Overcoming dogmatism in science

One more post from 18 months ago:

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.

Similar articles:
Paradigms and dogma in science
Dogmatism around science – the “supernatural.”
Scientific knowledge – not “just a belief!”
Science and the supernatural
Teaching science in faith schools
Evolution – a theory or a fact?


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5 responses to “Overcoming dogmatism in science

  1. Would not one way to test a thought experiment be publication in advance of peer review?


  2. You are talking about speculation – which goes on all the time. In different formats, articles, conferences, etc.

    But that produces only discussion and further speculation. Not testing.

    Ideas get tested by mapping against reality. By checking predictions in real experiential measurement.


  3. I’d argue that if the idea is unique enough (and we can find in the literature many such that were), someone with capabilities to do so might well be persuaded to put it to the test. And if no-one does so, then in a way that failure to test is in its own way a “test result.”


  4. Pingback: The dogma of paradigm shifts « Open Parachute

  5. I guess it depends on the field. Certainly theoretical scientists will produce speculative ideas (with supporting maths, etc) which others will test in the real world.

    For many of us, though, personally testing our own ideas seems important. After all we own them in some way, and can’t really expect others to by sympathetic to them.

    This was brought home to me when the peer review of one of my papers rejected my inclusion of a suggested mechanism (the paper having proved that the currently accepted mechanism was not correct), pointing out that speculation was not good enough. That encouraged me to do the extra work which greatly improved the paper. Others may not have taken up my idea and hence it could have got lost.


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