Foundation, this event celebrates the journey of six Italian companies as they launch their groundbreaking space ventures from Houston's thriving space ecosystem. Following a five-week accelerator program, these companies will be pitching their innovative space solutions at this Demo Day.

This event is Wednesday, September 27 , from 5:30 to 8 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

September 27 — Pearland Innovation Hub Grand Opening

Come learn more about the Pearland Innovation Hub, tour the new space, and celebrate the expansion. Raffle prizes will be available for attendees and f ood and drinks will be provided for registered attendees.

This event is Wednesday, September 27, from 6 to 8 pm at Pearland Innovation Hub. Click here to register.

September 28 — Chevron Technology Ventures Pitch Competition

Chevron is looking for novel technologies or approaches that can be applied to transform their operations. With the goal of removing people from hazardous environments (e.g., confined spaces, working at heights), reducing the environmental impact (e.g., leak detection, emissions monitoring), and increasing the operational efficiency (e.g., autonomous operations, advanced inspection capabilities, predictive asset health capabilities) of their facilities in the decades to come.

Registered attendees will be able to take a tour of the Chevron workspaces within the Cannon West Houston, enjoy refreshments and network.

This event is Thursday, September 28, from 4 to 7:30 pm at the Cannon. Click here to register.

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