July 14, 2005

Science, And Not 

Looking at this thread at Cold Fury, I realized that there's quite a lot of people out there with a rather vague idea of what science actually is, and how the "scientific community" does work.

Let's begin clearing the ground, tho: I'm not talking about the ancient science/religion struggle. At the bottom line, scientific investigation cannot either prove or disprove the existence of God; either choice requires an act of faith.

Science, at least in its purest terms, is totally and completely based on facts, mathematics and logic. A scientist observes the world (or a specific phenomenon) and tries to build a model adapted to the facts - called hypothesis. If other scientists do the same experiments and obtain the same results, the hypothesis will start to be accepted, and eventually become a theory - that means, a model that has never failed up to now. The closest thing to a hard fact you can get. There is nothing dogmatic, no revealed truth or appeal to authority; if your facts and logic are good, you are right.

A good example is Quantum Mechanics: during the first decades of last century, certain phenomena were observed that could not be explained using the scientific theories of the time - mainly Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's laws. So a number of brilliant scientists set out to solve the problem: Einstein extended the theory of relativity (that is, mechanics) while others developed the truly revolutionary Quantum Mechanics.

But these theories were not accepted in a closed box; other scientists began to do a number of experiments aimed at disproving them. But these experiments all failed, while those aimed at confirming Quantum Mechanics and Einstein's relativity theory were always successful (some of the most exotic quantum predictions, such as the Entanglement, have been finally accepted only in recent years). And now, Quantum Mechanics is accepted at the best model we have for reality at molecular and smaller scale.

What the scientific community does is peer reviewing: basically, articles are examined (in an anonymous fashion) before publication to ascertain that they do not contain utter crap (or bad data, glaring contradictions etc). Peer review is a somewhat controversial aspect: it has a valuable filtering role, but also it tends to retard the dissemination of innovative ideas. All in all, I think that peer review does more good than harm.

But scientists are still humans, after all, and thus we have that some people had to endure ridicule and personal attacks only for going against the common wisdom. It's sad, but it's the human nature.

A particularly pernicious case is when scientists are obnubilated by politics or ideology. In that case, if the fraction of politically motivated scientists is big enough, suppression of dissenting ideas can actually occur.

Now, whether the certain surface reactions follow one mechanism or the other has little impact on anything political (but once translated in reactor engineering, it can mean big money). But the exact role of carbon dioxide on the global climate has great political implications, and some scientists think that they should do something about it, Make a Better World!®.

Likewise, some others thought that a paper with rather shaky scientific foundations deserved rapid publication only because it allegedly demonstrated that an awful lot of civilians were killed during OIF (while actually the conclusions of this paper are so vague that it demonstrates almost nothing) - and the US presidential elections were close. The Editor of The Lancet truly dropped his mask writing about the policymaking implications of said paper. And this leaves us with the doubt, would this same editor be so honest to publish a paper contending that Iraqis are better off now?

Another hot topic is evolution - the one dealt with in the CF thread. In this case, some parts of the evolutionary theory are so deeply and firmly accepted (because proved many times, and never disproved) that many scientists will react almost violently when someone pops up proposing Creationism or Intelligent Design. It is almost like trying to disprove Newtonian mechanics for macroscopic objects: it is so firmly proven that one needs truly exceptional proof to even dent it.

But the proponents of these other conjectures mistake the scientists' reaction as dogmatic, because they do not know what lies beneath, they do not know the rules of the game. Some think that a nice and elegant philosophical argument, plus a little of anedoctal evidence (eg. a couple of objects of uncertain origin and datation) are enough to have your conjecture accepted as a theory. Well, no. (In passing, I know that this modus operandi is by no means exclusive of creationists).

I firmly reject Creationism and Intelligent Design not out of any dogmatic position, but because up to now there is not even enough proof to begin considering them as valid alternatives to the Evolutionary theory.

And now excuse me, but I must go to collect experimental data...


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