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Science is never settled

SciencePosted by David McDonagh Mon, October 20, 2014 16:58:01

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-bines/in-defense-of-science_b_5999976.html

Science will never be settled.

This “defence” of science by Jonathan Bines is often very bigoted and quite stupid. Science needs no actual defence, as common sense accepts it as a vital corrective, but what this rather stupid fool feels about science is not very realistic. He is in the right day job as a comic; at least in the short run. But his real quest is not really to defend science but to get his readers to think it right to adopt Green policies on Global Warming, or otherwise we reject the whole of science he concludes, but that is simply silly as science never can be about any policy but only about the external facts; or the way how things are. As the Stoics saw 2500 years ago, no policy follows from how things are.

Many people credit science for what technology does, but technology will not wait for science, any more than science will wait for philosophy. Science remains nearer to philosophy than to practical technology, but technology would destroy society with white elephants if ever the price system did not tame or control it. This comic needs to thank the market for many things he feels science grants the human race.

Indeed, scientists have been wrong in the past and thus should not be trusted now. Science is about testing our ideas rather than trusting them. Trust belongs to dogma and religion. Trust is about values rather than the external facts.

Indeed, scientists are biased by personal prejudices that they might call assumptions or hypotheses. Bias does risk error.

Financial incentives and costs aid science as well as technology to remain realistic. Common sense is bigoted about money, a far great invention than fire or the wheel. The compulsory educated bigot has trouble with this, as daft religion rejects this world for silly reasons.

Scientists often do aim at personal or professional success. But success is not always in term of money. Some scientists have been secretive as they feel in dire competition or in a race with other scientists, but many have not been such. Most presentations of the discovery of oxygen holds Joseph Priestley as naïve in showing Lavoisier the experiments where he discovered de-phlogisticated air, that Lavoisier later called oxygen, but Priestley felt he needed to aid anyone to test the experiments as soon as possible, that science was team work and that his own prestige did not matter very much.

Scientific ideas are always threated as if suspect. To be in science is to be re-tested. Science is never settled.

Particular scientists often feel quite certain. Science seems far more of a flux than it actually is, as there is a diversity of ideas in science. Scientific journals, like Nature, reflect this diversity far more than science, as a whole, making progress or moving on.

We do not have to accept science. We are free to discount it if we wish to do so; but most of us will not do that consistently.

Science is more like organised or disciplined common sense than another way of knowing that should be given primacy over other rival ways, such as intuitive knowledge or personal experience. Any scientist will use intuition or personal experience if it looks scientifically useful, of course.

Most scientists disagree with the consensus view in some things or to some extent and there is no way to assess who is right when two scientists both have a good case. Such deputes can continue for decades. But often evidence emerges that refutes a strong theory like phlogiston and then the refuted theory gets universally rejected. But this may be reversed later on. Science is never likely to ever be an ended quest for the truth but rather a quest that continues, as Popper said. Consensus simply does not matter very much. This is a fact about science that makes the recent attempt to abuse science by the backward Greens look silly. The democratic theory of truth is not one iota scientific.

Technology has aided science way more than science can ever hope to aid technology.

Politicians make many dysfunctional suggestions that tend to waste wealth. The state needs to be rolled back or even dissolved entirely. State policy is anti-social.

A critique is a criticism limited to the terms of the target but most criticism will never be so limited, nor need it be. The fashionable abuse of the word “critique” is very silly. It is a sign of an ignoramus i.e. of someone who needs to master his brief.

“Science works”? What does that mean? It looks like a solecism. My best guess is that the fool means that technology works. Science is nearer to literature than it is to technology.

We are told that science explains things but that looks like a personification of science. Only persons explain. Sure, enquiry often leads to knowledge but that is not really informative. Scientific enquiry is a pleonasm. Any enquiry can be, roughly, called scientific.

Our author gets better on science as a process of re-testing thus:

“Science is able to achieve its results by following a rigorous method of investigation involving the creation and testing of hypotheses against observational evidence. At every stage, these hypotheses are subjected to intense challenge. First, they are tested through the process of scientific research. Then through the process of publication and peer review they are subjected to challenge by the larger scientific community. After publication, they continue to be challenged, corroborated, modified, or refined by new research and new hypotheses. Science that has withstood this onslaught of skepticism is seen to be accurate and trustworthy, and consequently it earns the backing of a consensus of practicing scientists.”

That is not too bad. The process of testing never ends, though we are told that it does. But then it declines into the following:

“Because science is based on such a strong foundation of evidence and analytical rigor, anyone who would challenge science, particularly well-established science such as that on evolution, climate, or vaccines (or, for that matter, gravitation and quantum mechanics), rightly faces a very high burden of proof, a burden which most science skeptics fail even to acknowledge, much less satisfy. “

But as the author told us, scientists will be forever re-testing the ideas that remain within science. Ideas can only escape reconsideration by being rejected by science. There is no store of established science, free of future re-testing thus there is no real foundation in science. Nor is science ever really finally established or settled. Scepticism always re-enters science.

Our author continues:

“Science cannot be refuted by appeals to intuition or personal experience, attacks on the character or motivations of scientists, accusations of institutional bias, or by "cherry-picking" a particular authority figure, alternative theory, or research study.”

Ad hominem attacks on mere persons are out but cherry picking is not, nor is intuition. They will just need to be presented as hypotheses, that is all. They will face attempted refutation, of course.

“It cannot be denied because it is inconvenient, or because one dislikes the policy implications. “

Science can never have policy implications. Science is about facts, not values.

“It cannot be dismissed on supernatural grounds or through suggestions of conspiracy.”

Not within science, but this is often done by the various Christian groups.

“It cannot be undermined by dreaming up alternative hypotheses (unsupported by strong evidence), or by pointing to remaining uncertainties in the established theory.”

There is no epistemological support. No true observation can amount to anything stronger than a mere assumption; nor can valid argument. So no hypothesis has ever been supported by any evidence the last 2500 years, nor is the next 2500 years likely to find any supporting evidence either.

“All these are utterly inconsequential as refutations -- not because scientists "know better" than the rest of us -- but simply because they fail to convincingly meet the burden of proof.”

Proof is best left to geometry and logic. A true counter example refutes. The acceptability of that fact by qualified scientists is not one whit germane to the de facto refutation. Scientists are free to deny the facts. If they are ignorant then they might well do exactly that. The status of the observer does not matter to any fact. And science cannot make or change facts, nor is scientific consensus germane to any fact. Scientists face what the philosophers call the epistemological problem, which is dire, so that is why the scientists never stop testing in their unended quest for those facts that, by their current enquires, they consider to be germane.

Science is not about the acceptance of anything, it is about testing as best as we can.

Jonathan Bines continues: “Science works, and so we accept its findings -- not because we have "faith" in them or because they are perfect -- but because in an uncertain world, we wish to use the best available information to solve our problems, improve our condition, and understand our situation.”

But most of the general public do not know what current science holds on this or that, and even many scientists do not know other aspects of science that are outside of their own domain all too often. The division of labour makes experts of us all, but also laymen of us all too. There is no end of things that we should know, and quite a few that we once did know, but have forgotten. Science works but it continues to work, it does not even settle factual accounts beyond future revision and remains utterly indifferent to policy and politics.

Jonathan Bines is right that there is no faith in science and I would say there is none in religion either, as the mind re-thinks much as science does, but subjectively, tacitly and without the open public testing and attempted replication by different teams which is attempted refutation too.

Ideas are never sacred in science, or they should not be, but they are in religion but then religion is about what is valued as sacred rather than what is believed or thought to be the case. By contrast, science is profane; so is the reality principle that is human belief. Loyalty is alien to belief and it should be to science too. Loyalty is for people not for mere ideas. Some people may, or they may not, accept the findings of science. It is not going to affect science any more than science can affect the facts.

But what about the funding of science, who will fund it? Science cannot affect the facts but the funding of science might be neglected if it becomes unpopular, and there has been a lowering of the prestige of science with the recent controversies like mad cow disease or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease [vCJD] a human variant of bovine spongiform encephalopathy that the cows had that spread by prions that were jinxed proteins that had the ability to spread their jinx to the ordinary proteins of first some cows then later some humans too.

Science lost public prestige in that vCJD affair and it is being repeated in the current Global Warming affair too but it is not likely to lead to a permanent lack of funding in science for more research, as some Greens have told me they fear will be the case, for enquiry will always be needed, whether science is popular or not. Charities and firms will most likely provide funds if the state does not. That might be better than state funding. It would be freer for sure.

But Jonathan Bines feels that science means we all ought to accept this or that: “ This means, in the year 2014, accepting the current scientific consensus that vaccines are well-understood, safe, and effective. It means accepting the current scientific consensus that humans are causing the climate to change through the emission of atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gasses with results that will almost certainly range from bad to catastrophic. It means accepting the current scientific consensus that evolution through natural selection is the theory most likely to describe observed biological diversity at all levels from DNA to species, including human beings.” But most of that is what they used to call “academic” in the 1960s, so most people are completely indifferent to it and it simply does not interest them. Does that mean that science is not working as far as Jonathan Bines is concerned or is it rather that it hardly affects science much whether most people know about it or not. The latter looks to be basically the case.

But Jonathan Bines wants science to have way more authority than it ever did have in the past and he seems to overlook, too, that science, since the founding of the Royal Society, in the 1660s, wants to reject authority not to crave after it. The scientific motto is “take nobody’s word for it.”

But then Jonathan Bines changes his tune. He says:

“Certainly, we should maintain a ‘healthy skepticism,’” but then he immediately changes again thus: “but we should focus that skepticism, not on the science, but rather on the claims of those who profess to be in possession of some special knowledge or authority outside of the formal scientific process.”

Traditionally, science welcomes scepticism on the science too. But any idea, sceptical or otherwise, is good enough to go on with. But to get it tested in science it needs to be testable. If it is not capable of being tested it is not yet scientific. But to test is to attempt to eliminate false ideas. Science is out to reject ideas as false. But it is particularly not the case that if it passes a test then we must thereby accept it. Instead, science will test it again.

Science rules out religion in hypotheses to be tested but not religious adherents in science. Their religious opinions do not keep the religious out of science, so the various religious groups can, often, get qualified scientists to join them, and to occasionally speak for them.

A public indifference to science is not to reject science but simply not to accept it. This has not harmed science much up to now, but the comic, Jonathan Bines, seems to be more of a Green than a scientist, and the Greens, even if they are right, have been abusing science of late and that is what Jonathan Bines is doing in his pretended defence of science. He is attempting to get it to endorse Green policy.

He concludes: “ To do otherwise would be to deprive ourselves of the greatest tool for human advancement mankind has ever known, at exactly the time when such a tool is needed most.” But, clearly, despite the public being more sceptical of what they roughly think of as science than ever, owing to the vCJD affair and the like, science is not in trouble today, let alone being abandoned. What Jonathan Bines seems to want is a Green agenda but no policy agenda whatsoever could ever quite be scientific.



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