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Is a botched understanding of “science” ruining everything?

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So says Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The Week:

So let me explain what science actually is. Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different.

To most people, capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It is a thing engaged in by people wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands. The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people.

In other words — and this is the key thing — when people say “science”, what they really mean is magic or truth.More.

Surely. He is right. How else to explain a story that pummelled through here yesterday?: Peer review: Snail declared extinct turns up again, no retraction issued? Apparently, the internal controversy turned on issues of “peer review.”

Actually, any two snails of the allegedly extinct species would be a suitable peer review committee.

Gobry goes on:

This leads us astray. Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers. Countless academic disciplines have been wrecked by professors’ urges to look “more scientific” by, like a cargo cult, adopting the externals of Baconian science (math, impenetrable jargon, peer-reviewed journals) without the substance and hoping it will produce better knowledge.

Because people don’t understand that science is built on experimentation, they don’t understand that studies in fields like psychology almost never prove anything, since only replicated experiment proves something and, humans being a very diverse lot, it is very hard to replicate any psychological experiment. This is how you get articles with headlines saying “Study Proves X” one day and “Study Proves the Opposite of X” the next day, each illustrated with stock photography of someone in a lab coat. That gets a lot of people to think that “science” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, since so many studies seem to contradict each other.

This is how you get people asserting that “science” commands this or that public policy decision, even though with very few exceptions, almost none of the policy options we as a polity have have been tested through experiment (or can be).

All some people really want is power over others, and they treat the word “science” a a magic formula. Then they go out looking for impressionable but powerful people to believe it.

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4 Replies to “Is a botched understanding of “science” ruining everything?

  1. 1
    Mapou says:

    If science is not truth, how does one explain the absolute confidence of scientists, especially the Darwinists among them? If it is not true that living organisms spontaneously formed from dirt and self-evolved into zebras and millipedes, where does the anti-science evolutionist dogma come from?

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    Evolution can be true because it is not science.

  3. 3
    tjguy says:

    So let me explain what science actually is. Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different.

    I like this guy! He seems to get the difference between historical science and operational or experimental science.

    In fact, he probably would not even call evolution a science. Mung is right. Evolution can be true because it is not truly a science.

    I’ve yet to see an experiment showing how a prokaryote can become a eukaryote, or how sex could evolve, or how DNA could evolve, or how life could evolve from chemicals, how single celled organisms could evolve into multi-celled organisms, or how apes can become humans, how planets form, how oceans form, how stars form, etc. etc. etc.

    This stuff is all just inferred and believed to have happened.

    If only scientists would stick with this definition of science!

  4. 4
    the bystander says:

    Science is just probabilities. No experiment across the globe is ever going to give the same results. There are a million variables which change every millisecond. Ergo, science can never predict anything so it is just belief parceled in technical jargons.

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