I’m attempting here to draft you, my kind and loyal readers, to sort of beta-test my ideas for how to approach this Understanding Science book I’m knee deep in at the moment. I’ll really owe you one if you’re able to help me out here, but not sure what that would mean. So, for now, how about gratitude? Thanks!
This book is turning out to be very difficult. My tendency to overexplain on the one hand, and to see the hard cases on the edges on the other, combine to make the goal – actually helping people to smell the rat when preposterous claims are made that ‘science has shown’ this or that – gets bogged down in probably useless detail…
So, here’s a list of signs we’re not talking science, a first pass at the tools I’m trying to arm people with. Yes, there are ragged edges, but for now I’m ignoring them.
It’s not science if:
- an appeal is made to ‘scientific consensus’ – misdirection away from evidence
- you are told to ‘believe’ the science – an act of faith
- you are told to ‘trust’ the scientists – an appeal to authority
- you are told the ‘science is settled’ – a demand to ignore the nature of scientific knowledge
- you are otherwise commanded to have and defend a position – an affront to honest ignorance
- the claim is said to dictate policy – policy involves necessarily non-scientific value judgements
- the claim is about thoughts or feelings or other non-physical objects – valid scientific claims are always about the measurable properties of physical objects.
- Model output is presented as evidence – models are an expression of prejudice.
Well? The purpose here is to arm people with proper heuristics to weed out the obviously bogus stuff. Would a short chapter on each of these be useful? Anything I’m missing?
There probably should be a related list of more technical issues, such as:
- Forced rankings and related abuses. Generally, this falls under the metrical properties of physical bodies rubric – when asked to say, on a scale of 1 to 5, how you feel about something, that already fails that test. But there’s sneakier stuff, like how reasonable doubt is forced out of the evidence simply by insisting on yes or no answers. Somethings are just not certain, but our data collection procedures eliminates that uncertainty.
- Use of statistics. If you don’t understand the issues at a philosophical level, throwing numbers around doesn’t improve things. But it tends to cow most people.
- Problems of scale. Sometimes, a million isn’t a big number; sometimes 1 is.
- Assumptions of homogeneity. People, specifically, are not atoms.
- Studies are the beginning of science, not the end product. Almost all studies are wrong, especially if you’ve heard about them through the popular media.
- Most people we think of as scientists are really technicians or guild members, even most who have ‘science’ somewhere on their diploma or in their job title.
- Polls are not science, and only provide evidence of how a sample population answered a poll at a certain point in time.
Next, been debating whether or not to include a little epistemology, specifically, Aristotle’s distinction, by way of Thomas, between necessary truths, conditional truths, and techne or art. I don’t want to bog it down, but this would provide me a way to sort of sidestep the soft sciences by simply ascribing them to the realm of techne: rather than having to beat down psychology, say, I can just set it aside with the comment: it’s an art, not a science. We know this because it does not treat of the metrical properties of physical bodies (among other things). It may still be useful, but it cannot command our agreement in the way a true science demands an honest man’s agreement.
If I discuss conditional knowledge versus art, am I then obliged to discuss the older definition of science as merely the systematic study of anything: the science of love, say, or phrenology? Or can I just tip-toe past that graveyard where reason goes to die?
As much as I’d love to beat down the whole brain scan scam, for example, that might be more a distraction than a help. A book bashing each of the prominent cargo-cult sciences would be a long book, and probably beyond my abilities to finish in this lifetime.
Finally, I’ll need to discuss technology at least a little, how it differs from science properly so called. The important point: technology has a much stronger claim on our acceptance than science. We KNOW the light goes on, the car starts, the GPS works, the crops grow, and a million other similar things, in a way we’ll never know what an electron is or how and to what extent natural selection works. I don’t understand Einstein very well at all, but I’m told that, due to the high speeds at which satellites travel, relativistic adjustments need to be made for my GPS to be as accurate as it is. If this is true – conditional alert! – then I’m a lot more confident in Relativity.
Technology and how it relates to science properly so called is another fascinating topic – but is it helpful?
This post is just me pacing around, figuratively, as I stare at the growing pile of words in front of me…