Saturday, November 2, 2013

If science is wrong, it wasn't science.

One of the weirder unspoken beliefs I routinely encounter goes something like the following: the history of science is one long chain of unscientific beliefs being shown to be wrong or unsubstantiated thanks to scientific investigation. People apparently thought fairies were responsible for plants growing - but science showed that seeds played an important role. People thought that rocks dropped to the earth because they consciously wanted to and they were afraid of flying, but science showed us that gravity was responsible. Science keeps showing us what's right and correct, and it turns out that all the non-scientific claims were wrong.

Now, this is obvious bullshit, as are my examples. The entire history of science is one long chain of theories, even popular and scientific theories, turning out to ultimately be either wildly oversimplified, or flat out incorrect. Even fundamental, bedrock ideas - 'how does matter, at root, behave' - ended up being tossed overboard, sometimes after an incredibly long period of dominance. I think, when pressed, most people are willing to concede this and fall back to another line of thinking - that 'science is self-correcting', and of course scientific theories can be wrong, etc, etc. There are problems with that response, and it opens up a very interesting discussion itself.

But what has my attention here is that initial thought process. I think there is a habit of thought people engage in that amounts to, 'If a theory was disproven, if a theory turned out to be wrong, then it wasn't a scientific theory to begin with.' Science doesn't disprove scientific ideas - it disproves UNscientific ideas, period.

I think you can see this on display in spades in the case of Michael Behe talking about astrology. Behe says that, in his view, astrology is science. Here's the relevant Q&A:
Q Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?A Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that -- which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other -- many other theories as well.
Here's the trick: when someone says that 'X' is a scientific theory, popular unspoken understanding cashes this out to 'X is a viable theory that is either true or has a very good chance of being true'. The very idea that X can be a scientific theory and also likely to be false, or in conflict with the data, is hard for a lot of people to compute. It's just not the mental association that's taken root for them.

This is an incredibly naive, dangerous, just-plain-wrong view of science - and as near as I can tell, it's widespread. But who's trying to correct this view? Once again, as near as I can tell - practically no one. It's easy to see why some people wouldn't want to correct it: to do so would harm a popular narrative about the historical success of science, and the reliability of science in general. To hell with getting people to better understand the scope, limitation and history of science.


Cale B.T. said...

Yeah nice try, but the cat is out of the bag: Mike Behe thinks that astrology is science! Hurr durrr

Crude said...

What bothers me about that move is, the moment you see his quote in context, it becomes crystal clear what he is saying - and it's a completely reasonable position.

But I have seen people - including some ex-members of the NCSE - do the 'Behe thinks astrology is science!' move, despite knowing full well exactly what he meant.

That's one of the reasons I still have sympathies when it comes to ID. When knowledgeable people are making sure to misrepresent ID proponents, despite knowing better, it tends to indicate that they're pretty worried about it.

Cale B.T. said...

I'm sure it's all justified, though. Recently there was a book published by a (gay) journalist about the Matthew Shepard murder. The author tries to make a case that this wasn't simply a "hate-crime" based on Shepard's sexuality, but there was a lot more going on.

Here's a particularly revolting quote from the Amazon discussion boards of the book:

"While journalistic integrity involves showing and telling the "truth," part of it involves when NOT to show and tell the "truth." The Matthew Shepard case is a landmark case that paved a lot of ground for hate crime legislation. With what is going on in the world, homophobia at the Sochi Olympics, Kill-the-Gays Bill in Uganda, it is extremely inappropriate to publish such material regardless of whether or not it is true, especially if you yourself identify as a "gay man." In this case, assuming that what this author claims is true, the "lie" is much much more beneficial to society than the "truth."

Crude said...

Oh good, beneficial lies for the sake of society. I mean, I knew we had people who advocated that, but now they're getting more public.

I've been finding the Shepard thing interesting. That really was the landmark case in a lot of ways.

Time for a good (presumably atheist) quote about this:

"Some months ago an American philosopher explained to a highly sophisticated audience in Britain what, in his opinion, was wrong, indeed fatally wrong, with the standard neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution. He made it crystal clear that his criticism was not inspired by creationism, intelligent design or any remotely religious motivation. A senior gentleman in the audience erupted, in indignation: ‘You should not say such things, you should not write such things! The creationists will treasure them and use them against science.’ The lecturer politely asked: ‘Even if they are true?’ To which the instant and vibrant retort was: ‘Especially if they are true!’ with emphasis on the ‘especially’."

mrhambre said...

Behe is correct, There's nothing by definition unscientific about heavenly bodies being able to exert influence over human endeavor. It's just that no such correlation has ever been established.

Nothing is unscientific about geocentrism, either. It's just that the heliocentric model of the solar system explains more observations and satisfies more predictions than geocentrism.

Crude said...


Just to be clear - Behe isn't really talking about what is and isn't scientific, but what is and isn't a scientific theory. Behe thinks astrology is wrong, and that the scientific data contradicts it - so in that sense it would be unscientific. But just because a theory is wrong doesn't mean it's no longer a scientific theory.

A lot of people take 'scientific' to mean 'true or very likely to be true'. That's one of the problems here.

lotharlorraine said...

To my mind something which has been refuted is no longer a scientific theory though it might have been in the past.

Crude said...

To my mind something which has been refuted is no longer a scientific theory though it might have been in the past.

Why not just 'a refuted scientific theory'? Even a refuted theory isn't shown to be necessarily false forever and all time typically. It just means the evidence now is judged to weigh against it.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Yep. Since scientific refutations require empirical evidence, but empirical evidence is always subject to revision as research progresses, there are not infallible scientific refutations. Every theory is possible, just not all equally probable given the current state of research at any time.