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Science Worship

Entry 2059, on 2020-05-31 at 15:23:17 (Rating 2, Science)

I recently got into a mild debate (well, more of a short discussion, really) about the value of science. A Facebook "friend" posted a picture of four situations where he claimed science had failed in the past, and suggested that maybe it wasn't the best methodology for us to use today either.

The four pictures referenced: a pregnant woman smoking a cigarette, a baby saying thanks for DDT because it keeps flies away, a bottle of (apparently prescription) heroin tablets, and asbestos being recommended for use in farm buildings.

The accompanying text said "To all you science worshipers out there. Remember.... There was a day when SCIENCE backed all of these things too and just like today, those research studies were funded by the industry and corporations themselves."

I thought there was a certain amount of truth in the comment, but decided to debate it anyway. Here's how this very brief debate went...

Me: Yes. Science can be warped by commercial interests. But do you know what changes ideas which are wrong in science? More science. Also, what alternatives are there for establishing the truth?

Him: Science is as much a curse as a blessing never answers the question just makes more Much like politicians

Me: Well, no. Science answers questions, but there are always more details which then need to be studied. Fact is, science is the only methodology we have to establish truth and despite its occasional errors, it works. Again, do you have an alternative?

Him: So science does makes more questions thank you.

Me: Well in a way, but the questions become more about the details uncovered by the bigger discoveries. Again, your alternative is?

Me, again: Seriously; if you distrust science so much, how do you suggest we find out facts about the real world? What is the alternative? It's a genuine question.

There was no further response.

I do need to say here that there is some material produced in the guise of science which has been negatively influenced by commercial pressures. There is "science" which supported smoking for years, and now the same phenomenon applies to climate change, often supported by industries which might lose if significant climate change mitigating policies were implemented.

So, I guess it gets back to the distinction between science the way it is meant to work, and science the way it sometimes works in reality.

Before I go further I would like to briefly summarise the way science is supposed to work. First, scientists are well-trained and experts in their specific area of research. They want to investigate a particular (usually very specific) phenomenon. They research the phenomenon to see what other experts already know. They propose a hypothesis which might extend our knowledge in that area. They create an experiment which might support or reject the hypothesis. The experiment must be free from bias and precisely described so that any other person could also do it. The experiment is carefully run (using double-blinding and other techniques) and the results are reported whatever the outcome is. Other scientists peer review the report and if it is good enough it is published in a reputable journal. There is criticism and replication of the experiment to test its validity. As more evidence accumulates the hypothesis becomes more or less accepted. Eventually the level of support might get to the point where the hypothesis becomes an accepted theory. Nothing is ever accepted without question and the whole process might start again at any time.

Unfortunately things don't always work quite like that. For example, researchers might decide what they want the outcome to be before running the experiment, then deliberately or accidentally warp the results to suit. Or they might report results which confirm their preferences and ignore the rest. Or they might publish poorly implemented work in sub-standard journals with little peer review or other checks.

So, sure, things can go wrong, and no doubt do. And I do judge science based on how it actually works rather than how it should in theory. I do that for other belief systems, like religion and politics, so I must do it for science as well. But there is one big difference: science is designed to get to the unbiased truth, and has numerous correction mechanisms. No other system does, at least to any significant extent.

Note that in my Facebook debate I asked three times for a suggested alternative to science without receiving any answer. That is most likely because there is no answer. Maybe you might suggest philosophy. Sure, that is OK, but its hypothesis checking is weak. How about religion? Well, that has the exact opposite aim of the objective rigour of science, so that's a fail. Politics? The arts? Business? No, none of these can do what science does, because they aren't designed to.

And here's the most impressive thing which I think completes my argument: when science is found to be wrong and is corrected, what causes that correction? Is it a philosopher showing why the Big Bang is wrong? Is it the Pope disproving evolution? Is it Donald Trump coming up with a great new theory? Maybe it's a work of art which uncovers some previously unknown truth. Or a rich businessman who shows that quantum theory is nonsense.

No, it's more science which corrects errors, because science has a great self-correction mechanism. Here's how Sean Carroll puts it: If you're a priest and you write a brilliant article that explains why the Pope is wrong, you get excommunicated! If you're a brilliant theoretical physicist and write a brilliant article that explains why Einstein is wrong, you will win the Nobel Prize!

That's not always necessarily literally true, but it makes the point. All of those phenomena listed at the start of this post were corrected by science, and I'm not even convinced science ever supported them in the first place, because technology and industry aren't science.

Anyway, I'm still waiting for my opponent's suggestion for a better source of knowledge, but I suspect I'll never get one.


Comment 1 (5356) by Derek Ramsay on 2020-08-14 at 15:43:02:

Properly done, science doesn’t ‘back’ anything. Science makes specific testable claims and assigns confidence to them. It is (nearly?) always tentative. Consider Newtonian physics, for example.

The truth value of scientific findings is always < 1. So, the first problem isn't science per se, it is scientism, a belief that scientific findings (including consensus) reflect truth. This is when science is worshiped. When I see actual scientists claiming with 100% certainty that SARS-COV-2 could not possibly have come out of a lab, I see this in action.

The second problem (which often stems from the first) is the misapplication of scientific findings, especially outside the realm of science itself. For example, current science shows with high confidence that cotton masks do not protect the wearer from viral infection. Current science is still debating whether wearing a mask protect others from a sick person. Moreover, mask wearing may have negative side effects. Science has not adequately determined either. However, most countries have universally embraced mask wearing in the name of science. It isn't science that justifies mask wearing, it is misapplication of science, often for political or commercial purposes.

I suspect that if you researched those things that science supposedly backed, you'd find significant violations of both of these.


Comment 2 (5357) by OJB on 2020-08-14 at 15:43:20:

Sure, I agree with that. Nothing about the real world can ever be proved absolutely (using inductive logic). Absolute proof is only possible in the areas of math and formal logic (using deduction). I think it is fair to say there are scientific "facts" as an approximation, where a conclusion is practically certain, even if further research might refine the established conclusion. For example, Newtonian physics is good enough for many purposes, so in many cases it reveals "facts", however we now know it is really only an approximation, and a really bad one in extreme cases.

I also agree that politics and commerce can warp pure science, but as I said in the post, we need to critique science the way it is, not the way it should be.


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