Sunday, June 04, 2006

Doggerel #12: "Science Doesn't Know Everything!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Imagine this scene: A person holding a black box walks up to you and says, "I have a purple monkey in this box."

You turn the key in the padlock, open the box, and look inside. There is no monkey, purple or otherwise. You close the box and look up to the person presenting it. "I don't see a purple monkey."

"LOOKING DOESN'T KNOW EVERYTHING!!!!111!!11!"

That's exactly what it means when a woo says, "Science doesn't know everything!" Science isn't a collection of unexpanding, eternal facts. That would be dogma, and the province of religion.

Science is a method, despite what our public school system says. The quick and dirty way to describe this method: 1. Form a hypothesis. 2. Do everything you can think of to prove it wrong. One simple assumption involved in this method: Everything that continues to stand despite our efforts is probably close to the truth. The great thing about the scientific method is that it knows it's fallable: If one of the conclusions it comes to is wrong, anyone can prove it's wrong with an appropriate experiment: All conclusions are tenative.

Another related bit of doggerel that comes up is often an appeal to other ways of knowing, which are seldom, if ever, described. Those that are described are more like faith: Belief without or despite evidence.

Also related is the assertion that science was wrong before. Of course, this is true: Science can and has been wrong. But it's designed to catch those errors. Think about it: Would you associate with:

A: Someone who makes mistakes, admits them, and takes measures to catch his errors, just in case he makes one,

OR

B: Someone who never admits he's wrong, makes accusations about people who point out apparent errors, and makes special exemptions to make it impossible to prove him wrong?

Hopefully, that covers just about every aspect of this doggerel. But we all know they'll come up with some other varient.

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Doggerel Index

14 comments:

M.S. Mac said...

Nicely said!

Adam said...

Top notch once again Bronze Dog.

I was going to suggest 'values' as an additional meaningless catch all, but that may be somewhat political, although it does have religious overtones.

plonka said...

Excellent stuff Bronze Dog.

Just found your blog via Adam's and Diiki's and it looks like I've got some serious reading to do.

skepticwatcher said...

I agree with this post substantially, but think that an "other way of knowing" which can be quite as rational as science is that derived from first person subjective experience. By it's very nature, subjective experience (feelings, thoughts, consciousness) is not objectively verifiable or accessible to a third person, yet most people would agree that it is a reasonable inference that other people have experiences of the same character as their own.

The denigration of the primacy of subjective expereince can lead, for example, in conciousness studies to the view that all that needs explaining regarding consciousness is observable behaviours and brain functions.

Similarly, in the PSI field it can lead to the a priori rejection of the possibility of paranormal phenomena. Yet whilst there is nothing about the known laws of physics that would suggest the esxitence of telepathy, there is also nothing about them that would suggest that a functioning brain should give rise to conscious experience (so best to be open minded re the possibility and be guided by what empirical research yields).

Bronze Dog said...

I agree with this post substantially, but think that an "other way of knowing" which can be quite as rational as science is that derived from first person subjective experience. By it's very nature, subjective experience (feelings, thoughts, consciousness) is not objectively verifiable or accessible to a third person, yet most people would agree that it is a reasonable inference that other people have experiences of the same character as their own.

True, we can't objectively describe personal experiences... yet.

The denigration of the primacy of subjective expereince can lead, for example, in conciousness studies to the view that all that needs explaining regarding consciousness is observable behaviours and brain functions.

I fail to see the problem with studying the mechanics of consciousness.

Similarly, in the PSI field it can lead to the a priori rejection of the possibility of paranormal phenomena.

Complete nonsense.

Yet whilst there is nothing about the known laws of physics that would suggest the esxitence of telepathy, there is also nothing about them that would suggest that a functioning brain should give rise to conscious experience (so best to be open minded re the possibility and be guided by what empirical research yields).

1. Telepathy has much easier to define results, and would have objectively verifiable effects. No one's produced those effects under controlled circumstances.

2. Consciousness is harder to define, but when we do make definitions, we can make inferences on how it will affect behavior and observe those effects.

3. Empirical research has yielded nothing to suggest the existence of telepathy, therefore I continue my tenative rejection of it.

skepticwatcher said...

True, we can't objectively describe personal experiences... yet.

Not sure what you mean. Certainly we can describe what happens when someone experiences something from a third person perspective (whether behaviourally or neurophysiologically), but this doesn’t alter the fact that first person experience is, by definition, inaccessible to a third person.

I fail to see the problem with studying the mechanics of consciousness.

I don’t see the problem either, except when the mechanics are equated with the experience.

Complete nonsense.

I don’t think it’s nonsense that some people’s attitude towards science leads them to think paranormal phenomena are impossible.

1. Telepathy has much easier to define results, and would have objectively verifiable effects. No one's produced those effects under controlled circumstances.

2. Consciousness is harder to define, but when we do make definitions, we can make inferences on how it will affect behavior and observe those effects.

3. Empirical research has yielded nothing to suggest the existence of telepathy, therefore I continue my tenative rejection of it.


Looks like we agree that the existence of telepathy is one to be decided by empirical research rather than a priori assumptions, though I haven’t made up my mind yet whether rejection is warranted.

If the hysterics at either extreme are discounted, there seems to me to be intelligent, rational people on both sides of the fence claiming the evidence is in their favour.

Bronze Dog said...

Not sure what you mean. Certainly we can describe what happens when someone experiences something from a third person perspective (whether behaviourally or neurophysiologically), but this doesn’t alter the fact that first person experience is, by definition, inaccessible to a third person.

Only until we completely understand neurology. Not likely to happen, but there is an underlying objective reality, even if it's really messy.

I don’t see the problem either, except when the mechanics are equated with the experience.

Contradiction. A whole is made of its parts.

I don’t think it’s nonsense that some people’s attitude towards science leads them to think paranormal phenomena are impossible.

Okay, I think I was addressing an enthymeme, there: The vast, vast majority aren't going to closedmindedly dismiss the paranormal by saying it's impossible: They're going to tenatively assume it's impossible based on the lack of evidence.

Looks like we agree that the existence of telepathy is one to be decided by empirical research rather than a priori assumptions, though I haven’t made up my mind yet whether rejection is warranted.

So far, I have yet to meet a skeptic who made such a priori assumptions. I think they only exist in badly written Hollywood scripts.

If the hysterics at either extreme are discounted, there seems to me to be intelligent, rational people on both sides of the fence claiming the evidence is in their favour.

I have yet to meet one on the paranormal side that actually backs up claims to evidence. Mostly, it involves bad math and magician's tricks.

skepticwatcher said...

Only until we completely understand neurology. Not likely to happen, but there is an underlying objective reality, even if it's really messy.

Aside from the fact that neurology is a medical specialty and unlikely to resolve the issue, once all the functions of the brain have been explained the inaccessibility of one person’s subjective experiences to another will remain, and the question could still be asked as to why the objective processes are accompanied by subjective experiences at all

...I don’t see the problem either, except when the mechanics are equated with the experience.

Contradiction. A whole is made of its parts.

Huh?

They're going to tenatively assume it's impossible based on the lack of evidence.

Petty I know, but lack of evidence may be sufficient grounds to assume something doesn’t exist, but not that it’s impossible (eg lack of evidence for three headed dogs doesn’t mean such a creature is impossible).

I have yet to meet one on the paranormal side that actually backs up claims to evidence. Mostly, it involves bad math and magician's tricks.

Researchers such as Dean Radin, Marilyn Schlitz and Jessica Utts back up their claims to evidence (of course whether they do so adequately is another issue). So does Rupert Sheldrake, though I’m not a great fan of his speculative theories. I think it helps to read their stuff directly before jumping into somebody else’s supposed refutation of them.

I can see the public service value in going after soft targets like Sylvia Browne, but I don’t think it adds much value towards resolving the issue of whether paranormal phenomena are real.

Bronze Dog said...

Aside from the fact that neurology is a medical specialty and unlikely to resolve the issue, once all the functions of the brain have been explained the inaccessibility of one person’s subjective experiences to another will remain, and the question could still be asked as to why the objective processes are accompanied by subjective experiences at all

...I don’t see the problem either, except when the mechanics are equated with the experience.


I fail to see what the basis for this separation is. Faith?

Petty I know, but lack of evidence may be sufficient grounds to assume something doesn’t exist, but not that it’s impossible (eg lack of evidence for three headed dogs doesn’t mean such a creature is impossible).

Stop changing the issue. We aren't talking about impossibility. That's a propagandistic lie. The issue is that there is no evidence, so we must assume the null hypothesis until evidence falsifies it. Get to the evidence.

Researchers such as Dean Radin, Marilyn Schlitz and Jessica Utts back up their claims to evidence (of course whether they do so adequately is another issue). So does Rupert Sheldrake, though I’m not a great fan of his speculative theories. I think it helps to read their stuff directly before jumping into somebody else’s supposed refutation of them.

This isn't a mamby-pampy, wishy-washy newage world where facts change according to the person looking at them. Show me some of their evidence that's not subject to the objections that have been raised thus far. I'm not about to do your footwork, Mr. Claimant.

I can see the public service value in going after soft targets like Sylvia Browne, but I don’t think it adds much value towards resolving the issue of whether paranormal phenomena are real.

Don't change the subject. Provide evidence in favor of your claim, and that'll add value. ONLY that will add value.

skepticwatcher said...

1. I fail to see why making the distinction between the subjective feelings experienced when say, I smell a rose, and the brain processes involved in this experience would be based on faith.

2. I'm not sure what "claim" you want me to provide evidence for, as my only claim was that I hadn't made up mind up whether rejection of the existence of paranormal phenomena is warranted.

One of the reasons I haven't made up my mind is that a lot of time and effort is required to assess the claims and counterclaims of the researchers.

While we're on the subject though, the skeptics dictionary (under "morphic resonance") has links to papers criticising an experiment by Ruper Sheldrake, along with Sheldrakes response and a rejoinder by another skeptic.

One thing I do intend to do to, when I get some time, is to analyse these papers in detail, in a manner as unbiased as possible, to see whose claims have the greater merit.

I'll keep you posted.

Bronze Dog said...

1. I fail to see why making the distinction between the subjective feelings experienced when say, I smell a rose, and the brain processes involved in this experience would be based on faith.

I fail to see a distinction at all, so why do you think there is one?

2. I'm not sure what "claim" you want me to provide evidence for, as my only claim was that I hadn't made up mind up whether rejection of the existence of paranormal phenomena is warranted.

Science 101: You accept the null hypothesis (there is no _____) until you find evidence that falsifies it. (One example)

The question isn't whether or not to reject the paranormal: It's whether or not there's evidence to accept it.

One of the reasons I haven't made up my mind is that a lot of time and effort is required to assess the claims and counterclaims of the researchers.

Just need one good example to accept it. So far, I've failed to find any, and there's a guy who'll hand over a million dollars for one.

Until I see evidence for something paranormal, I'll keep it in with all the other tenative rejections: Unicorns, fairies, etcetera.

Nes said...

Ooh, your A and B choices remind me of one of my favorite quotes:

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" - John Maynard Keynes

SW: As far as I can tell, those feelings you experience are the chemical reactions and such. Ebonmuse has a good article that makes the idea of body and soul/mind duality look pretty silly. I was already leaning towards such a conclusion, but he states it much more eloquently, and with far better examples, than I ever could.

skepticwatcher said...

..I fail to see why making the distinction between the subjective feelings experienced when say, I smell a rose, and the brain processes involved in this experience would be based on faith.

I fail to see a distinction at all, so why do you think there is one?

Surely it is self-evident that a distinction can be made between the brain processes which give rise to a feeling and the feeling itself?

If your experiences consist of the feeling of your neurons firing and synapses secreting, all I can say is that they are a lot different to mine.

Science 101: You accept the null hypothesis (there is no _____) until you find evidence that falsifies it. (One example)

The question isn't whether or not to reject the paranormal: It's whether or not there's evidence to accept it.?


Well, now you're getting as pedantic as me. I was responding to your statement that you “tenatively rejected” the paranormal and asking what evidence you wanted that I hadn’t made up my mind on the issue - a lie detector test or psychologist’s report perhaps?

(btw does “tenatively” have anything to do with elevenatively or twelveatively?).

Nes,
I’m not advocating the existence of the soul or substance dualism, but even Ebon, in making the dubiously relevant distinction between procedural and propositional knowledge says first person knowledge is distinct from third person knowledge:
“Qualia in general are therefore a type of procedural knowledge, and by the nature of how the brain works, this type of knowledge can only be gained through firsthand experience.”

I think David Chalmers has the best collection of papers on the issue, from all perspectives.

Bronze Dog said...

Surely it is self-evident that a distinction can be made between the brain processes which give rise to a feeling and the feeling itself?

If it was self-evident, I wouldn't be asking you to explain it.

If your experiences consist of the feeling of your neurons firing and synapses secreting, all I can say is that they are a lot different to mine.

When I run my computer, I don't see a bunch of 1s and 0s flying by. That doesn't mean my computer isn't binary.

Well, now you're getting as pedantic as me. I was responding to your statement that you “tenatively rejected” the paranormal and asking what evidence you wanted that I hadn’t made up my mind on the issue - a lie detector test or psychologist’s report perhaps?

Evidence that shows the existence of the paranormal. Randi and Co. can come up with a test appropriate to the specific paranormal claim.

[Derail] Lie detector tests don't work: Only 40% accuracy rate in controlled tests. [/Derail]