Aug 20 2008

Clarifying Some Misconceptions About Science

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Comments: 58

In the comments section of my latest Schiavo entry, “mhowie” wrote:

Though I agree there is a need to avoid ideological stances to influence decisions, it is important to INCLUDE them in decisions. We elect our politicians, form our lives and live our days based on our ideological views.

Also, it is frustrating to watch the debate of religious/ideological folks and the science folks. Both ends do need to be considered.

The ideological side has a right to state their views, as previously written, as we base so much of our lives on ideologies.

However, to question science is also important. The earth ain’t flat, you know. And if you don’t understand that statement, I really don’t want to hear from you.

Science, of course, needs to conduct itself regardless of ideological views, otherwise every test will be influenced one way or another.

There is a balance, and it must always be sought. If we attempt to say either side is unnecessary or impeachable, we are already lost.

I usually don’t like to pick on commenters and single them out, but as I Blog at Science Based Medicine on Wednesdays, rather than writing a long comment in response to mhowie I thought I would just make it my entry for today.

I think mhowie’s sentiments are largely correct, but in stating his case appears to have relied upon some false premises. He also gives the impression, by making certain points, that he thinks these points need to be made – in other words that they differ from my post.

His first point is that ideologies, while they should not interfere with scientific inquiry, should be listened to. I agree with this if you limit the scope of “ideology” to “values.” Of course we must respect the values of citizens, and politics is largely the art of compromising among large groups of people with differences in their values and priorities.  But the word “ideology” can also refer to philosophies about the natural world – not just values. To the extent that ideologies seek to constrain or dictate our understanding of the physical world, they do not need to be listened to but opposed as counterproductive.

Mhowie writes, regarding science and religion, that “both ends do need to be considered,” which prompts the question – considered for what? I prefer Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” approach. Science and religion do not overlap, so there is no specific question for which they both have to be considered.  There are political and social decisions that should be informed by objective science but are ultimately decided based upon values. If this is what mhowie meant, then I agree – but this was the central theme of my blog post and did not need to be restated.

The statement that I felt needed the most clarification was this: “However, to question science is also important. The earth ain’t flat, you know. And if you don’t understand that statement, I really don’t want to hear from you.”

Of course it is important to question science. I agree with this, but can’t help but feel that by pointing it out mhowie is implying that it needed to be pointed out – that my post somehow gave a different impression.

Science is, by its very nature, a self-corrective process. Science is the process of questioning our models of reality. Saying that it is important to question science is therefore redundant.

Pointing out that the earth is not flat is a very common statement that I encounter frequently – often given to make the point that science has been wrong in the past, therefore we need to question it now. Again, this statement is unnecessary as science is the process of perpetually questioning. Such statements are sometimes used to imply that the conclusions of modern science are as unreliable today as they were in the past – and with this implication I would strongly disagree. As we refine our scientific models their reliability is increasing dramatically. They will never reach 100% – but that doesn’t mean they are not better now than they were in the past.

Also, I have to point out that the notion of a flat earth was never an accepted scientific conclusion. No Western scholars advocated for a flat earth. The ancient Greeks knew the earth was a sphere. The notion that previous scholars believed in a flat earth is a modern myth.

Mhowie ends with an appeal to balance. While in many situations balance is good, there is also such a thing as false balance, which is the seeking of balance on the false assumption of symmetry. In other words, while balance is good, not all propositions are of equal value and legitimacy. Some controversies or dichotomies are asymetrical.

Take, for example, the issue of the scientific theory of evolution and the pseudoscientific denial of evolution or promotion of ideas like intelligent design that do not meet minimal criteria for science. We should not seek to balance these views, as the former is a rock-solid scientific theory and the latter is hopeless ideological pseudoscience.

In general science is not about balance – it is about logic and evidence, it is about finding those ideas that are better than others.

I would agree, however, that politics is largely about balance – balancing various values, ethics, rights and privileges.

I hope this clarifies the points I was trying to make in my previous entry.

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