Via a William Briggs tweet and post, we learn that the editor of a learned journal has concluded that half of science is wrong. The editor’s reasons for thinking this are practical and prosaic; the Statistician to the Stars has, as usual, pithy, gimlet-eyed things to say about that.
Here we want to look at the issues from a little different angle. Among the absurdities one hears from cradle to grave in this modern world is that science is self-correcting. Also, that science marches on, makes progress and does all sorts of other surprisingly volitional things, guided by the TRVTH of Nature.
Now, it should be clear to any reasonably clear-headed person (1) that abstractions like science don’t *do* anything. Rather, science is a description of something people do. The only sense in which people are self-correcting is that we all drop dead eventually – that’s the way a little something I like to call the real world has the last word on our theories. Similarly, technology is self-correcting: get it wrong, and the bridge collapses, the building falls, the airplane crashes, the rocket explodes, the patient dies.
The real world has the last say on our technological theories once they are put into practice. It is possible, however, for more purely scientific theories to escape this fate, insofar as they may not have any directly testable technological output. The truth or falsity of such a theory, if it can be determined at all, must then rest upon some other basis. The key point here: science and technology, properly understood, are not the same thing.
The confusions is understandable. There are two reasons technology and science are confounded. First, the Enlightenment scientists who founded most of the thinking still prevalent in modern science as practiced saw science as a means to technological advance – conquering Nature – and so saw no point in making the distinction. Second, the proponents of Science! – demagogues and useful idiots in lab coats attempting to cow us mere mortals into submission by claiming that ‘science has shown’ that every crackpot pet theory of theirs is TRUE, and that steps must be taken NOW to funnel more money and power to them and theirs or DISASTER will befall us all! – such folks attempt a little slight of hand, where the manifest and wondrous successes of *technology* are counted as validation of Science! in general. That we can put stuff in orbit and wipe out polio is conclusively (and silently) presumed to validate, say, sociology.
The confusion is a goal. The game is political. That’s why, so far, two decades of failed predictions (the Real World casting its vote, as it were) have only caused the global warming crowd to double down. Technologically, they have failed – their theory, measured against the real world, didn’t work. Their building has fallen down, the plane crashed, the patient died. The ideology, however, is immune to facts. The theory is presumed to have been amended on the fly, the past rewritten and prior predictions shoved down the memory hole, so that only a denier would even mention these inconvenient truths.
Similarly, nothing in the real world corresponds to any theory sociologists claim to have discovered. To put that satellite into orbit, I need a theory of ballistics, among other things, to do the math. If the satellite achieves orbit, I can reasonably conclude that my ballistic theory is at least workable; if it crashes, I will want to examine my theory as well as my hardware. If subsequent attempts keep crashing even though my hardware performs to spec, my theories come under even greater scrutiny, and might even need to be abandoned. But if I think sociology is a branch of Marxism, then I already know what has to happen, and my ‘research’ is merely an attempt to retrofit or ignore data that might be thought by those laboring under false consciousness to contradict it.
All aspects of the ongoing sexual revolution rely on ‘findings’ of sociologists going back at least to Margaret Mead. Science is said to have shown that such things as monogamy, taboos against sex outside marriage, homosexual acts, and, on deck for next inning, pedophilia, polygamy and polyandry are just social constructs with no reasonable basis – Science! has shown! To point out that not only has science not shown any such thing, the nature of the claims place them almost universally outside the competence of science to have anything to say about them at all, makes you not just anti-science, but a hater or denier or some other convenient and ineffable Bad Thing. We are supposed to accept these assertions because iWatch! Internet! fMRI! Or something.
Even hard sciences are not self correcting in any automatic or natural sense that ‘self-correcting’ implies. Nope, we dense humans have to do the work, and often we are either uninterested in or incapable of doing it. Thus, the better theory has to wait around for the proponents of the older theory to die off. Or, commonly, a new theory goes unchallenged because no one has the funding to check it out, or, even worse, knows that attempting replication will hurt their careers – hey, jobs and grants are on the line! Go discover something new, don’t rehash what ‘we’ already ‘know’.
1. Which qualifiers exclude Hegelians and Marxists and their spawn, who see Forces acting in History like a nervous schoolgirl sees ghosts in a graveyard.