When the Science Goes Away 1 - Definitions

What is science really, and why should we trust what it tells us?

We live in an age of science and modern marvels new every day - or, at least, we'd like to think so.

In reality, true scientific thought has become rare in America, as competing political groups seek to clothe themselves in the credibility of "science" to advance their self-serving agendas.  When science becomes political, scientific credibility is lost and the resulting policies don't benefit society nearly as well as they should.

We've always been fascinated by science, and we've mourned as political factions claim that "the science is settled" and accuse each other of "denying science."  In truth, by definition any such accusations are the opposite of real science.

But what does that really mean?  It appears the meaning of science has been obscured of late.  So, to make sure we all understand what we're talking about, we need to begin at the beginning: by defining "science" so you can decide what is and what is not truly scientific.

When US Treasury agents learn how to distinguish real currency from counterfeit, they don't study counterfeit bills.  That's because there are so many different forms of counterfeit out there in the wild that examining so many bad samples would take too much time.  Instead, agents focus on examining genuine currency as closely and as fervently as possible.  Once they become familiar with the real thing, differences stand out plainly.

In his best-selling book The Demon-Haunted World, famed science presenter Carl Sagan discussed many different forms of bad science.  One of his major points came on p 25:

Science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking.  I have a foreboding ... when the [American] people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; ... we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

Prof. Sagan likened fake science to demons deliberately manipulating the gullible, and thought of science as a candle in the darkness of superstition, seances, alien abduction, and other forms of fakery.  He discussed in scientific terms what the Bible, from a religious perspective, calls "science falsely so called" - things that claim to be secret knowledge that can be studied and learned, like magic, but really are fake.

Many of our readers, no doubt, are religious.  Others are irreligious, agnostic, or even purely rationalistic.  Rather than go down one of those particular sidetracks, we'll emulate the US Treasury and focus strictly on science, by which we mean, the Real Thing.

What Science Is

Legendary professor Richard Feynman's observations on the fundamentals of science go straight to the heart of the matter.  Dr. Feynman was such a compelling teacher that Bill Gates said that if he had seen his physics lectures earlier, he would probably have gone into physics instead of computer software.  Mr. Gates later bought the rights to some of Feynman's lectures and posted them online for free so all of us can benefit from them.

  He summarized the major pitfall in the practice of science:

"It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are.  If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong."  [emphasis added]

 - Dr. Richard Feynman

That's how science should work.  You have an idea of how some part of the universe works.  To have any chance of being right, you should base your theory on as much information as you possibly can.  Until you can prove it against reality, however, your thought has little if any scientific value. You predict what data would show if your theory is correct, you collect data, and see if the universe behaves according to your theory.

To Prof. Feynman, the meaning of the word "experiment" was so obvious that he didn't elaborate, but we must amplify a bit.

Suppose you think that a firm soccer ball will bounce higher than a soft one.  You collect data by dropping it precisely 3' several hundred times and measure the height of each bounce.  You compute the average height and the variance.  You increase the pressure in the ball to see if it bounces higher, and you do several hundred more drops.  You decrease the pressure and do it again.  You now have a dataset with different bounce values for different amounts of air pressure.

You publish "That's the way the ball bounces" and show how your data confirm your hypothesis, adding an explanation of why pressure affects the bounce if you have one.

To Prof. Feynman, that isn't a complete experiment: it doesn't count unless you document what you did well enough that other people can collect the same sort of data you did and get the same resultsThat is an experiment.  Your theory isn't confirmed by data you generate; it's true only if others can repeat the experiment to confirm your claims.  That is called "replicability" or "repeatability."

Very few people appreciate the fact that replicability is a uniquely Christian concept.  If you read Homer's Odyssey, you'll remember that many of Odysseus' troubles getting home to his longsuffering wife Penelope were caused by the fickleness of various Greek gods and goddesses.  When one god got into a hissy-fit with another, they'd fling a storm at Odysseus or try to lure him to wreck his ship on the rocks.

Asians speak of "karma" as a sort of unpredictable force which messes with people on whim, vaguely like the Force of Star Wars.  If your worldview is based on the concept of events being driven by the whims of all-too-human gods and goddesses getting into snits with one another, you can't come up with the concept of replicability.  The experiment won't turn out the same way for someone else because the outcome is in the lap of the gods or karma or whatever.

The Christian God, in contrast, is a God of order and repeatably who commanded human beings to "subdue the earth" (Genesis 1:28) through study of how the world actually works (Job 12:7).  He also holds us accountable for how we manage the earth He has given us.  That is why science, concern for conservation of natural resources, emancipation of women, abolition of slavery, and protection of animals originated in Judaeo-Christian thought.

Once the process of science and the principle of repeatability had been shown to work, other nations picked up on it, but the fact remains that most Nobel Prizes are issued to inhabitants of Christianity-based societies.

Crackpot or Genius?

The only difference between a crackpot and a genius is that the genius' idea turns out to be right.  There's no way to tell until you, and others, compare the theory against reality and get a match.  The weirder the genius' theory is, the more confirmation it requires before people accept it.

You figure out what the world would look like if your theory about how the ball bounces is true.  You find existing data, or you collect new data, and see if what actually happens in the real world matches what you predict.  If it does, you write a paper and hope for another research grant.

If reality doesn't match your idea, you're wrong!  You need to get a new idea and start over.  It doesn't matter how right your idea seems - it either is, or it is not, based entirely on the data you and anyone else can gather.

"Anyone else" is extremely important.  When you write your results, you're supposed to share your data and tell how you generated, collected, and analyzed it so that others can "replicate" your results.  If you get a wonderful result but nobody else can get the same answer, it's not replicable and shouldn't count.

Suppose you're Harry Potter.  You cast a spell to fly you to the moon, but no matter how hard you try, you can't teach just-any-old-Muggle how to do it.   What good does that one-off do for the broad march of science?  It's not, of course - it's magic.

The "cold fusion" announcement by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in 1989 is a legendary example of a non-replicable experiment a.k.a.a  failure.  They told the world they'd figured out how to do nuclear fusion at close to room temperature instead of center-of-the-sun heat and pressure that had generally been assumed to be required.

If they'd been right, they would have been the world's first trillionaire Nobel Prize winners.  Their demonstration before the world's press looked very impressive.  When every other scientist in the world followed their instructions to reproduce the experiment, however, it didn't work for anybody - not even for them, the next time they tried.

It's not fully understood why they got the results they thought they did  They were honestly trying to be scientific, but since nobody could repeat their experiment, it wasn't good science, and we don't have flying cars and starships running on infinite energy sources.  Too bad!

The Pitfall

That is where the rubber meets the road.  Scientists are just as human, just as fallible, and just as greedy as everybody else.  It's far too easy to fall in love with an idea and torture the data to match instead of admitting that your beautiful idea won't work and trying something else.

This is particularly tempting when your idea is politically correct or favored by the Powers that Be.  If you're glib enough and your idea is favored strongly enough, it can gain the stature of an unchallengeable state religion even if it's completely bogus.

Lysenkoism is our favorite example.  The Soviet biologist and geneticist Trofim Lysenko rejected the idea of natural selection in favor of Lamarckism, which argues that acquired characteristics can be inherited.  Briefly summed up, Lysenkoism taught that if you chopped off someone's leg, and then chopped off their kid's leg, and so on for a few generations, eventually the genes would catch on and kids would start being born minus one leg in the first place.

In spite of common knowledge that Jews had practiced circumcision for thousands of years without baby boys being born without foreskins, Joseph Stalin favored the idea, rising, applauding, and declaring "Bravo, comrade Lysenko!  Bravo!" after a speech.  After Stalin's endorsement, Soviet media exaggerated Lysenko's successes and ignored his failures.  Sound familiar?

Lysenkoism was so "woke" that starting around 1935, more than 3,000 biologists were dismissed or imprisoned, and many were executed, in the campaign to suppress disagreement.  Anyone opposing Lysenko was criticized as a defender of "mysticism, obscurantism and backwardness," a willfully-ignorant denier of "settled science."  Sound familiar yet?

The formal ban on criticizing Lysenkoism was finally lifted in the mid 1960s after holding back Soviet medical and agricultural research for two generations because of an idea that a child can easily observe to be arrant nonsense.  But try telling Comrade Stalin, Comrade Greta Thunberg, or the wokerati that they're spouting nonsense...

By now, we hope we've clearly explained what science is and given some examples on what it isn't.  In the next article in this series, we'll go more deeply into how real science should operate.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments

Will,

Bravo, a good article about the nature of science.

I offer a small clarification:

You said, "Until you can prove it against reality..." In actuality, one can never really "prove" anything in science. You always strive to disprove theories, not to prove them. Eventually a theory may become recognized as a rule or a law, but is still subject to disproof. For instance, even Einstein's theorems are still being debated 80 years later. Only in mathematics can a full proof be confirmed.

I look forward to your successive articles on this topic.

Jay MacDonald

November 25, 2020 5:10 PM

We aren't the only ones discussing this, but the WaPo is celebrating instead of mourning.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/thomas-jefferson-high-admissions-change/2020/10/07/0a1f8faa-08a7-11eb-9be6-cf25fb429f1a_story.html

The famed — and feared — admissions test at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a prestigious magnet school in Northern Virginia, is no more.

The Fairfax County Public Schools Board on Thursday night gave the green light to a proposal, submitted by Superintendent Scott Brabrand, that eliminates the test and the $100 application fee, long staples of the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson. His proposal also increases the size of the school, known as TJ.

The changes take effect immediately, meaning this year’s crop of eighth-graders — many of whom have spent months, if not years, preparing for the test — will not sit down this fall to take the two-part exam on math, reading and science.

But the board did not take action on a more controversial part of the superintendent’s proposal: his suggestion that Fairfax assign 400 of 500 spots in TJ’s classes by a “merit-based lottery.” That strategy, meant to boost the number of Black and Hispanic students after decades of extremely low enrollment, would allow any students from five geographical areas to enter a lottery for seats at the school, provided they meet certain academic qualifications: a 3.5 GPA and enrollment in Algebra I.

...

The lottery proposal spurred controversy from the moment Brabrand introduced it on Sept. 15. He promised it would cause TJ’s student body — which is more than 70 percent Asian and about 20 percent White, with single-digit percentages of Black and Hispanic students — to more closely resemble the demographics of Fairfax County.

At a lengthy and contentious public work session on the plan Tuesday night, two days before Thursday’s meeting, several school board members said they were concerned by the idea of a lottery. Some worried it would undermine the mission of TJ, which is supposed to serve as a school for especially gifted children who are passionate about science, technology, engineering and math.

“The public has every right to be concerned about what you’ve outlined here,” board member Megan McLaughlin said of the lottery at one point, addressing Brabrand directly.

The board members’ comments echo larger frustrations shared by some students, alumni and parents. Opponents say a lottery system will rob deserving children of spots at the prestigious school, which is often ranked the No. 1 public high school in the country. They also say it will force unqualified children into an academic environment that is too rigorous and will ultimately drive down TJ’s academic rating.

November 28, 2020 8:55 PM
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