Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Skeptical Heresies #10

May 30th, 2011 Posted in General Science

I just realised that I never finished off my series on skeptical heresies. Well, I guess I left one of the most controversial ones until last:

10. Science is not Scientific

In an earlier post, I think I decided that perhaps I used the wrong term for most of these posts, as the issues I’ve been introducing were really just talking points within the skeptical community rather than topics that the community actively avoids mentioning. But this one is different – this is a real issue that cuts to the heart of skeptical thought and the scientific establishment.

Science relies on the absolute impartiality, scrupulous rigour and honesty of its practitioners. Without these core principles, there’s very little separating scientific progress and the confirmation bias that so often appears in pseudo-scientific fields. If all we’re doing is seeking evidence that confirms our already strongly-held suspicions then we’re not much better than creationists (we have the advantage of being much closer to the truth, and the honesty to admit our failings, but that’s about it).

Max Planck, the massively influential physicist who practically spawned the science of quantum theory, once said “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” His claim is that science is nowhere near as innovative as one might imagine – that sufficiently powerful scientists force their beliefs on the generation in which they work, and that the powers that be within the scientific community do their best to stifle research in any other areas.

Planck was writing in 1948, and a lot has changed since then, but the same underlying truth exists to this assumption. Several prominent theoretical physicists, for example, bemoan how difficult it is to get funding to study anything that isn’t string theory, simply because this esoteric mathematical subject is extremely trendy at the moment and a great number of prominent scientists seem to think that it will provide the answers that they are seeking. All of this is remarkably stifling for scientific progress, of course.

I think there are two questions here – firstly, is science itself flawed? And secondly, what can we do about it? Well, firstly I’d think that the answer is obviously “No”: science itself – science as a process – is clearly not flawed; what might be flawed is our implementation of it. The fact that humans let emotions get in the way of truth is not a condemnation of that search for truth. Nor does it give us any better process for pursuing that truth.

As for the second question – what should we do about it? Well there are already improvements in the works. I think the single greatest tool in the search for truth is the freedom of information that is granted by the Internet – it’s very difficult to prevent free distribution of information when it can spread so quickly across the globe, between different regions and across geographical and linguistic barriers.

So I think that the scientific method is not just our best option to discover the truth of the Universe, but it’s our only option – it’s not just a way to search for the truth, or even the best way, it’s the only way that works, either in theory or practice. And the fruits of the scientific method more than validate its claims as the best hope for the future of humankind. Dogma and blind faith have never given us anything of any value – they have never cured a single disease; they have never enabled transportation or communication over long distances; they have never kept a baby and a young mother alive, nor have they powered a ventilator or a defibrillator.

Science is in constant flux – it has its weaknesses, of course, but it also has one core strength, which is that it is adaptive – science can change to fit the data, rather than the other way round, which means that even if it sometimes goes wrong, it can recover from its flaws and continue in its search for truth.

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