Scientists (that’s plural!) define science

My most recent post acknowledged that there is always disagreement among scientists, yet I argued that findings of science are our best bet for what is natural reality in this awesome, bewildering universe. This post addresses what might seem discrepant in these contentions.

A couple of caveats: First, scientists tend to agree more the longer a field of inquiry exists. From Copernicus’s church-challenging, highly impolitic ideas about heliocentrism to Wegener’s theory of drifting lithosphere plates—forgive my recycling historical instances previously used—the percentage of scientific agreement steadily increases from almost nothing to unanimity. (Remembet that Einstein initially rejected aspects of quantum mechanics and the notion of an expanding universe.) Second, at any one time scientists tend to agree about a theory’s broader features more than its finer points. For example, almost all biological scientists accept post Darwinian evolution, yet Dawkins and Gould, prominent evolutionary biologists, disagreed vociferously about the role of punctuated equilibrium within evolution. Most disagreements among scientists the general public never hears of . . . with the notable exceptions below.

Disagreements are to be expected in the progress of science. Unlike religion which has a tendency toward calcification (when you have the Truth, what’s to change?) as well as mistreatment of those who hold new ideas, science runs a jagged path as it tries to get ever closer to truth. It rarely ex-communicates blasphemers and I can’t remember the last time scientists burned a wild card colleague at the stake.

As nonscientists look on, though, how are we to make our way among the disagreements causing theorists and experimentalists to fight out opposing views in scientific journals? We don’t have the expertise to judge the varying contentions. We don’t even have the ability to judge expertise itself!

Not only are nonscientists in this predicament, scientists in a non-relevant field are as well. Expertise in astronomy, for example, imparts no expertise in biology. (Newton, aside from brilliance in physics and mathematics, was a spiritualist and alchemist.) Nor does expertise in science imply expertise in art, literature, philosophy, or uncountable other pursuits. In fact, expertise in science doesn’t even assure expertise in the philosophy of science, a related but different field. Additionally, we must be aware that there are persons who competently work in pursuits that are regularly called science, but are not trained for the experimental and analytical tasks of building and testing theories or hypotheses (the discipline that gives science its special epistemic status). Most physicians and high school science teachers, for example, fit that description. Hence, it is a mistake to assume an even highly qualified doctor or rocketry engineer is therefore a scientist in this sense. But let’s return to how we can size up disagreements among those whose truth-seeking actually does employ the scientific method.

Normally, we are blissfully ignorant about theories struggling to dominate in the scientific mission. The fact is, we don’t pay attention unless a theory in ascendance steps on our theological, political, or commercial toes. So when evolution by natural selection, anthropogenic climate change, and tobacco’s health effects get our attention, suddenly we all have an opinion and even get into public debate on one side or another! Remember now, I don’t mean opinions about what we can do to best use evolving scientific findings; I mean opinions about the bothersome facts themselves.

We can be so frightened or offended by parts of the scientific debate that our lack of expertise is no barrier to our taking up arms (figuratively, one hopes) in the battle. But in an attempt to avoid looking like complete ignoramuses, we seek out scientist outliers (one or more is always available) who agree with our uninformed view and disagree with most other scientists. So it is that cigarette companies could find scientists who claimed tobacco posed no threat to health. Current “intelligent design” (ID) proponents can find scientists who refute evolution. In the case of climate change, experts were found first to claim it isn’t happening at all, then ones who could say even if it is, the human role is negligible.

In other words, the normal way in which science advances—which virtually necessitates outliers, at least for awhile—presents a juicy temptation ideologues can seize upon to support what they choose to believe. So seize they do, shouting their pseudo-evidence from the rooftops. The general public—distracted by Facebook, Dancing with the Stars, and a pennant race—will likely be convinced not by the evidence anyway, but by the repetition, clamor, and PR budget of zealots.

Happily, the tobacco issue is over. Companies that employed outlier scientists to dress their commercial interests in respectability lost, much to the benefit of the public. Now the liveliest public issues are evolution and climate change. For religious and political reasons, those who reject scientific consensus on both seek out scientific outliers and present them as spokespersons for science. Thus a minority view has been elevated to equal status with the near-unanimity of biological and meteorological scientists. In their broad aspects at any rate, significance of human effects on climate change and post Darwinian evolution are settled science. Thus, driven by ideology rather than discovery, “deniers” cloak their outlier case in feigned scientific legitimacy.

Please don’t get me wrong about scientific outliers. I am not saying outlier scientists are evil, misinformed (how would I know?), or of questionable integrity. I am not even saying they are wrong. I am saying that when nonscientists single out an outlier (such as Behe with respect to evolution) to represent science, they thereby cast the vast majority of scientists as misled or conspiratorial. It is honorable to be an honest outlier; the future might even prove today’s outliers right. It is dishonorable to build a case for outliers based on nothing but whether we disagree with those who offend our ideologies.

In the Atlanta area a few years ago a member of the Cobb County school board said there were “some parts of the theory of evolution I disagree with.” (She also pointed out that the tenets of evolution are “only a theory”—a statement too ignorant to deserve space even in an amateur’s blog.) One wonders how she was able to select pieces of a coherent theory to disagree with inasmuch as she had no biological or even general science background. The only way to do that was to be guided by her religion (or, worse, by her constituents’ religions). I suppose it goes without saying that religious views don’t have as strict a test to pass as scientific ones.

It’s no revelation, of course, that we have a disturbing tendency to accept scientific findings we like and reject ones we don’t. We can twist ourselves into pretzels to latch onto any scientist who’ll help our biases rest comfortably unchallenged. We do so at the expense of the kind of silliness—and foolishness, often improbity—exhibited by that school board member.

It is foolish for nonscientists to think they can adjudicate between groups of scientists on scientific topics. Consider this parallel: If 95% of equally qualified physicians recommend action “A” for my sick child and 5% recommend action “B,” it would as unwise to go with the 5%, but it would also be a waste of time to have opposing physicians debate the matter before me. (As to scientists actually expert in biological and meteorological science, those figures are not out of the ballpark.) However, when it comes to threatening ingrained beliefs, facts and expertise seem not to stand a chance.

So, a summary: Individual scientists can do sloppy or self-interested work; they are human. A minority of scientists’ views do not constitute “what science says.” Even then, majority scientific viewpoints can be wrong. Given time, wrong and incomplete scientific consensus are self-correcting. Science makes no claim to absolute truth, but does claim incremental approaches toward truth. “Theory” means not a guess, but a creative conceptualization of the unseen pattern behind observable facts that further testing has not yet falsified. Consequently, the scientific method provides the most trustworthy description of the natural world. The majority scientific opinion at any one time provides the most prudent assumption for public and political decisions regardless of whether they support or challenge cherished beliefs.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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