Dogmatic falsification of science

Karl PopperAn important element of the scientific method is that hypotheses must be testable, potentially falsifiable, to be scientific. That we build theories by testing hypotheses and rejecting them if proved wrong by experiential evidence. And not just hypotheses. Prevailing theories are also constantly open to potential falsification, testing against new evidence and changing to incorporate new findings.

The concept of falsification in science was popularised by Karl Popper.

But who does this testing?

It’s not a matter of personal responsibility. A scientist who advances a new hypothesis is not just left alone to try to falsify it. After all, scientists are human too. They have their own emotions, biases, beliefs and preconceived ideas. They are just a susceptible as anyone else to adopting a blinkered approach to any such testing. In fact, most scientists probably look for experimental procedures which would show their pet hypothesis in a favourable light, rather than seek consciously to develop experiments aimed at proving their hypothesis wrong.

Mind you, even an experiment designed to confirm a hypothesis may, in the end, show it to be wrong.

Science is a social activity

The real testing of any hypothesis or theory comes not from the individual proposer – but from her colleagues. These ideas do not become accepted without extensive consideration. Proposals are intensively discussed by colleagues in conferences and the scientific literature. And many, if not most, of these colleagues will try to prove the ideas wrong. Scepticism is a natural to scientists – at least about others work.

New and interesting ideas will also be tested by others. Repeatability of results is an important requirement for the acceptance of an idea.

Publication is also an important part of acceptance. After all, one’s research findings don’t really exist without their publication. Peer review is an important part of this. The author’s work is subjected to analyses of their methodology, reasoning and conclusions.

Peer review has been criticised as a way of preventing introduction of new ideas. (It’s also been said that science progresses one funeral at a time.) But the motive for this criticism is often sour grapes – an author wishing to blame the process rather than accept the errors in their own work (see Paradigms and dogma in science).

Yes, personalities and ambitions do come into this. And new ideas may face obstacles. But editors are not obliged to accept a reviewer’s comments if they consider them unwarranted. There are always other avenues of publication. In the end it’s impossible to keep a good idea down.

Beware of untested “science”

Some people find this social testing of their theories so restricting they refuse to submit them to it. Their “science” thus becomes nothing more that unsupported assertion. Claims of belief are not scientific theories.

Intelligent design (ID) ideas are like this. In practice ID just amounts to identifying real or imagined weaknesses in evolutionary science and attacking the scientific method. No ID hypotheses have been proposed, let alone tested against reality. In fact, ID activists argue that ID claims, in themselves, should be accepted as science. They argue for discarding testability as a requirement of scientific acceptability.  This has been an element in their US campaigns to rewrite science standards for some state education boards. It’s also behind campaigns like ‘teach the controversy’ and ‘academic freedom’ legislation. These give the same status to ID claims and beliefs as currently given to scientific theories which have survived testing.

Giving the untested claims of ID the same status as well accepted (because tested) scientific theory in the name of ‘academic freedom’ or ‘teaching the controversy’ really would, as Ken Miller says, create “an intellectual welfare for an idea that can’t make it on its own.

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13 responses to “Dogmatic falsification of science

  1. There was an interesting article regarding Popper’s falsifiability in last month’s New Scientist. Unfortunately you need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing but the essence of it was that some people are calling for a more Bayesian approach to hypotheses (especially those that are difficult to falsify) where different weights of evidence are built up. Of course, falsification would immediately remove the need for a Bayesian system but I think there is some validity in this approach when trying to determine whether ideas like string theory are worth pursuing.

    Here are the final two paragraphs from the article by way of summary (I hope this isn’t in breech of copyright):

    So where does all this leave the debate about whether concepts like the multiverse are really scientific? According to Howson, the multiverse is entirely scientific in Bayesian terms, as it is based on theories carrying huge weights of evidence. “If Popper condemns it as pseudoscience because it is ‘unfalsifiable’ – and it may not always be – then so much the worse for Popper.”

    But whatever one regards as the essence of science – black-and-white falsification or subtle shades of grey – in the end it is still empirical observations that decide if a theory gets taken seriously. “At some level, you cannot give up the idea of falsification,” says Krauss. “Rumours of the death of science have been greatly exaggerated.”

    The sad thing is, I can just see every man and his dog will selectively use conversations like this to try to push some very unscientific ideas. Aren’t we due for a C David Parsons comment about now? It’s been a while.

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  2. I think there are some key words that trigger Parsons’ comments (most of them seem automated) – evolution, intelligent design, etc.

    I would love to read the full article – I’ll keep my eye out for that issue. Even Peter Atkins, who is one of the most adamant in demanding scientific theories must be tested against reality, suggested (I think in Galileo’s Finger) that the time may well come when we have to rely on untested theories (like string theory) – because there are no ways of testing them.

    It goes against the grain for me. I suspect that aspects of string theory (at the edges as it were) will soon be tested anyway. And if we need to ‘use’ such a theory aren’t aren’t we, to some extent, testing it?

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  3. Some of the confusion stems from misunderstandings between the vocabulary of the scientific community and the vocabulary of the lay community. For example “theory” in the scientific community means an hypothesis that has been under severe scrutiny and has been corroborated many times. Among lay persons “theory” simply means an untested claim. Consequently, lay people think that scientific theory and lay theory are on the same level, which they definitely are not.

    Another misunderstanding has to do with ontological naturalism versus methodological naturalism. Lay people think science is something that scientists believe, ontology, as opposed to something that scientists do, methodology. The lay person does not recognize that science has nothing to do with ontology. Science is a methodology for testing hypotheses. There is no room for supernatural hypothesis because there is no methodology to corroborate or falsify them. Supernatural hypothesis are literally a waste of a scientist’s time. In other words there is no method available to prove or disprove the creationist correlation and therefore there is no correlation that can prove the creationist causation.

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  4. Lay people think science is something that scientists believe, ontology, as opposed to something that scientists do, methodology

    I’d never really thought about this before. Thanks! This adds some clarity to the whole muddy area of belief and ways of finding truth.

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  5. Grant : You raise a good point, but sadly many scientists are just “lay people” in disguise (possibly by employing a white lab coat and a pair of goggles). Not enough scientists have a true understanding of the underlying methodology. There is an equal amount of dogma in the scientific community as there is in the non-science community…the only saving grace for science is it isn’t based upon a framework of fear and “faith” 😀

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  6. PS Were Popper and Picasso brothers? Does anyone else see the resemblance?

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  7. Grant Czerepak, you are a gentleman and a scholar, as the old compliment goes. Dispassionate clarity! Who can argue? I may have to quote you in the future.

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  8. Whalecurry – think your comment is a bit harsh – but I agree scientists are just as human as anyone else. They have their own prejudices and emotional commitment to their ideas.

    But the saving grace is more than avoiding ‘faith.’ It also includes (as I say in my article) the social nature of science – repeatability, scepticism of colleagues, peer review and publication. In the end (and I agree it may take some time) scientific ideas do get measured against reality. That helps ‘keep us honest.’

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  9. Whalecurry:

    I agree with Ken in that your post 7 goes a mite too far 🙂 Its true that not everyone has a formal training in the philosophy and whatnot behind the over-arching methodolgy of science. But it is true that essentially everyone gets a more pragmatic on-the-job equivalent that’s foused on their particular field. Don’t forget, too, that the main person that matters in this regard is the PI, not the “lab rats”! 🙂

    I disagree that “There is an equal amount of dogma in the scientific community as there is in the non-science community.” In my experience, if there is an overriding dogma amongst PIs, its one of being critical (in the analytical sense) of you own and others’ work. The point here is that as a community, this works out fine even if individuals have their own stances in the shorter term.

    (Ken: your “Paradigms and dogma in science” in the blog asks for a password…)

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  10. Heraclides – I can’t find any reason why a password is being asked for. Could you let me know if this persists. and I will contact support. There do appear to be some problems with wordpress.com at the moment.

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  11. Ken, the URL I’m seeing for that link is: openparachute.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=417 which looks like an admin URL, not a user’s link. (I’ve removed the http bit in hope that stop the software turning the URL into a link! Bit hard to know what happens when there is no preview option.)

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  12. Yes – found it. The link in the body of the post.

    It’s sloppy work on my part – making the link before actually publishing the post.
    I’ve fixed it now.

    Many thanks for picking that up. I have learned something!

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  13. Pingback: Overcoming dogmatism in science « Open Parachute

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