Do You Feel Lucky?

(and feel free to comment! My older posts are certainly no less relevant to the burning concerns of the day.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why Trust Science? Pt. 1 of 2

There are two good reasons to trust the modern scientific community: one, because they use reality to settle their arguments. Human nature: some of these people can't stand each other, but in any case, those on opposite sides of a theoretical debate disparage the other side, believe their side is right, and they want to win. Reality is the thing they use, to beat the other side, to settle their disagreements. If one faction's argument can be overruled, the other faction is going to keep at it until it will be. The scientific community isn't a coterie of like-minded conspirators, getting their fake story straight in a back room so they can put one over on you. No, it's made up of faction vs. faction vs. faction, each with its own story of how things work, all working on the furthest-out reachable theories they can. They call each other and each other's theories wrong-headed, ill-considered, even crackpot! And eventually, reality is what settles their hash.

Controversy is largely limited to the cauldron of "active science": the area of theories whose predictions reach out further than what can currently be tested. While the practical scientists and engineers figure out ways to make the just-a-bit-out-of-reach theories testable, theoreticians continue to argue and refine their theories and predictions. Both sides look forward to what will eventually be experimentally confirmed, and every year, that's exactly what journals are filled with: controversies about new theories (that aren't yet entirely testable, or tested), and controversies about new experimental methods that have just been developed, and are being used to put past years' controversies to the test. The result that comes is an upset to the faction that believed the other thing, and you better believe they are going to scrutinize the results, and do it again. And do it again. And maybe even do it again.

But science eventually stops publishing do-overs. Science loses interest in deniers of reality, after reality has been proved by sufficiently conclusive and repeatable experiments. Active science is just a question of getting predictive theory into testable range.

Reality then wins every argument that science ever has. That's the first good reason to trust the modern scientific community.


Jen said...

Yes, that is how the s.c. views themselves. And that is how, at their best, they operate.
Still, all these people who are arguing with each other had very similar training. They had to, to master the basics. Despite their feuds, they are still a community. (c.f. the academic community) And like all communities, they are subject to fads, blind spots, and groupthink. They may tackle their opponents with gusto, but they are still playing on the same big football field.
I wouldn't say this is true of all people in every branch of science, but certainly within each discipline this is the case.
Also ... feuds do not always lead to reality winning. They can lead to both sides entrenching deeper and deeper into their exaggerated positions, and resorting more and more to rhetoric and less and less to research.

dogimo said...

What you say is true. Reality only settles the disagreements. And there are undoubtedly questions that haven't come into focus yet, because the question lies in an area where no one has thought to disagree.

The vast majority of science is always being done by non-controversialists, people with a stake in the status quo, and funding approved for working within it. Still, the great thing about science is: when the fringe thinkers catch on to something the mainstream has missed, due to the way the method is set up, it becomes harder and harder for the groupthinkers to dismiss the fringe.

Science is a method well-designed to cope with the failings of the humans running it. Its triumphs have been amazing, in a very short period of time. We should not have confidence in its perfection, but in its progress.