Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Scientists keep getting things wrong. Should we stop believing in science?

"Plenty of today’s scientific theories will one day be discredited. So should we be sceptical of science itself?" That's the teaser for a short, worth-reading article (via Arts & Letters Daily). Here's an excerpt:

Physicists, in particular, have long believed themselves to be on the verge of explaining almost everything. In 1894 Albert Michelson, the first American to get a Nobel prize in science, said that all the main laws and facts of physics had already been discovered. In 1928 Max Born, another Nobel prize-winner, said that physics would be completed in about six months’ time. In 1988, in his bestselling “A Brief History of Time”, the cosmologist Stephen Hawking wrote that “we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.” Now, in the newly published “The Grand Design”, Hawking paints a picture of the universe that is “different…from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago”. In the long run, physicists are, no doubt, getting closer and closer to the truth. But you can never be sure when the long run has arrived. And in the short run—to adapt Keynes’s proverb—we are often all wrong.

Most laymen probably assume that the 350-year-old institution of “peer review”, which acts as a gatekeeper to publication in scientific journals, involves some attempt to check the articles that see the light of day. In fact they are rarely checked for accuracy, and, as a study for the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank, reported last year, “the data and computational methods are so seldom disclosed that post-publication verification is equally rare.” Journals will usually consider only articles that present positive and striking results, and scientists need constantly to publish in order to keep their careers alive. . . . Historians of science call this bias the “file-drawer problem”: if a set of experiments produces a result contrary to what the team needs to find, it ends up filed away, and the world never finds out about it.
Despite all this and more, the author concludes the article by saying we should be generally credulous of science. Isn't this an outrageous paradox?

He thinks there's no other choice, since not to believe in science would be not to believe in anything, which would be paralyzing. "[S]cience is the only game in town."

Well, not really. If you're a professional scientist, it's certainly not that simple. You don't have a binary choice between "believing" or "not believing" in "science." You should be aware of enough of the complexities of your field that you can be more or less skeptical of different claims, using some kind of epistemic sliding scale.

And if you're a layperson, you usually don't have to believe in scientific theories at all in order to lead a productive life (as long as you're familiar with enough of the basics not to be embarrassed if they come up in conversation). But what if you're facing a specific problem and your best hope of a solution depends on science, such as taking medication? Well, you still don't need to be completely credulous about science in general or even the scientific claims behind that medication. You can take a gamble that the scientists are more likely than not to be right. This just means you think the odds that the medication is effective are greater than the odds of any other method you know of (including doing nothing); it doesn't mean you believe the odds that it's effective are 100%. You can use a working assumption that scientists are getting things right, based on your hunch that this usually turns out to be true -- but you can, at the same time, be skeptical of your own hunch. This needn't lead to paralysis. On the contrary, this semi-skeptical attitude can make it easier to move on once we discover, as we're sure to from time to time, that we were believing in bad science.


Jason (the commenter) said...

Should we stop believing in science?

Why did you start? Even scientists don't believe in science, especially the way you are talking about it.

John Althouse Cohen said...


Anyway, I think it's worth pointing out that you're quoting from my heading. And that's fair enough -- unlike traditional journalists, I can't shield from criticism the huge text above my byline with the excuse of "I didn't write the headline -- some unnamed underling with no public accountability did!" Still, my headings aren't the same as the rest of the post. I don't want the headings to be too long, yet I want to draw people in by bluntly presenting an issue. If I can have a tinge of nuance, that's nice, but it can't be so much nuance that it takes up more than a couple lines of big text. Oh, and I'm also trying to include a few search-engine-friendly keywords if possible. As a result, my headings are sometimes going to be too simplistic to do justice to the issue. None of this is an excuse -- just an explanation of why I don't always perfectly capture the subtlety of an issue in the heading.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Then may I suggest as a title for your next post, regardless of content: "Justin Beiber defends Obama over Lady Gaga sextape remarks".

John Althouse Cohen said...


John Althouse Cohen said...

By the way, when are we going to stop hearing about Justin Bieber? I can't remember when we've had a less-deserving celebrity.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Obama, Sarah Palin, Paris Hilton, Anybody Kardasian, Nicole Richie, pretty much any newscaster or sports figure...

This is the age of undeserved celebrity!

John Althouse Cohen said...

Shoulda seen that coming.

Anonymous said...

The mathematics as a tool may not be able interpret things on evolution of evolution theory leading to life after death,the information carried away by the evoluted genetic hologram of humanbeings for life's recycling which the scientists refuse to believe under the restricting mathaematical physics constraining theories theories in medical science.But there are real proofs.
Yes, to the extent that I have learned more about, and feel better assured of, a way ahead, even if not the way ahead. Newtonian physics was thought to be absolute, then came along Quantum mechanics - but people can as easily fall in love with the quantum vision of reality and just like any infatuation, mistake it for the real thing. Mathematicians furiously argue about this - are mathematical principles absolute (Platonic idealism) or are the laws of mathematics in themselves no more than beautiful tools to comprehend and penetrate the nature of ‘reality’ the more deeply.