Monday, March 12, 2007

A candle in the dark


Pharyngula recently provided a definition of science. While this may seem a rather boring point to pore over, I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about this over the weekend, and I found it exhilarating:

#1: Science is a changing and growing collection of knowledge, characterized by transparency (all methods are documented, and the lineage of ideas can be traced) and testability (prior work can be repeated or its results evaluated). It is an edifice of information that contains all of the details of its construction.

#2: Science is what scientists do. We have institutions that train people and employ them in the business of generating new knowledge — contributing to that edifice in definition #1 — and we have procedures like the bestowal of degrees and ranks that certify one's membership in the hallowed ranks of science.

#3: Science is a process. It is a method for exploring the natural world by making observations, drawing inferences, and testing those inferences with further experimentation and observation. It isn't so much the data generated as it is a way of thinking critically about the universe and our own interpretations of it.
I'm going to assert that he missed one very useful definition. Or at least one very important point. Science demands proof. Science requires that its practitioners provide proof for their hand-waving, otherwise you are merely spewing words. If you cannot provide an iron-clad experiment that demonstrates the point you are trying to make, then you are merely working at conjecture.

I think this is the most important point for laypeople to understand. How is someone to tell the difference between a scientist who knows what (s)he's talking about, and a pseudoscientific quack? I suspect for your average, college-educated person this isn't simple. A scientist may use technical words that are difficult to understand. A pseudoscientific quack may use technical words that are difficult to understand. A scientist may talk about the importance of molecules in their work. A pseudoscientific quack may talk about the importance of molecules in their work. But how do you tell the difference between a highly-talented medical researcher, and a pseudoscientific quack like Hulda Clark? Demand proof.

If someone tells you that worms cause all cancer? Demand the experiment that proves it.

This is the single reason why highly opinionated, egotistical scientists can emerge from a room with a consensus. Unlike in law, or philosophy, or business, or politics, scientists can change each other's minds using proof. That said, for any honest scientist, they can have their minds changed merely by providing experimental evidence that they are wrong.

This is why Carl Sagan says:
"Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time ... when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstitions and darkness."
This is what gives science the power to discern truth from bullshit. This is why science is a candle in the dark. This is why scientists feel so passionately about their work. Science offers us the opportunity to say, "Prove it!" and have some possibility of doing just that.

Digg!

16 comments:

Chris2048 said...

And How would a layperson verify a scientific proof? They would neither be able to follow it, nor verify its sources.

Anonymous said...

To Chris2048

You are right that not all proofs are easy for lay people to replicate for themselves. However, there is a peer-review process in science. Any sufficiently interesting or important idea will be looked at by more than one scientist or organisation. You can be confident that something like evolution (for example) is real because so many independent experts have a consensus about it.

Anonymous said...

lol...this is a rather idealistic view of scientists, I have to say. Actually, scientists can be just as obtuse as politicians, especially when a lifetime's repututation is tied up in a particular pet theory.

lol...and anyone who demands 'proof' from a scientist must have rather naive grasp of what scientific method actually is. There is no such thing as proof in science, but rather one theoreis predictions better fit the evidence we have to hand at that point. There are few cast iron certainties in science.

lol...and many scientists find their work exceptionally boring and uninteresting. And there is also plenty of bullshit, bluff, and hedging going on in 'science'. I know, I'm a science editor.

However, the great thing about science though is that for the most part, a scientist invites criticism, rather than running away from it or trying to supress it.

The Factician said...

I know, I'm a science editor.

For someone who starts every paragraph with lol? I rather doubt it...

Anonymous said...

Factician wrote: For someone who starts every paragraph with lol? I rather doubt it...

Now that is funny. You doubt what I know to be true! Might I point out that this is a blog, and not a peer-reviewed journal.

How about addressing the points rather than picking a reason to discredit the person making the comment? Isn't that a favourite technique of politicians?

Me thinks that the Factician is not practicing his own scientific idealism...lol

The Factician said...

How about addressing the points rather than picking a reason to discredit the person making the comment?

Here we go!

this is a rather idealistic view of scientists

You're absolutely right. It is an idealistic view of scientists. But it is an accurate view of science.

scientists can be just as obtuse as...

You're right. But science has a way of weeding out the bullshit artists from the people who are doing good work. If you're wrong, someone else will prove that you're wrong. It's only a matter of time.

Take for example the Korean guy who told everyone that he had isolated human embryonic stem cells. It only took the scientific community a period of months to prove him a fraud.

anyone who demands 'proof' from a scientist must have rather naive grasp of what scientific method actually is.

You can't ever prove you're right. But you can prove you're wrong. Amongst scientists we prefer the term evidence. But for a layperson, proof is a pretty close approximate.

many scientists find their work exceptionally boring and uninteresting...

Scientists don't get paid enough to do boring work. I think that you might be able to find someone who agrees with that statement, but *most*? I certainly haven't met *anyone* that falls into that category in over 15 years in science.

And there is also plenty of bullshit, bluff, and hedging going on in 'science'.

By scientists, yes. But science works to remove the bullshit, bluff and hedging by peer review and repetition. See example of Korean stem cell dude above...

However, the great thing about science though is that for the most part, a scientist invites criticism

For the most part, I agree. Though I would rephrase it as science invites criticism. Scientists grow thicker skin because the process demands it. But none of us *like* criticism. We just know it's part of the process.

How about addressing the points ...

How'd I do?

---

And now for a bit of prognostication...

I know, I'm a science editor.

Let's see, your average science editor has a Ph.D. and several years of post-doc experience. So, 4 years as undergrad, 5 years in grad school, 3 years as a post-doc. That puts average science editor at minimum 30 years old. More than likely, quite a bit older. But let's say you're 30. Do you know *anyone* who's 30 who starts a sentence with lol? Really? And multiple paragraphs? Could be, but I doubt it. No insult intended, but I've never met anyone older than 22 who uses lol so frequently. Only blogger I know that uses lol like that is ERV (endogenousretrovirus.blogspot.com) and she's right about 22. Am I close?

Thanks for swinging by. :)

Anonymous said...

For the record, I'm 39 and I work at a Health Research Institute.

Anonymous said...

Read Eisenhower's Farewell Address. Not only did he warn of the military idustrial complex creating conflicts to suite there needs, he also identified the trend of science growing out of the reach of popular understanding leading to a scientific elite.

He had no answer for how to protect against this either.

The Subliminal Assassin said...

Before I begin, please do not think me strange for this comment.

I am led to remember an episode of the cartoon "Arthur" called "Prove It." He and his friend Brain went to a science museum while leaving Arthur's sister, D.W. at home. D.W. decides to make her own science museum in their backyard and charges a nickel to get in and the young kids are lined up around the block.

Here is a quote from the script:

D.W.: Why is the sky blue? Because dirt is already taken by brown, Grass was already taken by green, Yellow for bananas, and apples by red!
Brain: The sky is blue because because air particles from the ocean reflect blue light!
D.W.: Oh yeah! PROVE IT!
Arthur: Oh yeah? Well... you prove yours!
DW: Is grass green, are bananas yellow, are apples red, IS THE SKY BLUE!?!?
Tommy Tibble: She's right AGAIN!

This is a funny episode, but the underlying issue is that our current national administration is slowly discrediting science for the sake of politics and profit.

The best example of this is the issue of global warming. I was speaking to a friend of mine about this, and while she is a very intelligent person and usually well-informed, her response to a statement I made based upon scientific fact was not based in a similar scientific vein, but a political one. I demanded that she acknowledge the evidence of what is happening to the polar ice caps, and her remark was pretty similar to D.W.'s "prove it" comment.

Our work is cut out for us...we have to do something to halt and reverse this trend now, or else.

The Subliminal Assassin

The Factician said...

I will read Eisenhower's address. Thank you.

Subliminal,

We do indeed have our work cut out for us. And it can seem rather daunting at times.

This is my effort in my own tiny corner of cyberspace. I'll let you know how it goes ;)

Anonymous said...

Like the scientists who walked out of the room with a consensus that the world was flat, the candle they provide is but brief and flickering. Science today is never science tomorrow.

I'll take my religion anyday.

Chris2048 said...

"Like the scientists who walked out of the room with a consensus that the world was flat"

At no time in history did this happen - turning to mysticism based on myth is a kind of circular reasoning.

"However, there is a peer-review process in science"

But the point is the limits of what you can ask of a layperson, not the scientific community. Pseudo-scientists have peers too, so the 'expertese' of which community do we trust?

The Factician said...

Chris2048,

But the point is the limits of what you can ask of a layperson, not the scientific community. Pseudo-scientists have peers too, so the 'expertese' of which community do we trust?

That's something I've had a hard time answering. I've had a post stewing for several months on that very topic, but I'm still not satisfied with it.

How does a layperson tell legit science from pseudoscience? On the surface, they're both highly technical. They're both very dismissive of each other. How does someone who generally doesn't pay attention to science tell the difference?

The answer lies in the consensus position. But again, how does a layperson tell whose position is consensus, when they both claim to hold that position? The easiest way to tell the difference is to see who holds the consensus among experimenting scientists. When all of the dissenters come from "think-tanks" that's more of an Aristotelian world view. Thinking doesn't cut it. There's no shortage of smart people in the world. It's those of us with data that ultimately end up proving or disproving various models (to the mathematicians among you - there I go again, using that *prove* word again).

Data is king. If you're claiming you have the consensus position, but you've never done an experiment (and no one on your side has - see intelligent design), then you're a bullshit artist.

How's that for a sieve to separate the bullshit from the legit science?

lockers said...

I would imagine the best question a layperson can ask to distinguish a pseudo-scientist from the real deal is, "Where was your idea peer reviewed?" The answer, or lack thereof pretty much tells you all you need to know. Who knows, they could be some science savant. Without the review of their peers, I just have to assume they are not.

Not being a scientist, it seems to me that publication is the best indication of acceptance of scientist knowledgeable in that field. It surely isn't the end all, as replication seems more important where possible.

What I wonder about is string theory. It looks like homeopathy for physicists from the outside. It has no comprehensive theory, no experimental data and no realistically testable hypothesis in the relevant future. Yet, year after year, universities are churning out wannabe mathematicians, with no prospect of coming to some conclusion on the ideas.

NotPhil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NotPhil said...

The Factician said...

If you cannot provide an iron-clad experiment that demonstrates the point you are trying to make, then you are merely working at conjecture.

I'm a little disturbed by the implication that the only alternative to science is mysticism. Sagan's book, which I enjoyed, and recommend, seems to be guilty of this also. Ironically, his chapter on skepticism points out that this sort dilemma is called a false dichotomy and should worry anyone who sees it.

Science is a very useful tool, but it is only useful for some aspects of our world and shouldn't be used where it won't work. We have many more tools available to us for learning and understanding, like imagination & insight, deduction & induction, analogy & intuition, ethics & empathy, rhetoric & dialog, and reason & critical thought, and when we ignore them in favor of science alone, we create the sort of world where laymen have to just accept the word of anyone who calls himself a scientist and assume that if his "peers" agree, then it must be so.

After all, any charlatan can manufacture "proof," and any group of genuine experts can, collectivly, subscribe to false beleifs. Our only defense against them is our ability to think for ourselves. Science isn't required for that.