Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On the objectivity of science

The thing is, science IS an ideological construct but those who are ignorant of it tend to attack from a ridiculous angle. They usually tilt their lances at straw windmills and attack "the infallibility of science", whereas science has never claimed infallibility.

And then others with fundamental views of their own, attack science for its lack of certainty, usually by saying something like "relativity is only a theory" (other theories are available and those who replace 'relativity' with other words are no less ridiculous) as if that somehow undermined the validity of relativity.

It's worth looking at the scientific method. It's very simple, we begin with a problem or an observation, for example "What is the moon made of?".

Next we come up with hypotheses. "gold", "silver", "green cheese" "plastic" and so on. A hypothesis is a guess as to what the answer might be. We will have to consider what we would predict to be observed if the hypothesis is true.

Then we carry out an experiment or further observation (sometimes an experiment is impossible or unethical so we just have to watch and see if the hypothesis is born out by observation) to test the hypothesis.

Next we conclude either that the hypothesis fits the facts or it doesn't. That may well lead to further questions we need to pursue further.

That's it, science in a nutshell, so how is it an ideological construct?

Well, first of all, what problems do we consider worth investigating? Scientists need to attract funding and the organisations offering the funding are rarely interested in "pure science". For example, a tobacco company might want somebody to find a way of delivering the hit of nicotine without all the dying of cancer side -effects (or alternatively, might like someone to show that smoking tobacco does not cause cancer).

Secondly, how do we consider the hypotheses? Essentially, at this point, the scientist is guessing. There was, for example, nothing unscientific about the theory that burning released a substance called phlogiston rather than absorbing a substance called oxygen. en.wikipedia.org/wik...

Since the scientist is human, he chooses hypotheses appropriate to the current paradigm. This continues for a while until there are so many anomalous results worldwide that the paradigm itself has to change. There is an inbuilt resistance to this because science is peer-reviewed by people whose entire career has been within the current paradigm. It is also TAUGHT by people who have a vested interest in continuing the same paradigm and for a scientist to be considered a scientist, his PhD needs to be approved by such a person.

But then, things change and there is a new paradigm and the whole cycle begins again, the former iconoclast becomes the new iconodule.

Next comes the experiment itself, the most objective part of science. The point of an experiement is not to prove a theory but to test a hypothesis. Of course, the hypothesis could still be wrong (as it was with phlogiston theory) but nevertheless be supported by the evidence. This is the basis for the uncertainty of science.

That uncertainty though does NOT make science a matter of opinion. It is why peer-reviewed journals are essential. Such scrutiny enables the scientific community to come to a consensus on what is, more or less, for the time being, true.

Science does not, and never could have the certainty of religion, but neither is it as much a matter of opinion as art or politics. It is, at any one time, the best guess available but, unlike fundamental certainties, it is capable of change. I view that as a good thing.


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