Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science

This article is very interesting, not least of all for the way that the author's own biases and motivated-reasoning shine through. What is most obvious after reading it is that he's a typical leftist, but one who doesn't fall for the nonsense about vaccines causing autism.

He affixes the label of "science" to those ideas that he subscribes to. In some cases this is accurate, but in many others it is wishful thinking on his part. It is, as he himself says in the article, a case of science being "whatever (he) wanted it to be."

There are some truths in this world that can be discovered. Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The speed of light is a constant independent of viewpoint. But then there are other things that aren't so easy to figure out, and not all of our (honest) attempts at doing so can be called science.

The reason is that science is not just a bunch of people with degrees getting together and agreeing on something they think sounds nifty. Science is a process, whereby possible explanations for observed phenomena, known as hypotheses, are mercilessly and repeatedly tested with an eye towards proving them false. Ideas that repeatedly withstand our efforts to falsify them, eventually become scientific theories, especially if they correctly predict future phenomena before those phenomena are observed. But these theories, far from being the final word on something, are merely a best guess, a provisional answer, always subject to amendment and potential falsification.

The reason this is important is that ideas that cannot be tested and potentially falsified have no place in science. These ideas may be interesting, and they may even be true. But without a way to test them in such a way that they can be falsified, they have no value as scientific explanations. Science isn't based on verifying ideas as true, but on finding ideas that resist all our efforts to prove them false.

Much of what the author casually refers to as science isn't science. If it can't be tested and falsified, it isn't science. But then this isn't surprising since much of what many people call science isn't science. Entire fields get called sciences that really don't deserve that distinction precisely because their research findings cannot be falsified. This is especially troubling for fields that tend to be ideologically partisan in one way or another. Peer review breaks down when everyone in the peerage is motivated for the answers to come out in a certain way. This effect is limited in the hard sciences. No matter what you do, you can't make water at sea level boil at 50 celsius. But for fields like sociology, groupthink can consistently produce extremely questionable results.

But even so, there is something of value to be learned from this article. Once you put aside the obvious biases of the author, the fundamental truth remains that we do not truly see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.

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