Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Science and Humility

I often like to say that science is a process of enforced humility when I compare it to the arrogance so often inherent in woo.

Science requires everyone to consider the possibility that they could be wrong. When a scientist proposes a hypothesis, he has to include an escape hatch, just in case it turns out to be a bad idea: They have to know something that could potentially prove the hypothesis wrong, whether it's in the form of a prediction that turns out wrong, or evidence against its premises.

These things must be acknowledged. That's why scientific papers tend to have an experiment's limitations openly described. That's why we have the peer review process to weed out possible errors, why experiments must be independently replicated when possible, and so on and so on and so on. By being honest about our ability to screw up, we avoid much of the trouble that comes from designating individuals as infallible gurus or prophets. It's not who you are that makes you a scientist or and "authority," but what the evidence says. There is no room in science for a cult of personality.

Of course, it's quite well known among us scientifically-minded individuals that publishing in a science journal is not for the faint of heart. Putting your work on the line, open to criticism is not easy, especially if you made a mistake. This is normal, and how science should be. All too often, I hear whines from milquetoast woos who complain about how they aren't given any special exemption from criticism, and how their ideas are so fragile that they need to be shielded from open discussion. It sickens me. Science may be harsh, but it's supposed to be fair: No one gets a free pass. No idea is above criticism. That's how science has gotten to where it is today: By knocking down all the weak ideas, the accurate theories stand out and prosper.

1 comment:

Dark Jaguar said...

I attempted to explain the need of falsifiability to Gabe, we'll see if he even acknowledges it, or just glimpses lines about how his visiting other countries isn't proof and shouts "jealousy".

I'll add a few things. The scientific community is set up so that this "harsh" method of doing science is not something that will kill someone's career before it even begins. "Survival of the most accurate" is how ideas are handled, but not necessarily the people themselves. The honest ones, even if constantly wrong, are still contributing to the body of knowledge and can continue their careers. In fact, BEING wrong is not even considered a problem in science. No one is ridiculed because their ideas are constantly tested to be wrong, because it's still a big help in weeding out competing ideas. Being wrong is just about as important as being right. That's why it bugs me when fictional scientists brag about being "right, as always".

Now in engineering or practised medicine, being right is VERY important, but that's why those fields aren't the ones we go to in order to test the way reality works. Scientists do the grunt work, where being wrong is beneficial, so that the "applied science" people can simply APPLY what the scientists have learned. It's also why going to an engineer and asking them what they think about the nature of reality is kinda pointless. They are constantly studying all the right answers that science is delivering but aren't (generally) the ones actually doing the science, so they don't get to see all the wrong answers being filtered out. This isn't to say engineers don't put together bad designs, but at the end of the day, they need a working product, and at the end of the day in pure science, all they need are results, one way or another.