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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.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 17th, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
People who don't understand how science and the scientific community work tend to have conspiracy theories about why "mainstream science" doesn't accept theories X, Y or Z. They think the "science community" is all in lockstep, but really, most scientists LOVE to be able to prove another scientist wrong because that's what earns them peer recognition and prizes.
Mar. 17th, 2012 07:10 pm (UTC)
The same is true of conspiracy theorists who say things like "Big Pharma has a cure for AIDS, but is repressing it because treatment is more profitable than cure."

Given that the person who announces a cure for AIDS is a shoe-in for the Nobel Prize in Medicine and would be able to get any grants she wanted for the rest of her life, I can just imagine how successful such a conspiracy would be. A group of pharmaceutical researchers all sitting around a table: "We have a cure for AIDS, but we want you to promise you won't tell a soul." I can just picture them all saying "Yeah, sure, we promise"...

...and then racing each other to the patent office.
Mar. 31st, 2012 01:18 pm (UTC)
Well, not the patent office, 'cause they signed over all such rights as a condition of employment. But dash off to post an electronic Letter to Cell, maybe, or Lancet, or ...
Mar. 17th, 2012 07:16 pm (UTC)
Lol! Dating a guy who is into Ancient Aliens? I say hooray for the scientific method that doesn't imply that everything links us to space travel :*)
Mar. 18th, 2012 06:09 pm (UTC)
Err...he does know that Erich von Däniken, who started this whole "ancient aliens" nonsense, served jail time for fraud because of it, right?
Mar. 17th, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
       One of the things I was just talking about this week is...religion used to be science. It was motivated by the same human goals. To understand the world around us. When it became 'faith' is when they stopped looking for answers and trying to figure out what happened, and decided they had them. It's very interesting to me how much they are related.

Mar. 17th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
Well said...I may have to bookmark this as a helpful way to explain this because it frustrates me a lot when people say things like, "Science is just another belief system, no better or worse than any other."

It's better because the scientific method has been designed specifically with checks to deal with human bias and corruption. It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than anything else we have for learning how the universe works.
Mar. 31st, 2012 01:19 pm (UTC)

Edited at 2012-03-31 01:40 pm (UTC)
Apr. 2nd, 2012 02:26 am (UTC)
I would call it a process or method, rather than a technology. But yes, it's not a belief system.
Mar. 31st, 2012 01:20 pm (UTC)
It is, I would say, not a belief system but more of a technology.
Mar. 18th, 2012 10:30 pm (UTC)
I think it's worth distinguishing between science (the methodology you describe) and positivism (the ideology based on that methodology, which holds that knowledge can be objective and that the only real knowledge is that derived from scientific methodology performed by a neutral observer). Usually when people criticize science, they're really criticizing positivism.
Mar. 21st, 2012 05:27 pm (UTC)
You are Awesome;)
Yesterday I was directed to your blog via podcast hosted by a pair of potty mouthed cheeky monkeys who seem also to probably feature as pretty awesome most of the time and funny too. Having only read a few posts so far I must admit my mind is loving how your mind works... yay for you wording things in a way my brain can eat it up AND for talking about stuff I'm either doing or interested in.

Reading this post spawned a wish that I knew a way to harness some scientific action into 'debates' I get into with a certain boy, who generally has little (if any) proof to support his random notion/s at the time... he grips fast to conviction with statements like "Well I don't understand that, so it doesn't make sense therefor I don't believe it" that is what he leads with, sometimes adding the obvious lack of previous experience with whatever it is we are talking about... then comes my favorite bits, a flurry of his assumptions and such 'drawing logic' out of thin air at best; which I call conjecture or 'blindly guessing' because that is what it is. However his aggressive style of debate flusters me often, then my brain floods in a stress response and logic along the ability to form full sentences seem to fall out my ass apparently, leaving us at a stale mate which he call a win... sigh, I really just wish for a scientific method I could use to verbally clobber him, all in good fun of course;) Do tell me Mr Smarty Pants is there a science to defeating such asinine 'arguments', one that is simply smart and non aggressive? I suspect there is but am not sure where to begin so thought maybe you could point me in a direction. Really, I just wanted to say your writing is doing it for me and tossed in a query on a long shot so I don't come off as total dork and, hey I might even get an answer that enables me to clobber my stubborn argumentative friend with elegance afforded by science;)
Mar. 31st, 2012 01:15 pm (UTC)
Yes, thanks you!
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )