Understanding Science: the List & Some Questions

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!

Melodramatic. I’m more just pacing around…

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…

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

10 thoughts on “Understanding Science: the List & Some Questions”

  1. Since you are soliciting help, hopefully you take all this in the spirit of encouragement and good will it is intended. I am excited for you and this idea!
    I suggest that writing this book seems to be a lot like crafting a complex piece of software. I’ve been a software engineer since the early 1980s. I’ve seen and experienced first hand the tendency to add features beyond what is necessary for the customer. It is human nature. You know a lot. You likely know a heck of a lot more than your average user/customer/audience at least when it comes to writing software or in your case understanding science. It seems to me you are a creative guy brimming with great ideas,like most of the programmers I’ve worked with.
    All decent programmers are perfectionists and have a desire to “polish the dog”. Dog polishing is when the messy and dirty (read “useful and necessary”) work is done but wouldn’t it be grand to apply some polish here and tie a ribbon there? And especially folks will think I’m an amazing programmer if I added this flourish!
    Unfortunately this leads to never finishing the software or shipping the product. I could bore you with stories of multi-million dollar development projects that never were completed because of this tendency and lack of good management to tell the perfectionists to cut to the chase and ship product.
    My suggestion is to organize and categorize your ideas into 3 or 4 important topics and tell your stories around those. Make sure those 3 or 4 are compelling and persuasive and wildly entertaining. You can always have a appendix that notes there are many other things you could have talked through.
    Think of this book as the first release of a program. The next book could be version 2.0 add on.
    God bless your efforts! One final thought,ask for the intercession of St. Thomas Aquinas whenever you are stuck.

  2. Really excellent point about engineering being more sure that science. Never thought of that. One thing I might add to your list is the problem of chaotic systems. Science only works when the system is simple enough to predict. We have Newton’s Theory of Gravity because our solar system happened to be stable. It took folks quite a while to notice that gravitational systems are chaotic and can’t actually be predicted. There are intrinsic limits to what science can know.

  3. Good questions, Joseph. I have responses to many of them, but too long for a comment. If you wish, please email me and I’ll send you a 2000 word or so brief. BTW, you’re on the mark in distinguishing technology from science. Technology has different rules and truth values from science, but there is one in common. Empirical validation, predictablity is required for “truth.” And also, BTW: medicine is technology, not science; medical doctors are biological engineers, not scientists (in general). Having taught a couple of generations of pre-Meds and having spent the last 10 years until my retirement in tier 3 hospital as an MRI physicist, I can testify to that.

    1. Thanks, will do. I really do appreciate the feedback. I reread your article on this topic on your blog, and am rereading your book, “Top Down to Jesus”, which I did read a couple years ago, but then failed to review (having a front-row seat to the the fall of Western Civ can be distracting). I’ll write one up in the next day or two. My only observation: we’re coming at this from different, and I hope, complementary, angles. It needn’t and shouldn’t be either/or, but both/and (very Catholic, that!)

      Your point about doctors is exactly right – I’ve been saying it for years. The training tends to produce, on the one hand, a bit of hubris, and, on the other, an over-cautious approach to risks. This leads to over-reaction in assessing risk, and lack of nuance when creating protocols – the ‘just do what I tell you’ that many of us feel when talking with doctors, even doctors we like. Nowhere in the mix is training in anything like science properly understood.

      Thanks again, I really do appreciate the feedback!

      1. Joseph, please click on my name in the comment and it’ll get you to the latest edition, the webook, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth.” This has always been and remains a “work-in-progress.”

      2. Here’s an example to distinguish between medical technology and science. In 2005 I had a bowel resection (colon cancer) that sprang a leak. Radiology (barium milkshape followed in an hour by x-ray fluroscopy) did not show the leakage. I suggested to the surgeon that if the leak were small, it might not show up in the prescribed one hour (Fick’s Laws of Diffusion–rate of diffusion proportional to area of hole)–maybe a longer time would show something. He (not in the mold of most surgeons) agreed and prescribed a three hour delay between ingesting the barium shake (awful stuff!!!) and the x-ray. Sure enough, there was the barium spreading through the leak. Now, I’d bet that this guy had, as did most other premeds, a p-chem course that taught about diffusion. But that’s not the way the docs think, that is to say, what is happening in a scientifically valid but simple picture. Rather, it’s what has been done before and is recognized as effective by the “authorities” in the profession. So I hazard that it’s a reliance on authority and an unwillingness to proceed from fundamental scientific principles that governs how most (I won’t say all) medical doctors and administrators proceed.
        PS–I offered to co-author a paper on this with the surgeon in question… He wasn’t interested.

      3. Yep. I have, to a much less sophisticate level, similar issues when I try to talk to my doctor (who I like and respect) about ranges of values and natural variations – nope, there’s a table right there that says if X, do Y – and that’s that.

  4. A short answer for now: Take a look – or another look – at someone who has done the same kind of project successfully. My favorite for this audience is Whatever Happened to Penny Candy.

    When I wrote my textbook, golly, nearly two decades ago, I used a gardening text book. Completely unrelated subject, but it helped me understand how to break down, simplify, clarify and keep it fun to read.

    All of the topics are good. How you cover them should be like a gal’s skirt: so uneven chapters is fine. Let me know if you need a teen beta-reviewer or help with your index.

  5. Joseph

    My recommendation is to devote a chapter to stats for the layman. Specifically what it is; what isn’t and why it’s so easily abused. Stats are a major problem for laymen to grasp what its strengths are and where its inappropriate
    Next is to apply Feyman to notorious science abuses to demonstrate what science isn’t.
    In the end science is presented as replacing philosophy as that’s squishy while Science! is hardcore reality.


  6. Do you have the impression that many of our science experts think that because we can measure something, say, outdoor air temperature, we can control it? Not only that, that we know what the right number is and that with the right policies we can get it to be that?

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