Franklin Veaux (tacit) wrote,
Franklin Veaux

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Science: Not perfect, but just a bit better than most other systems

On another forum I read, someone made the claim that in science, politics and general human fallibility get in the way of learning the truth just as they do in all other areas of philosophical endeavor, and ended with "Science is little more or less immune to this effect."

Which is, when it comes right down to it, totally wrong.

The entire point of using the scientific method as a means to understand the physical world is that science is, at least slightly, more immune than most other human endeavors. There are three reasons for science's resilience when compared to other human institutions: skepticism, replicability, and peer review.

Skepticism means deliberately mistrusting your data, even if it says something you really really really really want it to say. Science works very hard to get rid of things like confirmation bias. It's not always perfect, but at the end of the day it's pretty damn good.

Replicability says that if something is true, it's true for everyone, regardless of belief or political persuasion. If I measure the gravitational constant, and some guy in Iran measures the gravitational constant, if our measurements are correct they will be the same. No matter what philosophical, political, or religious differences we have.

Peer review means nothing is taken on faith. There are no holy fathers in science, no infallible popes. No matter how renown, popular, or revered a scientist is, if he's wrong, he's wrong. Einstein got some things wrong. So did Newton. Everyone's work is checked. Nobody's work is taken at face value. Everyone's data is analyzed. Everyone's results are scrutinized. From time to time, a scientist might try to bully his way into acceptance, sure; scientists are, after all, only human. But peer review has a way, eventually, of correcting their errors.

No human endeavor is perfect, but those built-in checks do mean that science tends to be self-correcting to a degree that most other human endeavors are not.

It is this fundamental attribute of the scientific method--its self-correcting process--that is the single most valuable thing about it. The scientific method does not guarantee happiness or justice or peace or validation. It does not guarantee that the results it offers will be what we expect them to be, or even that they will be comprehensible to us; the more we learn about the laws of nature on a very small and a very large scale, the stranger they seem to our intuition. It offers only one thing: the ability to model the physical world in a way that is consistent with observable reality.

But that one thing it does, it does very, very well indeed.
Tags: philosophy, science
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