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Rev Blair

Reconciling the Sciences

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I'm not sure if this belongs here. If not, it'd be cool if a mod could move it.

 

There is kind of a spectrum of scientific disciplines. On one end you have the hard sciences and on the other the soft. Physics and mathematics are definitely hard sciences. Political science is so soft that it resembles black magic more than anything...free verse poetry is arguably closer to the scientific method.

 

In between you have archaeology, anthropology, biology, psychology, chemistry and so on. Obviously, some are harder sciences than others. All are useful though. Some, especially those with increasingly vague subsets (er, archaeology and Egyptology, for instance) range from being relatively hard sciences to being pretty open to interpretation and even open to charlatanism (Eric von Danniken, anyone?)

 

Then there are the misnamed ones...why doesn't UFOlogy study UFOs instead of alleged alien visitations? I've seen a UFO and really want somebody to be trying to find out what it was. It was likely just a weather balloon or a military jet or something. Hell, maybe it was a Cessna with an inebriated but talented pilot...but I want to know what it was, or at least have a reasonable explanation of what it might have been. I'm pretty sure that a race of advanced aliens with amazing technology didn't traverse half the galaxy to put on a light show for a bunch of Saskatchewan farm boys though, and it'd be cool if there was somebody you could call who didn't use that as a starting point.

 

So is there anyway of reconciling the sciences, or maybe rating them or something? Can we educate the public to the point where real scientists can look into UFOs and Sasquatch or whatever without having to deal with people that think ET and Harry and the Hendersons were documentaries?

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What you are noting are theories, not "sciences". Yes, UFO has come to = the theory of alien visitation in spaceships. As you noted, there are lots of unidentified flying objects. They exist. They were "flying" and are not identified. However, that doesn't make them alien spaceships.

 

What you want to do is discuss phenomenon without automatically putting them into suspect or even falsified theories. Good luck.

 

You also appear to want a way to differentiate between a substantiated belief and one that is not. I suggest you start by reading an essay entitled "Demise of the Demarcation Criteria" by Larry Laudan:

 

"Through certain vagaries of history, some of which I have alluded to here, we have managed to conflate two quite distinct questions: What makes a belief well founded (or heuristically fertile)? And what makes a belief scientific? The first set of questions is philosophically interesting and possibly even tractable, the second question is both uninteresting and, judging by its checkered past, intractable. If we would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like `pseudoscience' and `unscientific' from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us. As such, they are more suited to the rhetoric of politicians and Scottish sociologists of knowledge than to that of empirical researchers. Insofar as our concern is to protect ourselves and our fellows from the cardinal sin of believing what we wish were so rather than what there is substantial evidence for (and surely that is what most forms of `quackery' come down to), then our focus should be squarely on the empirical and conceptual credentials for claims about the world. The `scientific' status of those claims is altogether irrelevant." (Laudan L., "The Demise of the Demarcation Problem," (1983), in Ruse M., ed., "But is it Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy," Prometheus Books: Amherst NY, 1996, p.349).

 

Basically, my suggestion is to look at ideas and try to falsify them. You have already started this with your example of a UFO: by noting the implausibility that an interstellar spaceship would be doing aerobatics for the amusement of some farmers in Saskatchewan. That's an attempt at falsification. You also made a start by postulating alternative hypotheses. You want to test them. You may not have the means to do so, but you at least have them.

 

So now you have a set of hypotheses to explain what you observed but insufficient data to pick just one by eliminating the others.

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I'm not so much worried about me trying to falsify them though, lucaspa...I kind of grew up with a wariness of bizarre claims, for reasons I won't get into here.

 

What I'm really after is some way of rating them so that others aren't taken in so easily.

 

Another example:

 

I know a woman who goes ghost hunting, using "scientific" techniques she learned from TV. She's a nice enough woman, and a friend of my wife's, so I sit and feign interest when she shows me her ghost pictures. Of course there's nothing there that buying a new Nikon and some decent lenses wouldn't fix, but she's convinced that every bit of lens flare is a ghost.

 

She knows that because she's been told so by "experts".

 

So is there any way we can rate the scientists and the people who pretend to be scientists, or their theories, so that there's some kind of scale that appears underneath their names when they are putting forth their theories?

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What I'm really after is some way of rating them so that others aren't taken in so easily.

 

Science isn't very good at "rating". When we deal with hypotheses, they are either true or not. There is no way, using deductive reasoning as science mostly uses, to rate the "probability" of a hypothesis being true.

 

Some people have tried to introduce Bayesian statistics to determine the "probability" of a hypothesis being true. Archives of Internal Medicine requires a Bayesian analysis with each paper. But there are some severe problems with Bayesian statistics.

 

As to your example, you could ask her whether she can duplicate the pictures in no-ghost situations by different sets of lighting. If she can get flares where she is pretty sure there are no ghosts, then her pictures are what we call "artifacts".

 

So is there any way we can rate the scientists and the people who pretend to be scientists, or their theories, so that there's some kind of scale that appears underneath their names when they are putting forth their theories?

 

I don't see how. Each idea has to be taken independently. SJ Gould was well-respected as a scientist, but some of his ideas were out and out wrong. Someone has given the example of Linus Pauling and vitamin C.

 

I think the best thing to ask people is whether the theory has ever appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. "Real" scientists convince other scientists; they don't go to the lay public. When they do, they usually do so only with already well-supported theories.

 

You can see this with William Demski on the ID side with his CSI. He never does articles in the scientific literature, but only books for the general public. OTOH, you see it also with Dawkins' recent crusade against theism. Is he publishing his ideas that deity does not exist in scientific journals? No, he's doing so only in books for the general public. Pauling never published his vitamin C theory in any biomedical journal; he only made claims in media to the general public.

 

So, if the theory or idea has not passed peer-review, if the person cannot convince his stubborn colleagues who are most versed in the field, then the idea/theory has a lower reliability.

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It's all Science.

 

Obviously, some are harder sciences than others.

 

Not obvious to me. Perhaps you mean some 'sciences' are simpler than others.

Like physics is simpler than psychology, or chemistry is simpler than economics.

 

In an important way, physics, chemistry, or any other of the turf-protecting lab-coated

tribes, are the Soft, Easy Ones.

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So, if the theory or idea has not passed peer-review, if the person cannot convince his stubborn colleagues who are most versed in the field, then the idea/theory has a lower reliability.

 

Most people don't understand the peer review process though, so it is basically meaningless to them. Instead you run into responses like, "People have always believed in ghosts," or, "Thousands of people have had abduction experiences."

 

It's all Science.

 

Obviously, some are harder sciences than others.

 

Not obvious to me. Perhaps you mean some 'sciences' are simpler than others.

Like physics is simpler than psychology, or chemistry is simpler than economics.

 

In an important way, physics, chemistry, or any other of the turf-protecting lab-coated

tribes, are the Soft, Easy Ones.

 

Sorry. by "hard" I mean easier to provide evidence for. You can do a chemistry experiment under highly controlled circumstances. That's a lot more difficult to achieve in the social sciences. The theories of the social sciences tend to be tested in full public view as well, and are much more prone to political interference.

 

I don't mean to belittle the social sciences here. They have caused crime rates to drop overall, explained a lot of our behaviours, given us an overview of societal development etc.

 

Their failures, or perceived failures due to politicization or uncontrollable outside factors like funding, are very public though.

 

Then we run into things like advertising and political science. I've got a pretty good working knowledge of both, and neither are a science. They have scientific aspects to them...especially sociological ones...and depend on science...especially statistical analysis...to judge their success.

 

"Political science" isn't science though. It's closer to black magic.

 

You start with the outcome. "We need to win votes to institute our policies." Those policies may or may not be what the politicians feel are good for the people, or what the people want, but they are the desired outcome.

 

You move to the thesis, "We can win votes with this message." That message may or may not match the agenda you really want in place.

 

Then you bring in the scientists and the writers...two very different things. The scientists tell you how to convince people, the writers work on language that will do the convincing.

 

Then you gauge reaction to all that and massage everything.

 

If it works and you win power, then you begin incrementally implementing your real agenda...usually while trying to keep large chunks of it out of the press...all the while trying to stay in power.

 

You determine the desired outcome first, and manipulate the data and experiments to fit. It ain't science, but it is a lot of fun. It is, all too often, the manipulation of science, especially the soft sciences.

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It seems as though human beings are the ultimate uncontrolled variable.

That's nothing new though.

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It seems as though human beings are the ultimate uncontrolled variable.

That's nothing new though.

 

It's not new, but dealing with that variable is becoming more and more critical, I think. Science is becoming ever more instrumental in public policy, yet most of the people I come into contact with...many of them with university educations...have a grasp of science that was barely adequate at the beginning of the last century.

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