Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Scientific findings are factual"?

Often we hear people say "scientific findings are factual." In fact I assumed that statement almost without reservation. "Almost" because I also know that that statement is not true. Hence though I often assumed that, yet I do not usually claim to be scientific.

The statement "science is about fact" or "scientific findings are factual" betrays one's ignorance in "science." Since Kuhn and Lakatos, we have Feyerabend.

And since the time of these three late prophets, we have a number of high profile misconducts in science (recently Jan Hendrik Schön, Woo-Suk Hwang, Marc Hauser, and Anil Potti) that simply prove the instability and unreliability of "science." (Those who disagree say that the expose of frauds in science shows that science is a self-correcting enterprise. But "self-correcting" is itself problematic as it is self-contradicting as shown below.)

When asked about the pressure to perform that scientists face, Ulrich W. Suter, the investigator on scientific misconducts appointed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, remarked, "Some of the greatest scientists, such as Lamarck or Galileo, most probably have cheated a little. A scientist makes huge demands on himself. He wants to create something which lasts. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t want to feel like a failure." (Emphasis added) In other words, Suter is saying that it is not uncommon for scientists to cheat due to internal and external stresses.

On the other hand, science itself celebrates self-contradiction. The more foundational it contradicts itself, the more appreciated the contradiction is. For example, the latest discovery from the Large Haldron Collider:

"The findings have surprised physicists as they contradict the accepted view of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the creation of the universe – that the Big Bang threw out a superheated gas that clumped together to form matter. [...] Brian Cox, a particle physicist at the University of Manchester and presenter of the forthcoming BBC series Wonders of the Universe, said [...] "These experiments are providing us with a new energy regime so to see unexpected behaviour is very exciting. These findings are very interesting."" (Emphasis added)

Scientists, like Brian Cox, get excited when science get contradicted (how many Nobel prizes are given to scientists who contradicted earlier scientific findings?).

It is true that they are excited that they found better understanding, but who knows if this is really a "better" understanding, and not merely one among equally false understandings (not even "best inference") given the nature of the scientific enterprise?

In science, every understandings are just waiting to become false understandings. Its own nature of self-correcting demands it. So what exactly do we mean by "factual" or "fact" in an enterprise which seeks after, excited and celebrates its own self-contradiction?


eppursimuov3 said...

in continuation of our previous discussion on your earlier post -

I guess I'm more optimistic about science than you are (which is obviously the reason I'm doing it). :) Yes, we do find it much more interesting when a discovery/observation disproves a foundational theory - because it means we have more work to do! haha. So while most scientists dream of making such a discovery, it doesn't occur very often. It is balanced by the fact that to disprove a foundational theory - you'll have to convince all other scientists who hold on to the old paradigm - and scientists tend to be very critical towards such claims of disproving foundational theories. Moving from classical Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics was a real pain and took a really long time to be accepted. In fact, I might even liken it to similar paradigm shifts in the history of Christian thought/theology. So I think there is a check and balance there.

Oh yes - I agree that science has its limitations -and it doesn't always work out perfectly, and there will be the 'cheats' and the 'fake results' here and there. But I think it generally still works. The computer we have in front of us right now is a testament of this. :)

fidspecar said...

Hi, to complement what you have written here:

Instead of saying "Scientific findings are based on facts (truth).", it's more accurate to say that "Scientific findings are based on observations." Hence, we use the term scientific theory (law) and not scientific truth.

To be a valid scientific theory, it has to be falsifiable, that is, if it was false, then its falsehood could be demonstrated. Since it's based on observations, it's impossible to conceive all possible observations to test the theory. A scientific theory, therefore, is never absolutely 100% true, only that it holds to a certain degree of confidence. This degree of confidence is proportional to the ability of the theory to explain past observations and to predict future observations.

We are confident that a mature scientific theory (e.g. law of conservation of energy) is true with 99.9% confidence because thousands and thousands of experiments have been performed to test it, and it holds. To be critical and skeptical towards a new scientific idea on the other hand is, in fact, the right attitude, until it's subjected to rigorous testing.

Our ability to observe also limits the strength of the theory. Thus the theory of evolution is limited by the fossils that we can find, the theory of the origin of the universe is limited to the lights that can reach us, etc. And not until we could measure matters at subatomic levels, we could test Newtonian's mechanics in quantum realm (and found it to not hold).

So, don't treat all scientific claims as if they are on equal footing. Examine the experiments and evidences presented. Some theories are more worthy of of trust than others.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi eppursimuov3 and fidspecar,

Both of you have provided much to think about. Thank you very much for taking time to write down those thoughtful comments.

I learn a lot! :-)