Skepticism about science and medicine

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Posts Tagged ‘type-II errors’

Science: Sins of Commission and of Omission

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2019/04/21

What statisticians call a type-I error is a scientific sin of commission, namely, believing something to be true that is actually wrong. A type-II error, dismissing as false something that happens to be true, could be described as a scientific sin of omission since it neglects to acknowledge a truth and thereby makes impossible policies and actions based on that truth.

The history of science is a long record of both types of errors that were progressively corrected, sooner or later; but, so far as we can know, of course, the latest correction may never be the last word, because of the interdependence of superficially different bits of science. If, for instance, general relativity were found to be flawed, or quantum mechanics, then huge swaths of physics, chemistry, and other sciences would undergo major or minor changes. And we cannot know whether general relativity or quantum mechanics are absolutely true, that they are not a type-I error — all we know is that they have worked usefully up to now. Type-II errors may always be hiding in the vast regions of research not being done, or unorthodox claims being ignored or dismissed.

During the era of modern science — that is, since about the 17th century — type-I errors included such highly consequential and far-reaching dogmas as believing that atoms are indivisible, that they are not composed of smaller units. A socially consequential type-I error in the first quarter of the 20th century was the belief that future generations would benefit if people with less desirable genetic characteristics were prevented from having children, whereby tens of thousands of Americans were forcibly sterilized as late as late as 1980.

A type-II error during the second half of the 19th century was the determined belief that claims of alleviating various ailments by electrical or magnetic treatments were nothing but pseudo-scientific scams; but that was corrected in the second half of the 20th century, when electromagnetic treatment became the standard procedure for curing certain congenital failures of bone growth and for treating certain other bone conditions as well.
Another 19th-century type-II error was the ignoring of Mendel’s laws of heredity, which were then re-discovered half a century later.
During the first half of the 20th century, a type-II error was the belief that continents could not have moved around on the globe, something also corrected in the latter part of the 20th century.

 

Science is held in high regard for its elucidation of a great deal about how the world works, and for many useful applications of that knowledge. But the benefits that society can gain from science are greatly restricted through widespread ignorance of and misunderstanding about the true history of science.

Regarding general social and political history, Santayana’s adage is quite well-known, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That is equally true for the history of science. Since the conventional wisdom and the policy makers and so many of the pundits are ignorant of the fact that science routinely commits sins of both commission and omission, social and political policies continue to be made on the basis of so-called scientific consensus that may quite often be unsound.

In Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth (McFarland 2012), evidence is cited from well-qualified and respectable sources that the mainstream consensus is flawed on quite a number of topics. Some of these are of immediate concern only to scholars and researchers, for example about the earliest settlements of the Americas, or the extinction of the dinosaurs, or the mechanism of the sense of smell. Other topics, however, are of immediate public concern, for instance a possible biological basis for schizophrenia, or the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, or the possible dangers from mercury in tooth amalgams, or the efficacy of antidepressant drugs, or the hazards posed by second-hand tobacco smoke; and perhaps above all the unproven but dogmatic belief that human-generated carbon dioxide is the prime cause of global warming and climate change, and the long-held hegemonic belief that HIV causes AIDS.

The topic of cold nuclear fusion is an instance of a possible type-II error, a sin of omission, the mainstream refusal to acknowledge the strong evidence for potentially useful applications of nuclear-atomic transformations that can occur under quite ordinary conditions.

On these, and on quite a few other matters * as well, the progress of science and the well-being of people and of societies are greatly hindered by the widespread ignorance of the fact that science always has been and will continue to be fallible,   committing sins of both omission and of commission that become corrected only at some later time — if at all.

On matters that influence public policies directly, policy-makers would be greatly helped if they could draw on historically well-informed, technically insightful, and above all impartial assessments of the contemporary mainstream consensus. A possible approach to providing such assistance would be the establishing of a Science Court; see chapter 12 in Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).

 

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*    Type-I errors are rife in the misapplications of statistics in medical matters, including the testing and approval of new drugs and vaccines; see the bibliography, What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine
      For a number of possible type-II errors, see for instance The Anomalist  and the publications of the Society for Scientific Exploration  and the Gesellschaft für Anomalistik

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