There Is No Science

Eric Falkenstein:

I like listening to journalists talk about science … most of the translation to outsiders comes from non-scientists simply because there are more of them, and some write very well.  Yet, I find many times, when these journalists digress from a specific subject, to science in general they are extremely naive or duplicitous. If you go to The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, you invariably hear a bunch of caricatures of those who disagree with conventional wisdom on science—most of which truly are quacks, but not always—and they pedantically emphasize how these alternative views are ‘not science’: they have beliefs that do not have peer-reviewed tests supporting a falsifiable hypothesis. …

When journalists talk about science in general this is usually a pretext for saying those who disagree with their favorite idea are wrong, because they are unscientific. … They then caricature their opponents, taking the most inarticulate advocates from the other side, and skewering their illogic. They then sit back and take take inordinate pride in their scientific pretensions, as if their selective discussion was objective. The fact is, most ‘big’ scientific issues do not conform to the scientific method, where one puts out testable hypotheses, rejecting ones that are falsified.

He’s right: “science” basically means “study”, and there just is no simple way for outsiders to tell who is studying something well.  The best way to study a subject depends a lot on the details of that subject.  We have a few rough guides to expertise, such as careful language, formalism, attention to detail, years of study, IQ, cleanliness, endorsement by respected folks, etc., but there is no surefire ‘science’ checklist that can tell outsiders if research is good.

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  • Kevin Dick

    It seems like you’re saying there are no obvious-to-outsider _necessary_ conditions for evaluating the quality of science. But are there _sufficient_ conditions.

    For example, assuming you have a working knowledge of statistics, forecasting skill of a theory a sufficient (though not necessary) condition?

  • mikem

    but there is no surefire ’science’ checklist that can tell outsiders if research is good

    Could one be created, though?

    I accept that a lot of scientific research is much looser than the fictional ideal of peer-reviewed tests of falsifiable hypotheses, but a lack of formal quality metrics allows a lot of bad science to be passed off with the good.

    It would be beneficial to have a formalization of quality scientific research, since that would allow for the assessment and optimization of existing scientific operations, as well as facilitate automation where feasible.

    Even if you had to create formalizations customized for specific fields, it could have a lot of value.

  • The solution would be to open-source and user-friendly it all. (Yes, I just used “user-friendly” as a verb.) Make it so anyone can go online to the latest journal article and see a link to something that will bring them up to speed on it, which in turn will have a link to what they need to know to understand that, and so on.

    Also, all of it (at the more basic levels) should identify the scientific history with the current theories and what specific observations led to them and what other theories were rejected.

    Any computer models used to justify public policy should be open-source and downloadable. (Proprietary commercial software shouldn’t need to be open-sourced for this, just as long as it’s in general use in unrelated fields.) It must be well-documented, with traceability for all assumptions going into the model.

    Finally, and most importantly, there should be a list associated with each field of what observations would (if consistent) falsify the predominant theories.

    Would that work?

    Oh, and I have to say it: There is no science, just beliefs that Chuck Norris will and won’t kick your ass for saying out loud.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      >It must be well-documented, with traceability for all assumptions going >into the model.

      Best of luck. I have trouble getting co-workers on the same team
      to tell me what it is their subroutines are trying to do.

    • Any computer models used to justify public policy should be open-source and downloadable

      That is a great idea. Although, I fear that most public policy is made without paying much attention to (or even having) computer models. We have many elaborate climate models. We have no elaborate models of our economy or our transportation networks.

      However, science is already very open, so “open-source science” isn’t an answer to the question.

      • However, science is already very open, so “open-source science” isn’t an answer to the question.

        Not really. Finding the information I listed behind hotly-debated topics (truth and policy implications of global warming for example) is already a tremendous chore to compile in one place, effectively closing it off to anyone not willing to invest a lot of time “rubbing elbows” with people already “in the clique” of the predominant ideology.

        Now imagine how much harder it is for topics that *haven’t* received this scrutiny!

  • Daublin

    There is a lot of confusion in both the cited article and in this article about what science is. For sure, it’s not the “scientific method”. That doesn’t mean science doesn’t happen, but that it’s being misdescribed. Here’s what science means, in the tradition descending from the Enlightenment. Science is study with the following properties:

    1. It’s about objective claims. There is no place in science for claims that different observers will, by definition, never agree on.

    2. It’s about falsifiable claims. There is no place in science for claims that could never possibly be decisively proven false.

    3. The evidence must be repeatable by other scientists. In particular, experiments must be communicated in enough detail that other scientists can repeat the experiment so as to verify the result.

    4. It follows Occam’s Razor. Simple theories are better than complex ones.

    Peer review is listed in Eric’s definition, but I don’t see why. Isaac Newton was a scientist, but he didn’t submit his work to a peer reviewed journal in the modern sense. Steve McIntyre is a scientist, but his blog isn’t peer reviewed in that sense, either.

    Really, peer review is an editorial process that tries to keep journals relevant. The only indicator it puts on a paper is that it was among the best k papers the journal editors considered for a particular edition. For a good journal, lots of good science is rejected due to space constraints. For a bad journal, lots of bad science is accepted just to pad it out to a complete volume.

    • Jess Riedel

      While there are certainly many problems with the peer review process, your characterization is wrong. Most papers will get submitted to several journals (if necessary) to secure publication. To the degree to which better journals have a higher quality threshold (and given the fact that each journal has finite space constraints and scientists will submit to the most respected journals who might publish them), the quality of a paper can be estimated by the journal it is published in.

      There are many journals of varying quality, so simply being published is a low bar. In addition, there are several other factors besides quality that influence journals when selecting papers for publishing, so it’s not a perfect system. But the journal selection procedure *is* useful.

      Yes, there may be better ways to implement peer-review than the journal system. (Perhaps ArXiv 2.0?) But that doesn’t mean journals are useless, and it certainly doesn’t mean peer-review is useless.

      You are right that peer-review isn’t a necessary condition for “good science” (in the platonic sense) to have been done. But given that it is difficult for people outside the immediate field to determine if good science has been done, peer-review (through journals or otherwise) is an invaluable indicator. As Robin mentions, it’s basically impossible for people who aren’t educated in the field to make the call themselves.

  • TStockmann

    We have a few rough guides to expertize, such as careful language, formalism, attention to detail, years of study, IQ, cleanliness, endorsement by respected folks, etc., but there is no surefire ’science’ checklist that can tell outsiders if research is good.

    Oh goodness – I’m glad Talmudic studies passes the bar as a science. Certainly seems as qualified as “finance.”

    To argue that the processes we lump together as common usage “sciences” are more complicated than negation or competing paradigms or induction-and-generalization can be anything from sociology of science to basic Wittgenstein, but to think “studies” is a good approximation for current usage AND the practical reasons behind the rhetoric of employing the term doesn’t go nearly far enough and Falkenstein’s rambling entry just gutters into some bizarre genetic fallacy about Newton’s other activities. It’s not that some of the observations don’t point in correct directions – that “dark energy” and “dark matter” for that matter are just placeholders for observations rather than theories is pretty widely acknowledged – but leaving it at that like something about “science” has been demonstrated is way undercooked.

  • Thanatos Savehn

    Science should be taught as a verb rather than a noun.

    • It was in my schools, and it still sucked.

  • Jonnan

    I’m just not sure I agree with that, at a fundamental level.

    There’s an old argument ‘figures don’t lie, but liars sure can figure’, and at some point one thing I noticed was – actually, no, liars can’t., or at least don’t While it may be possible to construct a statistical scenario in a way that it’s not obvious that countering data is both present and hidden, but liars very rarely do so – rather they present data in such a way that it appeals to an audience that is carefully culled of anyone that is going to look carefully at the data.

    The very act of accepting that argument seem to me to be dressing up willful gullibility as cynicism, with the goal of going “I don’t know, *AND NEITHER DO YOU*!”.

    The same fundamental argument – that smart people can pick whatever data they want to fool you – is used by people that want to insist that {insert politically uncomfortable science theory here} is merely bad science being done to fool people is far too common.

    The fact of the matter though is that, although I certainly acknowledge I *could* be fooled, and that I have to weigh the question between accepting an expert opinion on an issue I can’t personally check versus accepting authority blindly, there is nonetheless something wrong with the people that don’t double-check things, or refuse to accept verifiable factual debunking of comfortable dogma because they find the source ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’.

    This has become all too common, and the refusal to believe that some people *do* carefully vet their sources is used all too often to preclude vetting ones own.


  • josh
  • Pedro

    99.9% of everything that was thought to be true (scientifically) has been proven false. Only 0.1% more and people will have it right!

    Finance, on the other hand, never suggests that the BS they put forth is true.

    • Doug S.

      There are degrees of wrongness. For example, Newtonian mechanics is “wrong”, but it’s lot less wrong than what came before it. If you use it to predict the motions of cannonballs, you’ll get an answer that’s accurate enough for just about any purpose you might care about.

    • Autumnal Harvest

      I disagree with this 99.9% claim. In fact, in the field that I’m most familiar with (physics), I can think of very few major scientific theories that physicists have been confident in, lasted 20 years or more, and then turned out to be false. There are some examples, but by and large, most foundational theories in physics (Newtonian mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, etc. . .) look exactly the same as they did 100 years ago.

      And while I suspect that I’m on the same page as Doug, I wouldn’t even refer to Newtonian mechanics as “less wrong.” (I recognize that he used scare quotes.) Newtonian mechanics is correct for the orders of magnitudes of velocities, masses, and distances for which it was tested, which is all one can really ask of it.

  • cerebus

    Are philosophers much better reasoning about science in general relative to what scientists actually do?

  • Cleanliness?

    Surely there are too many good researchers with cluttered offices for this to be a good correlate.

  • Granite26

    I’ve been watching a lot of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit lately, and they’re particularly bad about it, despite the fact that I usually agree with their points already.

  • Marilyn Reed

    As a good Popperian, I would say that it is a lot easier to define what science is not, than what science is. You are making something that is easy, far too difficult. For example:

    a) Failure or refusal to explain methodology makes it non-science.

    b) Writing scientific publications where the supposed scientist does not have access to the relevant data (or where the sientist is denied access) is non-science

    See these depressing takes of academia corrupted (and corrupt adademics) :

    c) Refusal to supply raw data to another when reasonably asked to do so, makes it non-science by definition.

  • Marilyn Reed

    Link in above should have been

    “Authors of science denied access to data”

  • Edward

    Here is a perfect example of a very ambiguous enterprise

    It has all the trappings of a free energy scam, except for a few things.

    a) According to the New York Times, they have raised 60 million dollars from respected CEOs with degrees in Chemical Engineering

    b) They seem to have had independent verification from a university lab

    c) They seem to have already made deals to license the technology to power plants

    Yet, everything they are proposing contradicts fundamental rules of Quantum Mechanics, and they have a number of scientists who reject their claims outright.

    As a layperson, I have absolutely no way of knowing if this is a huge crackpot scheme. The company’s papers and the papers that have attempted to refute them are using physics that is far beyond my comprehension.

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