Is Science Self-Correcting?

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A long-time colleague, in response to a provocative article about the sins of scientists, characterized it as “garbage” and asserted that science is self-correcting.

I should note here that my colleague abhors “extreme” views, and would cross the street to avoid a controversy. As a quondam scientist, he thinks of a challenge to the integrity of science as “extreme.” Which strikes me as an unscientific attitude.

Science is only self-correcting on a time scale of decades, and even centuries. Wrong-headed theories can persist for a very long time. And it has become worse in the past six decades.

What has changed in the past six decades? Sputnik spurred a (relatively) massive increase in government-funded research. This created a new and compelling incentive: produce research that comports with the party line. The party line isn’t necessarily the line of the party then in power, but the line favored by the bureaucrats in charge of doling out money.

On top of that, politically incorrect research is generally frowned upon. And when it surfaces it is attacked en masse by academicians who are eager to prove their political correctness.

Thus it is that the mere coincidence of a rise in CO2 emissions and a rise in temperatures in the latter part of the 20th century became the basis for kludgey models which “prove” AGW — preferably of the “catastrophic” kind — while essentially ignoring eons of evidence to the contrary. Skeptics (i.e., scientists doing what scientists should do) are attacked viciously when they aren’t simply ignored. The attackers are, all too often, people who call themselves scientists.

And thus it is that research into the connection between race and intelligence has been discouraged and even suppressed at universities. This despite truckloads of evidence that there is such a connection.

Those two examples don’t represent all of science, to be sure, but they’re a sad commentary on the state of science — in some fields, at least.

There are many more examples in Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policy-Making, edited by Michael Gough. I haven’t read the book, but I’m familiar with most of the cases documented by the contributors. The cases are about scientists behaving badly, and about non-scientists misusing science and advocating policies that lack firm scientific backing.

Scientists have been behaved badly since the dawn of science, though — as discussed above — there are now more (or different) incentives to behave badly than there were in the past. But non-scientists (especially politicians) will behave badly regardless of and contrary to scientific knowledge. So I won’t blame science or scientists for that behavior, except to the extent that scientists are actively abetting the bad behavior of non-scientists.

Which brings me to the matter of science being self-correcting. I am an avid (perhaps rabid) anti-reificationist. So I must say here that there is no such thing as “science.” There’s only what scientists “do” and claim to know.

It’s possible, though not certain, that future scientists will correct the errors of their predecessors — whether those errors arose from honest mistakes or bias. But, in the meantime, the errors persist and are used to abet policies that have costly, harmful, and even fatal consequences for multitudes of people. And most of that damage can’t be undone.

So, in this age of weaponized science, I take no solace in the idea that the errors of its practitioners and abusers might, someday, be recognized. The errors of knowledge might be corrected, but the errors of application are (mostly) beyond remedy.

Here’s an analogy: The errors of the builders, owners, captain, and crew of RMS Titanic seem to have been corrected, in that there hasn’t been a repetition of the conditions and events that led to the ship’s sinking. But that doesn’t make up for the loss of 1,514 lives, the physical and emotional suffering of the 710 survivors, the loss of a majestic ship, the loss of much valuable property, or the grief of the families and friends of those who were lost.

In sum, the claim that science is self-correcting amounts to a fatuous excuse for the irreparable damage that is often done in the name of science.

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Related posts:

Demystifying Science
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
The Fallacy of Human Progress
Pinker Commits Scientism
AGW: The Death Knell (with many links to related readings and earlier posts)
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XIV) (second item)
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
AGW in Austin?
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
The Technocratic Illusion
The Precautionary Principle and Pascal’s Wager
Further Pretensions of Knowledge
“And the Truth Shall Set You Free”
AGW in Austin? (II)

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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.

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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.