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  1. #1

    Default Questioning Science

    How do we go about being skeptical of science?

    What should we teach about it?

    What keeps science honest?

    Is there a "good old boys club" in the scientific establishment?

    @Zarathustra made the following points in another thread.

    Quote Originally Posted by Zarathustra View Post
    Haven't read most of the thread, but did watch the video and looked at the first 10-15 posts. The woman in the video was an absolute idiot, and I do fear the odd combination of absolutism and relativism as practiced by these conservative christians. When it all comes down to it, though, this is largely a reaction against the complete dominance the scientific establishment possesses when it comes to the "truth".

    It only takes a few key observations for this kind of phenomenon to appear:

    1. It is a fact that scientific paradigms shift, so what is taught today will probably not be considered the (whole) truth 100 years from now. Hell, at CERN, the previously inviolable speed of light was just violated. Time to rewrite the science books. Thomas Kuhn had a legitimate point, so there's actually some solid philosophical backing behind a skeptical position toward the scientific establishment.

    2. Scientists are fallible. The favorite of the anti-global warming crowd was the Time magazine cover from the 70s declaring that scientists believed we were about to enter a potentially catastrophic period of global cooling. In the last year or two, Russian scientists have still been arguing that this is the case. When you read about things like this, and recognize what Kuhn was pointing to, it makes you question a bit more the current scientific consensus.

    3. Scientists are dependent upon funding, and sometimes that funding is dependent upon the perpetuation of a certain position. This is the one that really gets people on both sides of the issue rankled up, because the "pro-science" camp gets their panties all in a bunch that scientists could possibly be considered partial to their position, and the "anti-science" camp can't believe that the "pro-science" camp can't understand that scientists could be considered partial to their position, when it comes to their job, livelihood, family, and other reasons of personal self-interest. The ClimateGate scandal certainly didn't help the "pro-science" camp, in this regard, and, at least for the moment, it gave the "anti-science" camp all the fuel it needs to burn its fire for at least another five years. And, strictly from a philosophical perspective, if you don't think scientists are capable of allowing their personal self-interest leak into their take on things, I think you're either stupid, or you're lying to yourself. They are humans before they are scientists, and certain conclusions start seeming a lot more realistic when they are what puts the food on the table.

    4. Science is increasingly getting a stake in political questions, particularly surrounding issues like global warming, and, when you consider the above three observations, and that they all basically point to the fallibility of the current scientific consensus, it's a bit more understandable why people are expressing a degree of skepticism toward the scientific establishment.
    What are your thoughts about this?

    Is there a 'complete dominance the scientific establishment possesses when it comes to the "truth"' as Zarathustra says?

    There were some other points brought up by exchanges between @Giggly, @Rail Tracer and myself in that same thread. I will see if I can some those up in the next post.

    Accept the past. Live for the present. Look forward to the future.
    Robot Fusion
    "As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance." John Wheeler
    "[A] scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." Richard Feynman
    "[P]etabytes of [] data is not the same thing as understanding emergent mechanisms and structures." Jim Crutchfield

  2. #2

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    I am sympathetic to Zarathustra's points. It's silly to assume that scientists abandon their humanity when they walk into the lab. Science is infallible, but the people that practice it aren't. The "truth" of science changes too often to assert that criticism of scientific findings is silly. If you want an example, just look at nutrition. I will ask a simple question: Are eggs healthy? You can't possibly answer it, because science keeps changing its mind.

    Science is also considered to be beyond criticism because it is falsifiable. That's fine as far as it goes, except that science is only useful for the questions that science is suited to answer. Let's look at football. Two weeks ago the Atlanta Falcons went for it on fourth-and-inches at their own 29 in overtime. They failed to make the first down, turned the ball over, and the Saints kicked the winning field goal. The coach of the Falcons has been defended by statisticians who say that going for it resulted in a 47% chance of a win, while punting would have resulted in a 42% chance of a win. However, this percentage is determined by the raw numbers from similar situations in past games. It ignores any situations specific to this particular game, and it cannot account for momentum, team-specific strategy or the skills of the particular players involved. If one examines only hard numbers, it seems that the coach made a good decision. But many people watching the game would argue that the climate of the moment made it a poor decision, based on factors that are not easily quantified.

    Science is great, but it's not suited to answer all questions of truth. And that's why it shouldn't be the ultimate arbiter of truth in all situations.
    Everybody have fun tonight. Everybody Wang Chung tonight.

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    /Nohari

  3. #3

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    OK. To add more kindling to this thread:

    Here is the what I said I would post:
    Quote Originally Posted by Giggly View Post
    Sure.

    I also wanted to add that I'd be less inclined to question licensed professionals because that is the purpose of the licensing agencies to question their candidates. Checks and balances (esp from outside sources) is good.

    That said, I'm not sure if anyone would be completely transparent and accountable without being ordered by some higher ups to do so.

    But don't listen to me. I'm in accounting and I have an accounting mentality.

    None of this really addresses university research. It's a good question too. Who is keeping tabs on research institutions? Who is keeping tabs on research publications as well?

    I'm not saying they are lying because I don't know that but I am curious about how they are managed.
    Quote Originally Posted by Rail Tracer View Post
    A lot of the more credible ones tend to wound on scholarly magazines. Peer-review is just that, you get checked by your peers (pretty much in your field also,) the more of them that cite/use/agree with your source, the more credible it is. Often times, a peer-reviewed article can take years before people finally find it to be credible.
    Quote Originally Posted by Giggly View Post
    Wow. That sounds like it has the makings for a serious good old boys club.
    Quote Originally Posted by Rail Tracer View Post
    Not sure if you are using it as a derogatory term, but a peer-review makes sense.

    I mean, you really don't want someone who isn't experienced to be piloting a plane/ship to be taking you somewhere now, would you?

    It is the same reasoning behind why you say that you have an accounting mentality, I am quite sure there are peer-review articles about accounting.

    They are focused highly on their subject.
    Quote Originally Posted by Giggly View Post
    It depends on who the peers that are reviewing it are. Someone from your same university or group is different than someone more removed from you yet within the same profession. In accounting we have auditors who are also accountants who review the work you've done if you are a public company. The auditors must be, by law, completely independent and removed from you and your company and the results are published. In other words, you can't have your friends or colleagues review your work. Is this how it is with scientific peer review?
    Quote Originally Posted by ygolo View Post
    Here is the way NIH does it:
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/peer_review_process.htm

    There are different peer review process for every journal for publication. There are different peer review processes for obtaining funding for research. Science is done internationally. So it would be hard to regulate legally. Though there are export restrictions on certain types of discoveries and technologies.

    Just like there is accounting fraud despite the review process, there is scientific fraud as well. In my experience, there are plenty of errors, but out-right fraud is rare.

    Consumers of science have to be wary of where researchers get funding, and what sort of biases the particular journal may have. Also, just like in accounting, you can check if everything "adds up" if you are knowledgeable enough (and this is the ultimate test).

    Journals that are "Good Old Boy" networks are easy to spot because they publish their own labs results, and you rarely find conflicting theories on the cutting edge.

    Accept the past. Live for the present. Look forward to the future.
    Robot Fusion
    "As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance." John Wheeler
    "[A] scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." Richard Feynman
    "[P]etabytes of [] data is not the same thing as understanding emergent mechanisms and structures." Jim Crutchfield

  4. #4

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    Quote Originally Posted by EffEmDoubleyou View Post
    I am sympathetic to Zarathustra's points. It's silly to assume that scientists abandon their humanity when they walk into the lab. Science is infallible, but the people that practice it aren't. The "truth" of science changes too often to assert that criticism of scientific findings is silly. If you want an example, just look at nutrition. I will ask a simple question: Are eggs healthy? You can't possibly answer it, because science keeps changing its mind.

    Science is also considered to be beyond criticism because it is falsifiable. That's fine as far as it goes, except that science is only useful for the questions that science is suited to answer. Let's look at football. Two weeks ago the Atlanta Falcons went for it on fourth-and-inches at their own 29 in overtime. They failed to make the first down, turned the ball over, and the Saints kicked the winning field goal. The coach of the Falcons has been defended by statisticians who say that going for it resulted in a 47% chance of a win, while punting would have resulted in a 42% chance of a win. However, this percentage is determined by the raw numbers from similar situations in past games. It ignores any situations specific to this particular game, and it cannot account for momentum, team-specific strategy or the skills of the particular players involved. If one examines only hard numbers, it seems that the coach made a good decision. But many people watching the game would argue that the climate of the moment made it a poor decision, based on factors that are not easily quantified.

    Science is great, but it's not suited to answer all questions of truth. And that's why it shouldn't be the ultimate arbiter of truth in all situations.
    Thanks for starting us off FMW!

    But the parts I highlighted in bold are troubling to me. Could you expand on why you believe them? The fact that you stated them lends credence to @Zarathustra's assertion about the dominance of the scientific establishment on truth.

    I certainly believe science itself is fallible, not just the scientists. But perhaps we have different conceptions of the word "science."

    Accept the past. Live for the present. Look forward to the future.
    Robot Fusion
    "As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance." John Wheeler
    "[A] scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." Richard Feynman
    "[P]etabytes of [] data is not the same thing as understanding emergent mechanisms and structures." Jim Crutchfield

  5. #5
    Feline Member kelric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ygolo View Post
    How do we go about being skeptical of science?

    What should we teach about it?

    What keeps science honest?

    Is there a "good old boys club" in the scientific establishment?
    As someone who used to be a professional scientist (of sorts), I think that the very first problem is how these questions are addressed. "Science", isn't a body of knowledge that is "right" or "wrong". Science is a process, a method (hence, the phrase "scientific method") for arriving at conclusions based on experimental evidence -- and it should be taught from that perspective, instead as of a series of facts. Teach people *why* the current consensus on a topic is such, while still encouraging questions about both the conclusion and the mechanisms at which it was arrived. That's science.

    The process of science is inherently skeptical, so there's not much to answer there -- as long as you're not treating it like a body of knowledge. Scientific consensus is actually probably the best way I can think of to "keep things honest" -- basically no conclusion is considered worthy without a lot of peer review and transparency of the data upon which the conclusions were based.

    But here's the deal... teaching science like that is harder. It takes more time for both the teacher and the learner. It doesn't provide "answers". It's full of ambiguity, caveats, and "statistically significant" results that aren't black-and-white. As such, it's often hard to explain a *true* scientific result to someone who's not familiar with the topic -- which is where you get into the all-too-common issue where some "scientific result" gets blown way out of proportion because a journalist stripped out the explanations, caveats, and "this is a preliminary result waiting on confirmation from others" statements and tries to play up something as world-shattering when it's just a start on building a case for something new. Science *does* provide answers, but they're in the form of "this is our best conclusion, based on the evidence that we have right now" and "based on our results, we are 95% certain that a similar circumstance will produce this given outcome".

    As for the "good old boys network"?... well, yeah. Like FMW says, scientists are people too, and as in any super-specific area, they can be downright cliquey. The model of science itself fights against that, but there's no question that it exists. I'd say no more so (and likely less so) than many other endeavors, though.
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  6. #6

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    Quote Originally Posted by ygolo View Post
    But the parts I highlighted in bold are troubling to me. Could you expand on why you believe them? The fact that you stated them lends credence to @Zarathustra's assertion about the dominance of the scientific establishment on truth.

    I certainly believe science itself is fallible, not just the scientists. But perhaps we have different conceptions of the word "science."
    I only meant to point out that while five apples and five apples are irrefutably ten apples, it is still left to fallible people to count the apples correctly and determine if this information tells us anything useful.
    Everybody have fun tonight. Everybody Wang Chung tonight.

    Johari
    /Nohari

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    Senior Member captain curmudgeon's Avatar
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    There was an excellent parody of the 'science is a fictional conspiracy' mindset on the Daily Show not too long ago. I shall link it when I am not on my phone, remember, and have time (and can find it)...you'll be lucky if that happens.

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    @.~*virinaĉo*~.@ Totenkindly's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EffEmDoubleyou View Post
    Science is great, but it's not suited to answer all questions of truth. And that's why it shouldn't be the ultimate arbiter of truth in all situations.
    I do agree with that.
    I'm still not sure why people insist on using hammers to cut wood and screwdrivers to hammer nails.
    Seems either like laziness or ignorance to me.
    "Hey Capa -- We're only stardust." ~ "Sunshine"

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    Quote Originally Posted by EffEmDoubleyou View Post
    I only meant to point out that while five apples and five apples are irrefutably ten apples, it is still left to fallible people to count the apples correctly and determine if this information tells us anything useful.
    Yeah, I meant to post here at some point today at least a comment of similar content: That while science might be falsifiable and contains within it a self-checking mechanism, the problem (to borrow a line from The Matrix) is people. We're the weakest link in the chain.

    For an example, consider the whole concept of getting one's scientific discoveries out there. Typically you have to get published (and, before that, funding); and those gateways are controlled by people who might have a vested interest in the status quo, or who have strong opinions without wanting to entertain others, or do not have the knowledge/truth properly 'framed/contextualized", etc.

    The dissemination of information and knowledge is one area when people can create ignorance and falsehood even if the scientific principle itself was sound to start with.

    EDIT: @kelric .... I just saw your post above. That was really nice.
    Last edited by Bellflower; 11-24-2011 at 10:12 PM.
    "Hey Capa -- We're only stardust." ~ "Sunshine"

    “Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” ~ H.P. Lovecraft

  10. #10

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    Quote Originally Posted by EffEmDoubleyou View Post
    I only meant to point out that while five apples and five apples are irrefutably ten apples, it is still left to fallible people to count the apples correctly and determine if this information tells us anything useful.
    Hmmm. I get what you mean, and I agree with you. However, there is a deep rabbit hole regarding that too.

    Inherent assumptions made:
    1) There is an objective truth out there
    2) "science" seeks and "finds" them

    Are 5 apples and 5 apples irrefutably 10 apples? Doesn't the result inherently depend on the counting process? How does one separate the counting from the result? You have to have rules, like "the five apples in one set have to be different from the five apples on the other set" and so on.

    The concept of addition is learned at a very young age, and we learn to operationalize the concept quite well. We learn the algorithm for it at a young age. But in order for the addition experiment to come out with the expected result in real life, there are constraints on how we count things vs. not double counting things.

    Counting is such a simple thing to most people, but imagine all the ways it could be done wrong. How would you program a robot to count objects? It seems very doable but not trival, to me.

    Not only that, the concept of addition itself is limited in it use. What happens if you take 5 L of clear liquid and another 5 L of clear liquid and pour them together? Do you get 10 L of liquid? Not necessarily. Not even if you did the pouring completely correctly with nothing left in the original vials or whatever. If the first 5L was water, and the other 5L was ethanol, you would not get 10L in the mixture. It would be less that that, because the two liquids are miscible.

    All this may seem like semantics for such a simple example. But what makes it "simple" is the familiarity you have doing it. You've used the algorithm over and over again. You have interpreted the results over and over again in many different situations.

    For more complex or specialized things, the separation between the failure of the concept and the failure of the people applying the concept becomes much less clear.

    I would say "the scientific process comes up with concepts and those concepts can be very reliable" rather than "science is infallible".

    Accept the past. Live for the present. Look forward to the future.
    Robot Fusion
    "As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance." John Wheeler
    "[A] scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." Richard Feynman
    "[P]etabytes of [] data is not the same thing as understanding emergent mechanisms and structures." Jim Crutchfield

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