Ty Cobb and the State of Science

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This post was inspired by “Layman’s Guide to Understanding Scientific Research” at bluebird of bitterness.

The thing about history is that it’s chock full of lies. Well, a lot of the lies are just incomplete statements of the truth. Think of history as an artificially smooth surface, where gaps in knowledge have been filled by assumptions and guesses, and where facts that don’t match the surrounding terrain have been sanded down. Charles Leershen offers an excellent example of the lies that became “history” in his essay “Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know That’s Wrong.” (I’m now reading the book on which the essay is based, and it tells the same tale, at length.)

Science is much like history in its illusory certainty. Stand back from things far enough and you see a smooth, mathematical relationship. Look closer, however, and you find rough patches. A classic example is found in physics, where the big picture of general relativity doesn’t mesh with the small picture of quantum mechanics.

Science is based on guesses, also known as hypotheses. The guesses are usually informed by observation, but they are guesses nonetheless. Even when a guess has been lent credence by tests and observations, it only becomes a theory — a working model of a limited aspect of physical reality. A theory is never proven; it can only be disproved.

Science, in other words, is never “settled.” Napoleon is supposed to have said “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” It seems, increasingly, that so-called scientific facts are nothing but a fable that some agree upon because they wish to use those “facts” as a weapon with which to advance their careers and political agendas. Or they simply wish to align themselves with the majority, just as Barack Obama’s popularity soared (for a few months) after he was re-elected.

*     *     *

Related reading:

Wikipedia, “Replication Crisis

John P.A. Ionnidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” PLOS Medicine, August 30, 2005

Liberty Corner, “Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent,” April 12, 2006

Politics & Prosperity, “Modeling Is Not Science,” April 8, 2009

Politics & Prosperity, “Physics Envy,” May 26, 2010

Politics & Prosperity, “Demystifying Science,” October 5, 2011 (also see the long list of related posts at the bottom)

Politics & Prosperity, “The Science Is Settled,” May 25, 2014

Politics & Prosperity, “The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists,” July 28, 2014

Steven E. Koonin, “Climate Science Is Not Settled,” WSJ.com, September 19, 2014

Joel Achenbach, “No, Science’s Reproducibility Problem Is Not Limited to Psychology,” The Washington Post, August 28, 2015

William A. Wilson, “Scientific Regress,” First Things, May 2016

Jonah Goldberg, “Who Are the Real Deniers of Science?AEI.org, May 20, 2016

Steven Hayward, “The Crisis of Scientific Credibility,” Power Line, May 25, 2016

There’s a lot more here.

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