Saturday, July 07, 2007

7 Myths of Science

The following are the 7 most common myths about science and research that I have seen. I have attempted to refute them in brief, even while recognizing that short answers to such widely held ideas are almost never satisfactory. As always, your comments are welcome.

1 Anything can be proven with statistics; therefore such-and-such a study which did/did-not show an expected result is bogus because the authors could have shown anything with their stats.

Reply: A knowledgeable statistician can arrange a situation so that it appears as if a negative result is actually a positive. However, this is one of the reasons for peer review in scientific journals. It is one thing to get statistical manipulation past the general public; it is another to get it past one’s peers who have also been trained in depth in statistics. In fact one of the major focuses in statistics and research courses is detecting statistical and graphical shenanigans.

2 Science changes its mind all the time, so why should I accept what the research shows on such-and-such an issue.

Reply: In science particularly in broad explanation based theories; paradigm shifts do occur. Numerous examples of this in physics or medicine should familiar to everyone. However, smaller bits of descriptive science can be more robust. For example, our knowledge of how genetics influences health is likely to alter significantly in the indeterminate future (maybe even cause a paradigm shift), but this fact will not likely invalidate the studies showing penicillin to be effective for such-and-such a strain of bacteria. This is sometimes true even in broader applications. Newtonian physics may have been displaced in the broad sense by relativity, but as many a sore handed college student can attest, differential and integral calculus is still with us and still has utility.

3 Science can not explain the entire human experience.

Reply: Science can only deal with the objective, or what two or more people can detect in the same way, at the same time. However, this fact can be twisted into justifying certain beliefs. Because science has this basic requirement it can not effectively assess a great deal of the human experience including thoughts, feelings, dreams, and perceptions. However, it is a logical error to assume that because science has this gap, we can or should believe in the issues science can not assess.

4 Science can not answer metaphysical questions.

Reply: That really depends on the specific metaphysical question. If there is measurable outcome and a detectable initial cause, then science can indeed assess the question. For example we can not measure divine intervention, but we could assess the effect of prayer on the recovery of heart surgery patients.

5 Law courts convict or release people, on far less and weaker evidence than what passes in science.

Reply: The systems are considerably fundamentally different. In courts (in many places) the people making the decision are limited in the type of answer they can give. They also have a distinct time limit in which they must reach a decision. They also are by no means experts in the necessary elements of the issues at hand. They are also restricted in the type of evidence they can hear.

Compare this to science where the people are experts in the specific areas of question, they have unlimited time, the nature of the arguments they are permitted to hear is not limited, and the type of answer they can give after assessing the evidence is not nearly as limited.

6 Science at times seems to violate common sense, therefore such-and-such a scientific result is false.

Reply: Common sense, when invoked merely means one person’s perception of what most people believe. That perception may be incorrect. Also, no matter how many people hold the same view in common, doesn’t mean the view is factual.

7 Science is a religion and well known scientists are the high priests of the religion.

Reply: This line of thinking is so underdeveloped, as to scarcely be worth the time. I offer a refutation only because it seems to be so popular. The word “religion” means something specific, the methods and logic used in science, do not fall under the umbrella of religion. Well known scientists are well known because of their contributions to science and/or the clarity of their writing. If ever they cease to be clear in their quality of thought, they may no longer be quite so esteemed e.g. (Linus Pauling).

8 Comments:

Blogger daedalus2u said...

Paradigm shifts are actually very rare. The last ones were relativity and quantum mechanics. Before then, the germ theory and evolution.

Paradigm shifts only change the explanation and the theoretical structure that data is attached to. The data is never discarded or changed. A new paradigm is only accepted when it explains all the old data better than the old paradigm.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous HCN said...

Last night I was catching up on Stargate SG1 episodes on the DVR and watched this one:
http://www.gateworld.net/sg1/s3/319.shtml

There was an interesting quote from the scientist who was willing to have all of his ideas about the origin of people on his planet turned upside down. It was something like "The most exciting thing to a scientist is learning that an idea he thought was true was actually wrong."

Basically, someone who is willing to change their mind if given sufficient evidence.

3:30 PM  
Blogger laurentius rex said...

Science is a human system, a flawed system dependent upon the accuracy of human perception and the supposed incorruptibility of the scientist in a venial world where it is not only the limits of cognition and the perceptive apparatus that impose the limits but the complex social interactions that arise from the imperfect form of the social animal. You only have to look at the Geiers to "prove" that

Get out of that one if you can.

Todays science is yesterdays bunk. as yesterdays science shows.

Don't trust it, trust only that you cannot trust anythinng absolutely in any human endeavor but then that ain't one of Zenos is it? never mind whether he existed at all in the forest of silent trees.

The truly scientific mind would say that science cannot exist at all, only supposition and probability.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Larry,

“Get out of that one if you can.”

[smiles] Alright, I’ll bite.

“Science is a human system, a flawed system”

Are you starting with the presumption that because humans are flawed all human endeavors/systems are flawed?

“dependent upon the accuracy of human perception”

But objective perception, as opposed to subjective…..It seems to me that there is a critical difference here.

“and the supposed incorruptibility of the scientist in a venial world”

In our venial world, if even ¾ of scientists were corrupted by money, idealism, etc, would that logically invalidate science as a method itself?

“Don't trust it, trust only that you cannot trust anythinng absolutely in any human endeavor but then that ain't one of Zenos is it?”

Why shouldn’t we trust science? It seems to me that declaring that it is a human endeavor really isn’t enough of an argument in this regard.

“The truly scientific mind would say that science cannot exist at all, only supposition and probability.”

If science can not truly exist then there can be no truly scientific mind.
QED

6:44 PM  
Blogger laurentius rex said...

Its all in the paradox at the end, science condemns itself.

Anyway here is a little subjective proof of idiocy in science (and journalism)

How can two members of SBC's team be so stupid to deny there own method and blame MMR when that is one of the deadest of ducks.

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,2121521,00.html

3:46 AM  
Blogger daedalus2u said...

The Geiers have not convinced a single scientist of their work. Holding them up a proof that all science is flawed is to make the argument that because there is one black swan, all swans are black.

A conclusion based on fraudulent "data" isn't science, it is fraud. It has nothing to do with science. It doesn't advance "science", it sets it back. It introduced error that has to be corrected before the real story can be understood.

Blaming science for fraud is like blaming arithmatic for embezelement.

7:44 AM  
Blogger laurentius rex said...

What? now you are trying to tell me all swans are not black?

They are in the dark I can assure you.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

"Its all in the paradox at the end, science condemns itself."

True, but only if we accept your premise as valid.

"How can two members of SBC's team be so stupid to deny there own method and blame MMR when that is one of the deadest of ducks."

If there is reason to be skeptical or cautious, that is one thing. However, we can not just dislike a claim and therefore call it invalid. Sometimes science is non-intuitive or gives results we don't like. It is the quality of the science that matters.

Now in this case the quality of the science seems on first glance to be poor, however, even if it is the worst science ever, that does not give us license to dismiss science as a whole.

12:39 PM  

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