Good Science and Bad Science

March 31, 2007

Science is a big icon in our culture today. It determines what is considered true by everyone, and not just a select group of people. We spend 12-16 years of our life going to school where we learn about almost everything using (supposedly) the scientific method, artists and English majors excluded. I think it is far more often talked about than practiced. When people want to talk about truth in our culture today we usually appeal to science or fall back on personal experience. But I want to open up discussion by talking about what science actually is, and what can you really test. Science is going to be the methodology I use in this journal, but let’s look at all the possible ways we can know truth. That whole question happens to be called Epistemology. Here’s the most comprehensive list I can manage:

  • General Revelation – Common Sense, anyone can tell. (The sky is blue, I ate a burger yesterday)
  • Special Revelation – An outside, higher source of knowledge (praying to God, or Channeling Aliens from Zeta Reticuli)
  • Tradition – We’ve done it this way for centuries (The song says it all)
  • Expert – Stephen Hawking says so, and he’s really smart
  • Scientific Method – Test and Observe the physical world

It’s worth noting that not everyone, agrees with all ways of knowing things. This is just the inclusive list as far as I know. As my friend Jim pointed out recently, the scientific method has some serious limitations. “What is it like to be a bat?” he challenged “you can take apart every peice that composes a bat and analyze it and test its sense of hearing, but what does it feel like to be a bat? Can you see what a bat sees?” I think this is a very valid point and somewhat synonymous with Richard Dawkins trying to prove that God doesn’t exist. So while I’m going to stick to science over philosophy or religion in this journal I think it fair to look at its limitations.

Science observes the physical world
Science cannot observe anything that is not made of matter or energy. This means, for example, that if spirits or gods exist they cannot be tested unless they leave an imprint on the physical world. An interesting offshoot of this is that miracles and other such are actually scientifically testable and provable while their causes are entirely outside of science’s scope. For example, if someone dies they can be examined to show they are dead then if they get back up again they can be shown to be just as alive as you and me. If the cause is anything that doesn’t consist of matter (CPR?) or energy (electric shock) then the cause lies outside of the realm of science, even though the effect is verifiable.

Science cannot prove a non-existence or an impossibility
Sorry guys, but the Myth Busters have a serious error in their thinking. As much as I like watching the show they’ve gotten a couple things wrong, and this is why: there are thousands of ways that something could happen and lots of ways that something could not happen. Simply by demonstrating that there is one way that something couldn’t work doesn’t mean that there is no way it couldn’t work. This is called the Completeness problem in Formal Logic. For example, they “disproved” that a stretched steel cable could cut a man in half or that banging hammers together could ever create flying metal shards. Well, I’ve worked with people that have scars on their face from banging hammers together (it happens with waffle heads). My friend Jason says he has personally witnessed a cable wrapped tightly around a steel pole snap and cut a four inch gash in a car. The myth busters didn’t try wrapping the cable, only stretching it, so how could they know?

However, science is great at proving that things are possible or that they do exist. In theory, it only takes one example of something to prove it exists. If you want to show a particular method works it better be repeatable though. It only takes one giant squid to show that giant squid must exist. It only takes one faulty appliance to show that people can get electrocuted in the bath tub. Thomas Edison understood this, he said “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

“That’s Silly” or “Yes, but they’re dumb (New Agey, Evolutionists, Christians, Superstitions) (pick one)”
This is where we run into bad science. Rejecting something because it’s silly is not good science at all. If something is truly wrong then you should be able to show why by pointing out logical fallacies, conflicting facts, or using the definitions of good scientific theories such as parsimony and falsfiability. Discrediting someone’s theory because of who they are or what has gone on in their life is ad hominem, a logical fallacy. Once again, everyone is guilty of this, even scientists.

I think Dr. Humphreys said it the best when he was questioned at one of his presentations I attended. (paraphrase) Q: “If you’re data is correct then why isn’t there any discussion about it in the scientific community? Scientists love to find things that challenge them, or mess with their theories.” Humphreys: “I’m sorry to wreck your romantic notion of scientists, but they are real people as well. They have jobs and bosses, they are on a budget and have families to support. If they start rocking the boat too much, they can lose funding, lose credibility, or lose their jobs. Few people are in the business of revolution.”

One more quote, from Lynn Margulis in her book Symbiotic Planet. She has an alternative theory of evolution and receives tons of resistance from fellow evolutionists. She writes: “Many circumstances conspire to extinguish scientific discoveries, especially those that cause discomfort about our culture’s sacred norms. As a species, we cling to the familiar, comforting conformities of the mainstream. However, “convention” penetrates more deeply than we tend to admit. Even if we lack a proper name for and knowledge of the history of any specific philosophy and thought style, all of us are imbedded in our own safe “reality”. Our outlooks shape what we see and how we know. Any idea we conceive as fact or truth is integrated into an entire style of thought, of which we are usually unaware. … They affect all of us, including scientists. All are sadled with heavy linguistic, national, regional, and generational impediments to perception. Like those of everyone else, the scientists hidden assumptions affect his of her behavior, unwittingly directing thought.

(Thus ends the introduction. Next we’ll be moving to Part I: “Something Fishy is Going on Here” – Solar Eclipses.)

P.S. I’m starting a follow-up article called Bad Science Unlimited with some poster boys and girls of bad science. Think of it like a spot-the-logical-fallacy game.

Further Comments: What if the human mind is flawed?  Not just THAT person’s mind over there who believes we never landed on the moon.  Isn’t he running the same wetware as you?  If humans were fundamentally illogical, wouldn’t any solution posed by a human also be flawed?  Is there any way out of that loop?  What would you give up to know the truth?  What is it really worth?


One comment

  1. This brings up one of the biggest problems a lot of people have in science. They make false assumptions. They assume that a god can’t exist and therefore leave out out of every possibility and pick the next best thing. Wouldn’t it be better to not assume that one way or another and let the facts of discovery tell you what is real? If a god does exist, then the facts must point to this god. However, if a god does not exist, then the facts should point this out.

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