The Chimera

A confusion of forms at high speed.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Skeptical Scientists?

Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue. -Robert King Merton, sociologist (1910-2003)

Mood: frazzled
Listening to: "My Girl" - Madness

This statement got me thinking the other day when I came across it. This may once have been the case, however, I believe hubris has set in with regard to science in the 21st century. There have been countless popular prophets warning us about the dangers of an enlightened society which has simply swapped God for Science. The danger, of course is that unwavering belief in a god isn't going to do much harm generally. Whereas science has steadily increased the degree to which it can be as Old Testament as any jealous deity. In fact, I believe the entire genre of science fiction was invented just to give a home to the warnings about science.

I'm not going to launch into a disertation about creationism vs. evolution or the validity of environmentalism. Those are great examples of where science fails to live up to it's mission of skepticism, but the issue is larger. Skepticism is no longer a scientific virtue. There is clearly a "popular science" which is accepted without question and then there is all other science. Global warming and Evolution both fall into the former category. Readers may be surprised to know that there is a substantial amount of mere hypothesis and theory going on with both of these popular "facts". Objections to either popular theory are denounced as heretical science and the objectors are practically stoned for even bringing up a potential flaw in these theories. The scientific method is supposed to invite these objections and counter theories as part of a process which brings us closer to a truth. That is just not the case. A recent book called The Skeptical Environmentalist sparked calls to have it banned because it raised some excellent questions about environmental theories that made environmentalists uncomfortable. They call it "junk science" when someone is paid to arrive at a particular conclusion which is contrary to the popular one. But they ignore the possibility of their own biases affecting the popular conclusions they've made. Let's look at the Scientific Method quickly:

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.

3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.

4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

The immediate problem we should see is that throughout the story of Evolution, predictions about fossils we ought to find have been wrong... Continually. The missing link has not turned up. In fact it appears as if something very near modern humans may have coexisted with the ancient apes and other hominids. There is growing fossil evidence to support this. Try Jeffrey Schwartz's book, Sudden Origins : Fossils, Genes, and the Emergence of Species We may also note that it is nearly impossible to carry out step 4 with regard to either theory. So, how can we consider them 100% truth? Well we can't. Science is supposed to be skeptical, but it has taken up these issues like gospels to be preached to the masses and set about denouncing alternate opinions as heretical. That sounds like unqualified faith to me. It even sounds like religion.

This is dangerous, not just for the sake of valid scientific research, but also for humanity and the Earth which are subject to policies formulated based on the belief that these theories are 100% true. Science sells us and itself short in this regard. The mere inability to let a sliver of doubt persevere with regard to these issues is enough to prove my point. If you're not convinced, find a evangelical environmentalist and ask them how they can be sure human industry is responsible for global warming when the Earth has been warming since the last ice age. There have been ice ages before that one and previous global warming cycles as well. Why is this one so preventable? I've raised this exact question casually in conversation without ever getting an answer. Oddly, my experimental targets, do not even seem to acknowledge this major crack in the theory. They go on believing in it with unwavering devotion. That's messed up, something like that would certainly have me looking for an answer... In fact, it is that exact argument which ultimately cracked my personal faith in Global Warming. If industry causes it, then why did it start thousands of years before there was any industry? I'm not saying I think global warming is bunk, it's obviously happening. I just haven't seen anything that supports the idea that we can stop it or accelerate it. It may be possible, but it seems unlikely that human activity is the prime motivator for rising average temperatures. The web page I grabbed my scientific method stages from also listed several common errors scientists make with regard to the method:

As stated earlier, the scientific method attempts to minimize the influence of the scientist's bias on the outcome of an experiment. That is, when testing an hypothesis or a theory, the scientist may have a preference for one outcome or another, and it is important that this preference not bias the results or their interpretation. The most fundamental error is to mistake the hypothesis for an explanation of a phenomenon, without performing experimental tests. Sometimes "common sense" and "logic" tempt us into believing that no test is needed. There are numerous examples of this, dating from the Greek philosophers to the present day.

Another common mistake is to ignore or rule out data which do not support the hypothesis. Ideally, the experimenter is open to the possibility that the hypothesis is correct or incorrect. Sometimes, however, a scientist may have a strong belief that the hypothesis is true (or false), or feels internal or external pressure to get a specific result. In that case, there may be a psychological tendency to find "something wrong", such as systematic effects, with data which do not support the scientist's expectations, while data which do agree with those expectations may not be checked as carefully. The lesson is that all data must be handled in the same way.

Another common mistake arises from the failure to estimate quantitatively systematic errors (and all errors). There are many examples of discoveries which were missed by experimenters whose data contained a new phenomenon, but who explained it away as a systematic background. Conversely, there are many examples of alleged "new discoveries" which later proved to be due to systematic errors not accounted for by the "discoverers."

In a field where there is active experimentation and open communication among members of the scientific community, the biases of individuals or groups may cancel out, because experimental tests are repeated by different scientists who may have different biases. In addition, different types of experimental setups have different sources of systematic errors. Over a period spanning a variety of experimental tests (usually at least several years), a consensus develops in the community as to which experimental results have stood the test of time.

The last paragraph assumes open communication between scientists as a failsafe to prevent bias from affecting scientific opinion. This is exactly what seems to be missing here. You can't have open discussion where one faction engages in personal intimidation and shouting-down of opposing views. The system does not regulate itself the way it used to or ought to. We have to be more and more skeptical of science's claims at truth because it does not practice skepticism internally. We cannot say which scientists are publishing junk science. One thing we can be certain of is that when science tries to save mankind, it often does us more harm than good. That's a tough way to disprove a theory.

To close, I'll quote Federico Zenith from Norway who reviewed The Skeptical Environmentalist unfavorably at

It has also taught me how easy it can be to deceive people on matters they are not competent enough to judge for themselves.

To which I take my hat off. However, to assume that it is only the theories which we disagree with which are flawed is the greater folly because knowing how easy it is, we ought to know better than to fall for it. Clearly, there are detractors and supporters of many theories and so long as there are the verdict is not in on any theory. Believing that it is, has become an all to common mistake for us. Many of Federico's criticisms of the book's research, should call into question the popular theory's validity as well. For example, he cites the possibility of flawed historical data in the book. Environmentalists routinely base there predictions about the Earth's climate on a scant 200 years of largely incomplete weather data compiled from a motley collection of sources. Only the last 50 years of weather data are truly worth anything as global climate predictors. So we have to ackowledge that largely flawed data from a VERY tiny slice of the Earth's history is being used to predict long term climatic disasters? That's like watching a kid for one day and making a scientific conclusion about how he'll turn out as an adult. Fat chance! The less scientific data there is to back up a theory, the more opinion and interpretation is involved with the conclusions and the more we ought to be skeptical.

On a side note, Robert King Merton is a pretty interesting character. His concept of Anomie ought to be taken to heart in modern America and with regard to social programs. - Robert King Merton (Sociology, Biography) - Encyclopedia - anomie (Sociology: General Terms And Concepts) - Encyclopedia


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