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The Trouble With What Most Consider Science
True Science

by Krakondack

A Guest Article (1)

I confess I am struck by the exaggerated role people give the practice of science.  In the popular media, this is usually represented as pressure to believe a particular viewpoint because it is backed by scientists, and is called “scientific”.  Alternatively, others will refuse to believe anything that is not “proven by science”.  I have nothing at all against science, indeed I was a scientist.  But science is not a collection of unquestioned wisdom.  It is important for people to understand what it is, and what it is not.

Let’s start with a correct definition of science.  Science is a technique rather than a collection of facts.  It consists of designing experiments designed to disprove hypotheses.  A conclusive experiment is actually one where the results are inconsistent with the hypothesis, which must then be revised and again tested.  Scientists however, are usually more excited by experiments that fail to disprove their hypothesis, because they increase the chances the hypothesis is correct.  But they don’t prove it is correct.  They can’t.  There can always be another explanation, or a more complete explanation.  Just about all of what was acclaimed as scientifically proven a hundred years ago is today known to be either wrong, or incomplete to the point of being wrong.  In another hundred years, the same will be said of what is known today.  Even over the last 10 years, many important paradigms have had to be reconsidered.  And so it is.  Science is a perfectly effective tool at telling us when something is wrong.  Anything beyond that is not science.

So what do I call it when you take the available facts, and draw a reasonable conclusion from them, that you then use in useful ways to benefit your life or the lives of others?  That is called Reason, or deduction.  It starts with what can be taken as true, and infers what else must be true because of this.  Reason is the principal tool that all people use when solving problems, and it is far more practical, and safe, than is experimentation.  Reason fails when either the starting facts are false, or the logic used in deducing other facts is faulty.  Therefore, a sense of skepticism about what is held to be true, and some cautiousness about “jumping to conclusions”, are essential complements to the use of reason.  In this sense, skepticism can sometimes lead to experimentation, which can disprove facts held to be true, and this creates an appropriate balance between science and reason.  Again, most of what is known is by way of reason.  Science can be useful in disproving false assumptions, but is not generally useful for questions bigger than the scope of an experiment. 

So what is it about science that makes appeals to it seem definitive?  I suggest here that it is a condition of the educated scientist, the servile media, and the gullible public that accords unwarranted reverence to the opinions of scientists.

I am well-trained in a specific field of science, and this fact is known to everyone who knows me.  I am regularly asked to explain something scientific, and am usually more than glad to oblige.  Even though the questions are usually outside what I know best, I am pretty good at developing a reasoned response, drawing on what I know and what I think is probably the case.  I am by necessity extending what I know, and speculating on what I think.  I usually clarify the difference to the listener, but I’m not sure the difference is registered by most.  My educated opinion seems to be in the same vicinity as the facts as far as the listener goes, and I can sound persuasive when in my comfort zone.  My sense of self-worth is enhanced by having an admiring listener, and he tends to be enthusiastic to receive information not easily available elsewhere.  I think this relationship between scientists and the public is nearly universal.  While it may be close to harmless in a social setting, when money and power come into the equation, it becomes dangerous…

The history of mankind is full of examples of “wise” men offering opinions and advice to the masses.  This is essentially what shamans did in pagan societies, in the name of “spirits”.  When the status of the shaman in the village was his key to a livelihood, he had additional reasons to manipulate the masses.  Yet it seems inherent in people’s nature to want to listen to someone who has “the answers”.  Fast-forward to today, and it is those with scientific training who provide “the answers”.  But as I made clear above, those are not scientific answers.  At best, they are reasoned answers, where the reasoning is laid out and is comprehensible to others with sufficient education.  More often than not, the facts upon which the reasoning is based are wrong, and often the reasoning itself is also wrong.  The more opaque the reasoning, the more excuses given that sharing the reasoning is “too complex”, the more likely the reasoning is suspect or wrong also.

When one also adds the role of mass-media, then there is a tendency to elevate certain scientists, or groups of scientists, above all others in disseminating “the answers”.  If that media has an agenda, or if it serves a government with an agenda, then the specific group of scientists chosen will be those who advocate for that agenda.  This is the worst case possible, because then the starting facts, and the reasoning used to produce “the answers” will all be compromised by the agenda.  In this case, the public will be fed narratives that advance an agenda, backed by the chosen “shamans” who use the language of science to advance those narratives.  People will then be asked to believe the narratives because they are “scientific”.  But the truth is, they have nothing at all to do with science.

miguel de Portugal comments

As a scientist who was frequently involved in "Mission Impossible" engineering projects which, regardless of their level of "impossibility," had to be successfully completed (failure was not an option), I fully agree with Mr. "Krakondack".

Our various teams' greatest problem was precisely trying to convince the Administration of the petrochemical multinational we called "home" at the time, that we were not gods; that we were not infallible; and that science, at best, was "our best educated guess".

Even at a time when God was the furthest thought from my mind, I subscribed to what became my battle cry now: "Who is like unto God!" – since I used to think: "These guys (the petrochemical Administrators) think that we are gods and we are not!"

(1) Original Source of Article

Published on February 5th, 2011 - Feast of St. Agueda

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