On Science

I’ve been in a twitter conversation with “@maverynthia”:http://twitter.com/maverynthia, “@nonconneko”:http://twitter.com/nonconneko and “@scottmadin”:http://twitter.com/scottmadin, but twitter really isn’t the best place for long discussions. @maverynthia wrote a “lengthy post”:http://maverynthia.tumblr.com/post/3618105353/scottmadin-sephiros-nonconneko-me-writes-up-a (because sometimes 140 characters really isn’t enough) to explain her grievance with the scientific community, this is my long-winded response.

Maverynthia starts by quoting me as saying “if you want me to believe in fairies YOU provide proof”. I had prefaced that with “I can’t prove a negative” – I’ll never be able to prove that fairies don’t exist. I can’t prove that there are no such things as miracles, that humans aren’t animated by spirits or that ghosts don’t exist. Why? Simple – absence of proof is not proof of absence. This isn’t being dismissive – it’s the nature of science.

Wikipedia defines the scientific method as:

# Define the question
# Gather information and resources (observe)
# Form hypothesis
# Perform experiment and collect data
# Analyze data
# Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
# Publish results
# Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

The job of the scientist is to follow this method and then convince the community using the evidence they’ve gathered.

I should make clear that science isn’t singularly skeptical of things supernatural or paranormal – it’s skeptical of other science too. This is why we don’t fall for the noise spewed by anti-vax cranks, or cold-fusion.

The Large Hadron Collider had an accident in September 2008 that delayed took it offline for just over a year. Holger Bech Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomyia of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto theorezed that the Higgs-Boson particle was so abhorrent to nature that when the LHC created it, it travelled backwards in time to sabotage the LHC to prevent itself from being created. Particle physicist Brian Cox, when “interviewed on The Colbert Report”:http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/253947/october-28-2009/brian-cox said (and I’m paraphrasing as the link I posted doesn’t work outside the USA) “The scientific community has a word for that: bollocks”.

On the surface that certainly sounds like it’s being knee-jerk dismissive, but there’s simply no evidence to back the theory. In our conversation, Maverynthia mentioned theories of multidimensionality as being just as outlandish as the existence of fairies and the existence of the soul. I think there’s an important distinction, though: many of these theories are supported by mathematical models of the universe. Furthermore, we recognize there’s little physical evidence to support these theories and thus they remain theories. Science never claims to understand something with 100% certainty. Science operates based on the information at hand.

Maverynthia’s example of earth-lights only serves to reinforce my point. Derr and Persinger did dismiss the fanciful theories behind earth-lights. Rather than accept fairies, gods, ghosts or dragons as the explanation for these lights they formed hypotheses, observed the phenomena, conducted experiments and formulated a conclusion that explained the phenomena they saw.

Science, by its very nature, is skeptical. That’s not a weakness of science – it’s its biggest strength. Aristotle defined science as a body of reliable knowledge that can be logically and rationally explained. Reliable is an important factor in that definition – anecdotes, on their own simply aren’t reliable evidence. Scientifically, it’s not only rational to say “I didn’t see it, so I don’t believe it”, it’s the point.

Ultimately, people will believe what they want or need to believe. The lack of any evidence of the existence of a supreme being doesn’t stop roughly 85% of the world’s population from believing in god(s). For flat-earthers, no amount of evidence is enough to prove the earth is a sphere, and for conspiracy cranks there’s no proof that man landed on the moon. I have no problem with anyone believing anything at all, but I think it’s unfair to be critical of somebody or some community for not believing the same things you do. And in the absence of repeatable, measurable evidence all you have is belief.

2 thoughts on “On Science

  1. You mention the “Mathematical model of the universe”, so it seems to me that if someone can think of some “good math” to explain something, it’s accepted as valid science. I just can’t get behind that. Also, part of my point was that in the case of the “supernatural” (if it exists and happens in nature, it’s natural) is that when evidence is brought forth, experiments and the like that got consistent results, they were dismissed. Flaws were pointed out in the testing methods, the people tested, and ultimately the subject matter itself.

    Also, unfair to be critical for not believing the same things I do? Didn’t you just try to tell me science is all about being critical of things? Aren’t the scientific types critical of those of organized religions? Isn’t that unfair to be critical of them because they don’t believe the same things you believe? I feel everyone has a right to be critical of everything, and those people have a right to be critical back. Being critical of something allows for an information exchange.

    1. I fail to see how pointing out flaws in the testing method, or the sample set invalidates science. It’s exactly how Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vax studies were discredited.

      As for my statement about it being unfair to be critical … I have no excuse for that. That was me misspeaking myself. I was trying to draw a distinction between science and belief, where belief is unsubstantiated, and in my effort to be general just fanned on the puck. (Hey, I have to prove I’m Canadian _somehow_). You’re right, of course, everyone has the right to be critical of everything.

Comments are closed.