Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Scientific literacy in one easy lesson

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/11/30

Scientific literacy is usually thought of as knowing what atoms and molecules are, and that the Earth is spherical and orbits around the Sun, and that we stick to Earth and the Moon sticks to Earth and the Earth sticks to the Sun because of the force of gravity, and that the Earth came into being about 4 or 5 billion years ago, and that the whole Universe came into being about 13 to 15 billion years ago, and that all living things are related to one another and descended from common ancestors; and so on and so forth. Scientific literacy is equated with knowing scientific facts and theories, in other words.
All those things can be very interesting, but they are largely irrelevant to the role that science plays in society. That role, however, is something that every citizen ought to understand, and most particularly those citizens who are in policy-influencing or policy-making positions. Scientific literacy ought to mean understanding what role science can properly play in the wider society.
Knowing scientific facts and theories need not be the same as believing them to be unquestionably true. In fact it shouldn’t be the same, yet all too often it seems to be. Being scientifically literate ought to mean having the tools to make rational decisions about the degree to which any given scientific fact or theory warrants belief — belief so strong as to warrant actions based on it. To that end, one needs to know something not so much about what science says but about how science is done. Here are some fundamental axioms of that sort of scientific literacy:

—>>  Science is produced by scientists. Therefore it is influenced by how scientists behave. Scientists are human beings: fallible, subject to conflicts of interest, and influenced or even constrained by their social and political environment. Science can therefore be reliable or unreliable, depending on circumstances.
Textbook examples of unreliable science are Lysenkoist biology in the Soviet Union and Deutsche Physik (Aryan, non-Jewish physics) in Nazi Germany. But conflicts of interest, dishonesty, systemic corruption (for example) can make science — what scientists produce — unreliable even in open, free, democratic societies.
—>> Science isn’t done by the so-called scientific method.
Many schools and many college-level courses in social science teach that science proceeds by posing hypotheses, testing them, and then rejecting them or keeping them as established theory. That “scientific method” seems like an entirely impersonal formula, capable of producing objective results; but even on its own terms, it takes little thought to realize that judgment needs to be exercised as to whether or not any given results do or do not support the hypothesis being tested. Preconceptions, conflicts of interest, and other quite personal matters enter into the forming of judgments.
The chief trouble, though, is that almost no science is done that way. Very few scientists ever do anything like that; for an extended illustration and examples, see my Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (University of Illinois Press 1992). In a few areas of physics, or in planning protocols for experiments requiring statistical analysis, something like that “scientific method” is used, but not in most of science. If science in general were done that way, then every budding scientist would be taught that “scientific method”. They are not. I had acquired a chemistry Ph.D. before I had even heard of that scientific method — which I did from a political scientist.
—>>   However, most people do believe that science is done by the scientific method.  Since that procedure sounds so objective, impersonal, and reliable a way of attaining knowledge, most people generally assume “science” to be trustworthy, not significantly different from true. Scientists enjoy high prestige and their pronouncements are accorded the trustworthiness that “science” enjoys.
—>>   Science became regarded as trustworthy because of its perceived successes. It superseded religious authority with the triumph of Darwinism over Biblical creation: Darwin’s disciple, T. H. Huxley, preached sermons explicitly on behalf of The Church Scientific. By the end of the 19th century, science had become the touchstone of authentic knowledge (David Knight, The Age of Science: The Scientific World-View in the Nineteenth Century, Basil Blackwell, 1986).
To get a sense of just how powerfully persuasive scientific conclusions are nowadays, contemplate the different rhetorical impacts of “tests have shown” and “scientific tests have shown”; you might harbor doubts as to the first but surely not about the second.
—>>    Science does not and cannot deal in truth.
Science can describe how things are and how they behave. Why they do so is not observable, so any explanations are inferences, not facts. The misguided view that the scientific method delivers objective impersonal reliable knowledge obscures that.
The fact that any given theory can yield calculations that fit with what actually happens doesn’t mean that the theory is true or that the things it uses are what really exists. We can calculate planetary motions with exquisite accuracy using gravity theory, even as we nowadays don’t believe that gravity really exists, curvatures of space-time produce the illusion of gravity. We can calculate many things very accurately about electrons and atoms and molecules with the “wave-function” equations of quantum mechanics, but one can hardly believe that wave functions are real things, or that the “wavicles” we call photons, electrons , protons, etc., are actual things that have the properties sometimes of waves but sometimes of particles.
No matter how useful a theory has been in the past, it cannot be guaranteed useful in the future. The data we accumulate by observation cannot guarantee that future data might not seem contradictory; the fact that all Europe-observed swans had been white did not mean that all swans are white, as explorers of Western Australia discovered.
The misguided belief that science represents truth, which amounts to a religious-like faith in science, is called scientism.
—>>   Science is popularly thought to progress steadily. In reality, the history of science is one of trials and errors, periodic advances but also periodic discarding of earlier notions found later to be wanting.
Many people have heard of Thomas Kuhn’s description of scientific progress through scientific revolutions, which is readily interpreted as perpetual advance in step-wise fashion, revolutions as milestones of progress. What is not widely understood is that the revolutions — overturning of earlier views — are thereby also gravestones of a previous mainstream consensus.
Nor is any given scientific revolution necessarily permanent. Belief that light consists of particles or that it consists of waves alternated over the centuries, up to the latest view that it is something else, in a sense both or neither. That latest view may not be the last word.
—>>   Science as methodical and objective became readily confused with the even more misguided view that scientists behave methodically and objectively. Surveys have indicated that scientists are widely regarded as smarter, more intellectual, more capable of cold objectivity than non-scientists. First-hand acquaintance with scientists effectively disabuses one of such an opinion: religious views, conflicts of interest, cognitive dissonance (inability to recognize contradictory evidence) affect scientists as much as anyone else.
—>>   Science and thereby scientists are commonly thought to be always on the lookout for new discoveries, the more striking the better. The history of science, however, reveals that the most remarkable advances have almost always been strongly resisted when they were first claimed. The classic descriptions of this phenomenon are Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery” (Science, 134 [1961] 596-602) and Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery” (Scientific American, December 1972, 84-93); more recent commentaries are in Ernest B. Hook (ed)., Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and Neglect (University of California Press, 2002).
Extensions of mainstream views, discoveries that do not require any modification of established theories, are surely welcomed; but the breakthroughs, the revolutionary claims, are almost always resisted or ignored, and become appreciated only by hindsight.

None of those points are controversial among those whose special interest is the nature of science, its history, and its role in society. But those specialists are a small and somewhat obscure breed, even within academe, and their specialty, STS, is still not widely known — see the ABOUT page of this blog.
A salient problem with contemporary national and international science policies is that the policy makers and the media and the general public have not yet learned that it is scholars of STS who should be consulted regarding science policy and controversies about scientific issues. Current practice is to take the advice of the experts in the technical disciplines, the scientists and the physicians and the engineers. But this amounts to believing the contemporary mainstream consensus to be unquestionably true, and history has shown that this is not warranted, the consensus might even be fatally flawed.
The understanding that STS offers should mediate between the experts and the policy makers. As war is too important to be left to the decisions of the generals, so nowadays science and medicine are far too important to be left to the decisions of the scientists and the doctors.


6 Responses to “Scientific literacy in one easy lesson”

  1. Does your description of cognitive dissonance equate that term with confirmation bias?

    What I recall is that cognitive dissonance was invented to identify the complex of prior commitments to ideas that contributed to refusing to abandon them when confronted with even a dramatic failure of using those ideas to predict future results. It was found that the more actions people had taken in support of a thesis, the more likely they were to attribute an obvious failure of those ideas to one more newly invented hypothetical explanation. We have seen this in AIDS research, repeatedly.

    On the other hand, confirmation bias, that is finding it easier to accept new facts that agree with your beliefs than such facts as contradict them, by being more abstract, seems easier to accept, until it becomes relevant to one’s own beliefs.

    Of course all that may often take a back seat to decision makers among those who fund research, especially in matters that affect preferred policies and financial interests.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Richard Karpinski:
      Yes re cognitive dissonance, what you write is essentially the theme of what is often cited as the classic discussion, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, & Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, University of Minnesota Press (1956).
      I’ve also seen the term cognitive dissonance used for situations where one just doesn’t know what to make of something because it doesn’t fit one’s worldview, which is less extreme than simply being unable even to see the evidence.
      I think “confirmation bias” describes the obverse of the same psychological mechanism. We usually look for confirming evidence, which is the opposite of trying to test our ideas in the most critical way. We don’t even think about the possibility that what seems to fit into our belief might have a different explanation.
      I think the practical consequences of cognitive dissonance and of confirmation bias may be essentially the same?

      • ted lumley said

        ‘Confirmation bias’ that apparently confirms causal relations, as in ‘anthropogenic global warming’, HIV-AIDS, clostridium difficile -colitis, and in criminal justice ‘cases’ such as ‘sexual abuse’ [inappropriate touching] by physiotherapists, seems to associate with the failure of the foundational assumption that ‘all experimental units are more or less the same’.

        The ‘fundamental dilemma of causality’ (Donald Rubin) is that, if we use an experimental unit to show that X causes Y, we cannot exclude the possibility that there is some other non-X that is causing Y that impacts the experimental unit, rather than lying in the actions ‘X’. For example, the action, ‘X’, of disposing of a cigarette butt in the forest may in 30,000 trials, NOT ignite a forest fire, ‘Y’, but on the 38001st occasion where the action X is ‘associated’ with the forest fire ‘Y’, the action X could only be said to be the ‘cause’ if it were true that ‘all forests are more or less the same’. That is, the non-X that causes the fire is the historical [relational-spatial] preconditioning of the experimental unit as during a long, hot, dry summer. E.g. the ‘X’ action of a long-smoldering peat-bed in the forest whose actions X do not cause Y for several months may by mid-summer, as the experimental unit undergoes historical preconditioning, ultimately be falsely identified as ‘the cause’ of Y when the forest ultimately ignites when the cause is instead the non-X of historical preconditioning.

        As Ernst Mach and Henri Poincaré have both observed, the ‘metaphysics’ of imposing of absolute space and absolute time reference framing ‘covers up’ historical preconditioning and imposes the ‘economy of thought’-based idealization that ‘the present depends only on the immediate past’; i.e. if one starts one’s investigations with the present result ‘Y’, then if one is assuming absolute space and absolute time, one is forced to assume that the cause of the result Y must be found in the immediate past, in denial that the present is being directly effected by the remote past.

        In criminal justice investigations into ‘inappropriate touching’ on the part of physiotherapists, police appeals to the public for those patients having had the negative experience of feeling sexually exploited, ‘Y’, to come forth and lay charges, may be developing a ‘Y – side’ data set that includes 20 ‘positives’ and excludes 100,000 false positives where the physio’s same touch ‘X’ did not cause ‘Y’. That is, the source of the effect ‘Y’ as in PTSD-like historical preconditioning of the experimental unit, could be the cause of Y rather than the actions ‘X’ (which in non-historically preconditioned aka ‘innocent’ experimental units, would not lead to ‘Y’).

        ‘Confirmation bias’, in all of the above mentioned cases, arguably derives from idealistically interpreting dynamics as unfolding in ‘time’ where the physical phenomena are, in actuality, unfolding in ‘relational space’, as in ‘the Machean view of physical phenomena’.

      • Henry Bauer said

        ted tumley:
        If I may summarize or paraphrase:
        No number of confirming instances excludes the possibility that there exist contradictory instances yet to be discovered.
        One can disprove positive claims with a single exception. Negative claims are difficult to disprove, sometimes impossible.

      • ted lumley said

        yes, but is there not an incompleteness in your summary as suggested by; “It is by logic we prove, it is by intuition that we invent. … Logic, therefore, remains barren unless fertilised by intuition” (Poincaré)?

        In order to make the case that the smouldering peat bed ‘ignited’ the forest, we must use the EITHER/OR logic of the excluded third and suppose that these two identities [peat bed and forest] are mutually exclusive. we might alternatively have used the BOTH/AND logic of the included third and assumed that both were included within the transforming relational forest-space, consistent with Mach’s principle [“the dynamics of bodies within the spatial-plenum are conditioning the dynamics of the spatial-plenum at the same time as the dynamics of the spatial-plenum are conditioning the dynamics of bodies in the spatial-plenum”]

        The commonly used syllogistic logic of simple opposites seems to be the necessary assumption that allows your summary. For example, the male and the female are assumed to be ‘opposites’ so that it is possible to say that even though a male and a female have sexual intercourse thousands of times without Y (pregnancy) occurring, this does not preclude the possibility of the action X of the male causing the result Y (pregnancy) in the ‘experimental female unit’.

        Intuition informs us, however, that if the intercourse transpires over such time as the female is passing from pre-puberty through puberty, it is not the identical actions ‘X’ of the [adult] male that ‘causes’ the result ‘Y’, but the non-X of the historical conditioning of the experimental female unit, that causes Y. That is, if we expand our view to the ‘reproductive system in nature’, the non-dualist view arises wherein we see the male and female as conjugate participants within the unitary supra-system-dynamic of reproduction, not as mutually-excluding systems-in-themselves.

        The standard logic-of-the-excluded-third that we commonly use for ‘proofs’ is innately incapable of dealing with the philosophical non-dualist ‘relational’ world view of Mach, Nietzsche, Bohm, Schrödinger, that suspends the imposing of ‘the metaphysics of absolute space and absolute time’ that is foundational support for the idealization of the ‘local, thing-in-itself identity’ that ‘EITHER exists OR does not exist’.

        Mach claimed that he was ‘excommunicated’ by ‘the Church of Physics’ for not backing off from his assertion that physical phenomena were relational-spatial and that the view of dynamics in terms of ‘what things-in-themselves do in an idealized absolute space and absolute time operating theatre [reference frame] is not physical but psychical.

        Are we not still struggling with overly constrained ‘scientific thinking’ because of the prevailing belief, in the socio-politics of the scientific community, that Mach-type relational space based theorizing is ‘heresy’?

  2. Some people who call themselves materialists, skeptics or rationalists might object, and say that it is not ‘science’ which they cherish but ‘scientific method’. To me it’s a dodge as it doesn’t matter which idol you worship because you shouldn’t be worshipping either. And of course these people would deny that they are worshipping anything.

    I have seen it written on blog comments by fanatical science cultists that philosophy is no longer necessary now that we have science – it’s like saying we don’t need literacy now that we have computers. I have read one claim that anyone citing Kuhn can’t be taken seriously (not in so many words – I’ll have to go back and find those comments some day). Kuhn is just too inconvenient. Obviously, you can’t use Kuhn and a trump-card just because you don’t like the consensus view.

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