“Science”: What it is and is not, and how it is misused in most public contexts

How many times have you seen a headline, or have heard a politician speak, expressing something like: “Science shows that…”, or “Scientists say that…”?

Science says
The following four statements are mine alone:

  • Do not accept anything written or said in the contexts described above.
  • “Science” is not a thing, or a person, or group of persons which shows anything, or takes any action, or has an opinion.

– What any purported group of scientists “says” is inappropriate to quote, other than from a publication deemed “scientific”, and in the exact language in such a publication.

– Especially discard as false anything a scientist says or is quoted as saying if it contains any variant of the verb ‘to believe’.

How do I justify these dicta? So glad you asked.

What is “science”?

Here is what certain people whom we can comfortably label “scientists” have said:

Fiction is about the suspension of disbelief; science is about the suspension of belief.
James Porter, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Professor, Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, USA

Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.
Richard Feynman, Nobel-prize-winning physicist

So, suspend your beliefs and develop your skepticism if you wish to be a scientist. Note: Classical philosophical skepticism derives from the Skeptikoi (Greek), a school who “asserted nothing”. (Source).

David Icke.com

David Icke.com

Fundamental to all “scientific” inquiries is the concept of empiricism:

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoningintuition, or revelation. (Source).

Which now brings us to the heart of the matter: The Scientific Method.

Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses

Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results…

(T)he process must be objective to reduce biased interpretations of the results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, thereby allowing other researchers the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established….(Source)

There you have it.

But wait! There’s more!!

I recently came across the newspaper article, Fraud in a lab coat. At the end, the writer, Gareth Cook, states: “We need to do better. Science is a quest for the truth. And to know what is true, one must know what is false.”

Is science, indeed, a quest for “truth”?

Karl Popper (Source: http://ub.uni-klu.ac.at/)

Here is what British philosopher of science Karl Popper says on this:

I think that we shall have to get accustomed to the idea that we must not look upon science as a “body of knowledge”, but rather as a system of hypotheses, or as a system of guesses or anticipations that in principle cannot be justified, but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know they are “true” . . . (Emphasis added). —Karl R. Popper (1902-1994), The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

So, don’t “believe” in science.

A belief system is (comprised of) ideas that are taken on faith and cannot be scientifically tested. (Source).

I assert that, as compared with the realm of science, a belief system is a relatively closed system. The realm of science cannot be closed or complete. There is always more to doubt, more to hypothesize, more to discover, more to test.

To be fair to the conscientious scientist who is, after all, a human being with desires and goals, I here quote my friend Vasil, a retired MD, PhD psychopharmacologist who spent many productive years in clinical research. He responded to my arguments that a scientist can’t properly believe in anything when pursuing the proof of a hypothesis: “I’m sure that it is true, but not sure that it is absolutely true.”

Finally, I assert that to believe in anything is not a bad thing. Each of us has our set and systems of beliefs. Most of us in any given locale share these beliefs (whether or not we recognize them consciously as such) or the local society tends to disintegrate and disperse.

What a scientist must do, and very difficult it is, is to consciously identify her or his set or system of beliefs and to suspend it in the pursuit of new information about the universe.

“…the ideal of scientific neutrality is itself, like all other ideals, a human invention. And like other human ideals, it is subject to abuse if its character and function are misconceived.” – Philip H. Rhinelander (1908—1987), philosopher, Stanford professor emeritus, and former dean of the Stanford University School of Humanities and Sciences.

“Science means, first of all, a certain dispassionate method. To suppose that it means a certain set of results that one should pin one’s faith upon and hug forever is sadly to mistake its genius, and degrades the scientific body to the status of a sect.” From The Will to Believe“, by William James, 1896.

NB: In the spirit of full disclosure, which is a requirement in any scientific paper (see above), I offer this: Regarding Belief, in the Realm of the Religious or Spiritual.


Addendum, dated 8 August 2015.

Here is a different opinion on what the scientific method is:

The scientific method. Many science textbooks, including those in psychology, present science as a monolithic “method.” Most often, they describe this method as a hypothetical / deductive recipe, in which scientists begin with an overarching theory, deduce hypotheses (predictions) from that theory, test these hypotheses, and examine the fit between data and theory. If the data are inconsistent with the theory, the theory is modified or abandoned. It’s a nice story, but it rarely works this way (McComas, 1996). Although science sometimes operates by straightforward deduction, serendipity and inductive observations offered in the service of the “context of discovery” also play crucial roles in science. For this reason, the eminent philosopher of science Popper (1983) quipped that, “As a rule, I begin my lectures on Scientific Method by telling my students that the scientific method does not exist…” (p. 5).

Contrary to what most scientists themselves appear to believe, science is not a method; it is an approach to knowledge (Stanovich, 2012). Specifically, it is an approach that strives to better approximate the state of nature by reducing errors in inferences. Alternatively, one can conceptualize science as a toolbox of finely honed tools designed to minimize mistakes, especially confirmation bias – the ubiquitous propensity to seek out and selectively interpret evidence consistent with our hypotheses and to deny, dismiss, and distort evidence that does not (Tavris and Aronson, 2007; Lilienfeld, 2010). Not surprisingly, the specific research methods used by psychologists bear scant surface resemblance to those used by chemists, astrophysicists, or molecular biologists. Nevertheless, all of these methods share an overarching commitment to reducing errors in inference and thereby arriving at a more accurate understanding of reality. (Source)

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate Californian living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles and creative writing.
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4 Responses to “Science”: What it is and is not, and how it is misused in most public contexts

  1. Nice article, Ron. It is indeed true that the empirical sciences seek only to approach truth (in the sense that accepted theories have not yet been falsified) and not to arrive at truth. Think of it as a process of gradual convergence (theory A is eventually replaced by theory B as new evidence is uncovered).

    It is not true that a scientist “can’t properly believe in anything when pursuing the proof of a hypothesis.” There is a belief system underlying empiricism itself. I can’t explain all the premises on which that system is based, but here are are a few of them.

    1. The laws of logic are reliable, I.e., given a priori.

    2. The theorems of mathematics are also given a priori.

    3. The universe is governed by immutable — or at least very stable — natural laws.

    4. These natural laws apply everywhere and at all times.

    As an undergraduate at Caltech, I had some very interesting arguments with several professors who leaned in the direction of logical positivism. A few of them were quite adamant about their lack of faith. I could usually get those guys all hot under the collar with an observation like this. “Is the law of conservation of matter and energy as valid in the Andromeda nebula as it is here on Earth?” Why yes, they would respond. “How do you know that? Have you conducted any experiments in the Andromeda nebula to confirm your belief? Or do you make that assertion based solely on your belief in the homogeneity of the universe, and the existence of natural laws?” None of them ever gave a satisfactory answer.

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    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Thank you for your comments. In addition to your 4 points, It seems natural that “There is a belief system underlying empiricism itself”. When challenging my scientist friend I was being particularly pushy in one direction, for effect and response. With regard to the theorems of mathematics, they have been reliable but, as I understand the commentary on Gödel’s Theorem (not able to understand it directly), this is because we have made it so for our convenience.

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  2. Dale Sprague says:

    “Science is the quest for truth.” Only a non scientist would hold to that. What is interesting about science, is the fundamental law, science uses to ferret out, cause and effect, the law of conservation of energy, which basically states that an energy system is closed. One cannot take out of a system, more than what is put into it. What is interesting, is that this cannot be rigoriously proved, for how does one remove one’s self 100% out of the system, to test it? So, all of science is based upon the assumption that the law of energy concervation is true, and all that science knows, that is it holds to the assumption, science and its technology will be able to predict to a certain confidence level, and evolve accordingly. How is that for having faith? 🙂

    Dale Sprague
    Seattle

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    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Dale, Thanks for the further insight to the fundamental issue. Your observation is very like what Alan Watts, an interpreter of Eastern Ways (esp. Tao and Zen), has often said in his writings and lectures.

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