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The Real War on Science

Science

A Google search returns about 350,000 hits for “war on science.” Glancing through the first hundred results reveals that this “war” consists mainly of political posturing. Little of it directly concerns science. Nevertheless, such rhetoric can result in auxiliary harm to science by inclining scientists to adhere to acceptable lines in order to further their careers or avoid castigation. The degree of harm will depend on the dedication of scientists and their intrinsic desire to gain knowledge. Still, although it is worrisome, sophomoric banter does not directly attack the integrity of science.

More alarmingly, science has been under siege for more than half a century from a very different set of forces. This assault is not rooted in unlearned political commentary, but in the attitudes of scientists themselves.

What Is Scientific Truth?

Modern science emerged in the seventeenth century with two fundamental ideas: planned experiments (Francis Bacon) and the mathematical representation of relations among phenomena (Galileo). This basic experimental-mathematical epistemology evolved until, in the first half of the twentieth century, it took a stringent form involving (1) a mathematical theory constituting scientific knowledge, (2) a formal operational correspondence between the theory and quantitative empirical measurements, and (3) predictions of future measurements based on the theory. The “truth” (validity) of the theory is judged based on the concordance between the predictions and the observations. While the epistemological details are subtle and require expertise relating to experimental protocol, mathematical modeling, and statistical analysis, the general notion of scientific knowledge is expressed in these three requirements.

Science is neither rationalism nor empiricism. It includes both in a particular way. In demanding quantitative predictions of future experience, science requires formulation of mathematical models whose relations can be tested against future observations. Prediction is a product of reason, but reason grounded in the empirical. Hans Reichenbach summarizes the connection: “Observation informs us about the past and the present, reason foretells the future.”

The demand for quantitative prediction places a burden on the scientist. Mathematical theories must be formulated and be precisely tied to empirical measurements. Of course, it would be much easier to construct rational theories to explain nature without empirical validation or to perform experiments and process data without a rigorous theoretical framework. On their own, either process may be difficult and require substantial ingenuity. The theories can involve deep mathematics, and the data may be obtained by amazing technologies and processed by massive computer algorithms. Both contribute to scientific knowledge, indeed, are necessary for knowledge concerning complex systems such as those encountered in biology. However, each on its own does not constitute a scientific theory. In a famous aphorism, Immanuel Kant stated, “Concepts without percepts are blind; percepts without concepts are empty.”

All Scientific Theories Are Contingent

Validation is the salient epistemological issue for a scientific theory. It confronts us with two profound aspects of scientific knowledge: inter-subjectivity and uncertainty. Mathematics, experimental protocols, and validation criteria are universally understandable. However, the choice of validation criteria is subjective. Hence, while not being objective, in the sense that there is universal agreement on validity, a scientific theory is inter-subjective, in the sense that there is universal understanding of the theory and the criteria for its truth. In addition, since many complex systems are modeled by random processes, and measurement procedures exhibit randomness, uncertainty is inherent to scientific theories.

Consider the following simple validation criterion. There is a value A and a measurement X, such that the theory will be accepted if and only if X < A. Even if we agree on the criterion’s form, we may not agree on the acceptance value A. If one person chooses a large A and another chooses a small one, then the theory may be acceptable to the former but not to the latter. Indeed, given the possible values of the measurement, one might choose A so large that the theory will be accepted no matter the measurement and the other might choose A so small that the theory will be rejected to matter the measurement. Even if both agree on A, on account of randomness, the measurement X may sometimes result in acceptance and other times result in rejection.

Owing to uncertainty, concordance between predictions and observations involves statistical analysis, and the degree of acceptance of a scientific theory must itself be quantified. Since statistical accuracy is necessary, statistical tests and estimations void of a mathematical theory describing their own accuracy are useless. Unfortunately, use of statistical-looking methods lacking any theoretical basis relevant to the problem under consideration is ubiquitous.

Because a model is validated by testing predictions, even when it is accepted, a scientific theory remains contingent, standing open to rejection arising from new observations. In science, the occurrence of anomalies is not an anomaly.

How to Evaluate a Scientific Theory

In the spirit of David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, when presented with a scientific theory, one should ask four questions:

  1. Does it contain a mathematical model expressing the theory?
  2. If there is a model, does it contain precise relationships between terms in the theory and measurements of corresponding physical events?
  3. Does it contain validating experimental data—that is, a set of future quantitative predictions derived from the theory and the corresponding measurements?
  4. Does it contain a statistical analysis that supports the acceptance of the theory, that is, supports the concordance of the predictions with the physical measurements—including the mathematical theory justifying application of the statistical methods?

If the answer to any of these questions is negative, “Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Tempering David Hume’s hyperbole, if a theory constituted by a mathematical model lacks sufficient experimental validation, it can still have great value. Obviously, every accepted theory was at one time a mathematical model awaiting validation. Moreover, the model might represent a stage on the way to a satisfactory theory or a preliminary conceptualization that suggests further experimentation.

The Illusion of Big Data

The flavor of the day is empiricism, and its latest incarnation is Big Data. This term refers to massive data sets often collected with no objective in mind, the idea being that with sufficient computing power one can mine the data for relationships. Some argue that no theory is needed, because scientific knowledge will emerge directly from the data unbiased by questions posed from human understanding—as if data-mining algorithms arise ex nihilo.

Ignoring the most extravagant claims surrounding Big Data, it is well known that more data are not necessarily better. If new data have negligible information regarding the formulation of a model, then adding them to existing data can yield poorer inference. Noise in the new data can obscure useful information in the old data while not providing additional useful information. A bigger data set is not necessarily a better data set.

It has been argued that Big Data presents us with the ability to pursue data-driven science, in which the scientist is aided in his theorizing by data. Lest one be tempted to believe there is novelty here, it might be chastening to recall that Nicolaus Copernicus used data collected by Claudius Ptolemy about 1,400 years earlier to develop his heliocentric theory.

What Do String Theory and Intelligent Design Have in Common?

Having criticized empiricism, let us consider rationalism. William Dembski, a prominent proponent of intelligent design (ID), recognizes that ID is not science. It contains no mathematical model and, ipso facto, no concordance between the theory and future predictions.

Yet the fact that ID is not science does not mean that it lies outside of the realm of reasoned discussion. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant writes, “I see before me order and design in nature, and need not resort to speculation to assure myself of their reality, but to explain them I have to presuppose a Deity as their cause.” Kant does not consider this a scientific argument. Rather, he believes that “this presupposition . . . is the most rational opinion for us men.” Accepting ID as a kind of science would require the abandonment of both mathematical formulation and prediction.

Because it concerns a designer external to nature, ID is ipso facto metaphysical rather than scientific in scope. Certainly, this cannot be said of physics. Nevertheless, Nobel laureate physicist Burton Richter writes, “Simply put, most of what currently passes as the most advanced theory looks to be more theological speculation, the development of models with no testable consequences.” Regarding string theory, in The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin writes that it “has failed to make any predictions by which it can be tested, and some of its proponents, rather than admitting that, are seeking leave to change the rules so that their theory will not need to pass the usual tests we impose on scientific ideas.”

In the main, one should be wary of grand scientific theories. For Aristotle, there was no demarcation between physics and metaphysics. That changed with modern science. Whereas metaphysics explains the big picture, science is restricted to mathematical models and a notion of truth grounded in the predictive capacity of those models. This is a demarcation, not a negative criticism of either metaphysics or science.

Changing the Rules of Science

Rationalism and empiricism both aim at changing the rules to return to a more primitive, pre-Galilean conception of science in which the demands of knowledge are softened by weakening the relationship between theory and observation.

And the rules are changing—not via reasoned analysis, but de facto. The centuries-long debate among Bacon, Galileo, Hume, Kant, Mill, Einstein, Bohr, and others is being virtually ignored, and the “scientific” literature is becoming a hodgepodge of methods, computations, and explanations whose acceptability is little more than a matter of fancy. Pseudo-statistical data crunching has come to be loudly proclaimed as “science” in those parts of the academy, industry, and government where radical empiricism rules the roost, and human reason has been abandoned in favor of massive unplanned data collection and prodigious computations whose meaning, if there is any, is shrouded in mystery.

The evisceration of its epistemology constitutes the real war on science, and this war is aimed directly at its vitals.
 
 
Originally posted at The Public Discourse. Used with permission.
 
 
(Image credit: Business Insider)

Edward Dougherty

Written by

Edward Dougherty is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University and Scientific Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Genomic Systems Engineering.

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  • Great Silence

    I'm struggling to get to what the article is really saying, and why it belongs here at SN. There's a war on science - not sure who by, and what They are up to. Is it a plea for ID to be given more respect? It seems a bit gloomy and despondent, without having a point. I will read it again, maybe the point is more subtle.

    • Mike O’Leary

      Here are the bullet points I get from the article. We have enough intelligent people here who will correct me if I'm misstating something.
      * We should be cautious of scientific results as they may be skewed unintentionally by the experimenter.
      * We shouldn't trust large sets of data more than we would smaller sets.
      * Just because something isn't testable via science doesn't mean it's not true (with his example being ID).
      * We shouldn't be separating physics from metaphysics due to the limitations of physics and the alleged explanative powers of metaphysics (likely Aristotle's brand of metaphysics).

      I have problems with most of these in one way or the other but I want to work up a proper response before posting any more.

      • Bob

        * We should be cautious of scientific results as they may be skewed unintentionally by the experimenter.

        - Certainly, thus peer review

        * We shouldn't trust large sets of data more than we would smaller sets.

        - Kind of a nebulous statement. The data set size required seems to be dictated by what it is you are trying to show and the level of certainty you wish to attain.

        * Just because something isn't testable via science doesn't mean it's not true (with his example being ID).

        - It also doesn't mean that it's true (usually referred to as unfalsifiable, or some such)... it does however mean that it is not science.

        * We shouldn't be separating physics from metaphysics due to the limitations of physics and the alleged explanative powers of metaphysics (likely Aristotle's brand of metaphysics).

        - because look what happened to our much cherished notions once we did so?

    • David Nickol

      Like you, I am somewhat mystified as to exactly what the point of the article is and why it is on Strange Notions.

      The author says, "The evisceration of its epistemology constitutes the real war on science," no examples are given and no names are named. The usual argument here on SN is that science and religion are compatible, and the real problem for both is "scientism." But Professor Dougherty doesn't seem to be criticism "scientism."

      So the question is, "Who is eviscerating the epistemology of science, and how are they doing so?" Let's have some concrete examples.

    • veritasetgratia

      He is saying that politics is winning and paying for the information it wants from science. Science is being sacrificed.

  • Thank you Brandon, another Home Run. The Babe Ruth of the Catholic Digital World!

  • This is a very interesting article, with a lot of great philosophy of science material, but, like @GreatSilence:disqus, I'm not sure what the point of the article is.

    The place I see the war on science is in pseudoscience: creationism, geocentrism and intelligent design are examples, but many examples of pseudoscience are unconnected to religion: psychic powers, climate change denial, homeopathy, alien abductions, UFO sightings. Maybe different pseudo-studies, like the pseudo-history of Fomenko or denial of the historical Jesus, serve as other examples of the same sort of problem.

    The problem with pseudoscience and other pseudo-studies doesn't require much in the way of philosophy of science. The problem is when some personal ideology starts contradicting known empirical facts. The personal ideology can be religious, philosophical, political, spiritual, historical, whatever. Sometimes contradictions are accidental. A particular religious or philosophical tenet involves some prediction about the way the universe behaves, how old the Earth is or how it moves within the solar system, the prediction ends up being falsified. Sometimes contradictions are sought out, because ideologues wish to give their beliefs the appearance of veracity. Science has got a good reputation over the years, and various groups want to take advantage of it.

    Philosophy of science is more interesting. The questions in the article about what science is, whether data can ever be separated from theory, the connections between mathematics and the hard sciences, are all worth talking about, but these questions are not directly related to the war on science.

    • Phil

      Hey Paul, (and I guess Great Silence and David above),

      From
      my reading, it seems like the author's main point is that science needs
      to stay away from the two extremes of empiricism and rationalism. The "Big Data" point represents the extreme of empiricism. And putting forth theories that don't seem to have any way of being empirically tested, like string theory, represents the extreme of rationalism.

      So on my reading, Edward's point is that he sees too many scientists starting to lean towards one of the two extremes, which has the capability to take us back to a pre-Galiliean conception of the physical sciences.

      [And of course a main antidote for this "war on science" is a hylomorphic metaphysics/philosophy and Catholic theology--betcha didn't see that coming ;) ]

      • Michael Murray

        So on my reading, Edward's point is that he sees too many scientists starting to lean towards one of the two extremes, which has the capability to take us back to a pre-Galiliean conception of the physical sciences.

        I don't see any scientists leaning toward the string theory extreme other than string theorists. Looking for a fundamental theory of physics combining quantum theory and relativity is a difficult task because of the vastly different strengths of the forces involved and the complicated mathematics particularly on the quantum field theory side. Comparing it to theology is being too generous to theology. In string theory they can define the things being discussed in a rigorous mathematical model. Testing the model is the problem.

        The article where it is compared to theology is a link to a link. The original is quite easily available and seems readable

        http://theor.jinr.ru/~kuzemsky/rihter.pdf

        Interesting to note that he also calls things theological that have gone on to be discovered testable. So theological for Rihter seems to mean "currently unable to be tested".

    • Doug Shaver

      This is a very interesting article, with a lot of great philosophy of science material,

      I've done a lot of reading in the philosophy of science, and I don't see anything great in this article.

      • Caravelle

        Well, a lot of things it says are pretty sensible (like the pitfalls of Big Data, data mining, and studying data without a model), but those are bog-standard warnings in science, and they're presented in a rather confusing way here.

        • Doug Shaver

          Agreed, but the sensible things it says have little or nothing to do with the philosophy of science. They're about the practice of science.

      • That's fair. Not everyone's a fan of Quine. :D

  • GCBill

    In the main, one should be wary of grand scientific theories. For Aristotle, there was no demarcation between physics and metaphysics.
    That changed with modern science. Whereas metaphysics explains the big
    picture, science is restricted to mathematical models and a notion of
    truth grounded in the predictive capacity of those models. This is a
    demarcation, not a negative criticism of either metaphysics or science.

    Oh thank goodness it's merely a demarcation and not a criticism. That implies that there isn't necessarily anything terribly wrong with our current conception of science. It just can't produce a grand unified theory. But it's still useful for answering more particular questions...right?

    Rationalism and empiricism both aim at changing the rules to return to a more primitive, pre-Galilean conception of science in which the demands of knowledge are softened by weakening the relationship between theory and observation.
    And the rules are changing—not via reasoned analysis, but de facto.The centuries-long debate among Bacon, Galileo, Hume, Kant, Mill, Einstein, Bohr, and others is being virtually ignored, and the “scientific” literature is becoming a hodgepodge of methods, computations, and explanations whose acceptability is little more than a matter of fancy. Pseudo-statistical data crunching has come to be loudly proclaimed as “science” in those parts of the academy, industry, and government where radical empiricism rules the roost, and human reason has been abandoned in favor of massive unplanned data collection and prodigious computations whose meaning, if there is any, is shrouded in mystery.
    The evisceration of its epistemology constitutes the real war on science, and this war is aimed directly at its vitals.

    Oh okay, my mistake. We can all be thankful that it's not actually a criticism of modern science. Actually, it's just a softening of the "demands of knowledge" that ignores a "centuries-long debate," reduces acceptance of scientific theories to "fancy," and "constitutes the real war on science." I'd hate to see what an actual "criticism" of science would look like in comparison to this, uhh...friendly advice?

    Alternatively, you could delete the first quoted paragraph and this article would at least read as a coherent polemic against modern scientific practice. But we'll still have to check it against reality in 30 years when physics has committed string theory to the flames and returned to The One True Old New Way™ of doing science, just to make sure that the New Old Way actually fared worse.

  • Marc Riehm

    I'm still trying to absorb this. Philosophy is a tough slog for me. But in the "What is scientific truth?" section, the author makes a statement that seems to say that all scientific theories must be mathematical and quantifiable in nature.

    That is simply not true. Many fundamental theories of life are not quantified. For example, theories in the areas of evolution and genetics. It is possible to make predictions that are qualitative, not quantitative, and observe whether those predictions are true or not.

  • Marc Riehm

    Unfortunately, use of statistical-looking methods lacking any theoretical basis relevant to the problem under consideration is ubiquitous.

    The author seems to be taking a broadside against science, with no example or justification whatsoever.

  • Marc Riehm

    It is simply not true that a scientific theory must have a mathematical model. Consider evolution. Doesn't require math. And yet it can be predictive - consider the prediction of intermediate life forms (aka "missing links").

    The author's logic goes like this:
    1) Science requires a mathematical model [untrue].
    2) ID does not have a mathematical model, and so it is not science.
    3) Since it is not science, it cannot be criticized by science.

    Rather, ID is [cue powerful music] - Metaphysics, and must be discussed by pure reason alone, leaving out that nasty scientific stuff.

    By this argument, astrology, tarot cards, and the reading of entrails cannot be criticized by science, either.

    • Caravelle

      That's true. Models can be expressed verbally, and in most of science this is the most common case; physics is really the exception more than the rule. Mathematics are important and very useful because they can help cut through ambiguity and fuzzy thinking, and almost all fields of science have some mathematical models, but it's not always possible to put everything in mathematical form and you can't let the best be the enemy of the good.

      As you say, the problem with ID isn't that it lacks a mathematical model - it's that its models are a shambles. Its concepts are ill-defined, and for good reason because when they do get defined they turn out to be tautological or false.

  • Caravelle

    Here are two other articles at The Public Discourse by the same author that can give some context to what he's talking about :


    Unintelligibility: The Starting Point for Discussing the Science-Humanities Relationship


    Scientific Education: Do We Love Our Children?

    Thanks to Sample1 at EN for drawing my attention to these (they're also in the sidebar at the The Public Discourse link for this article).

    • Doug Shaver

      "It has been made abundantly clear since the seventeenth century that, from the perspective of science, the world is not intelligible."

      The word "intelligible" must not mean the same thing to Dougherty that it does to me.

  • Peter

    The principle of intelligent design may be metaphysical rather than scientific, but it is science which is revealing that the universe is intelligently designed.

    • Doug Shaver

      As far as I can tell, the only people who think science is revealing intelligent design are those who presuppose an intelligent designer.

      • Peter

        If so, those who presuppose an intelligent designer find their presupposition increasingly supported by scientific discoveries instead of being contradicted by them.

        Of course I'm talking about intelligent macro-design (i.e. the cosmos) and not intelligent micro-design (e.g. DNA). The latter is a god-of the-gaps argument which is vulnerable to contradiction is scientific discoveries advance.

        • Doug Shaver

          If so, those who presuppose an intelligent designer find their presupposition increasingly supported by scientific discoveries instead of being contradicted by them

          They say so. I have looked at those same scientific discoveries, and I don't find the support they claim.

          Of course I'm talking about intelligent macro-design (i.e. the cosmos) and not intelligent micro-design (e.g. DNA). The latter is a god-of the-gaps argument which is vulnerable to falsification as scientific discoveries advance.

          I agree that no recent discovery has falsified ID of the sort you're defending. But a presupposition is not supported merely by not having been falsified. It is supported by explaining something that is otherwise inexplicable. And by "inexplicable" I do not mean "not yet explained."

          • Peter

            It is not merely the fact that it hasn't been falsified which supports the presupposition that the universe is designed.

            For example the universe having a beginning (big bang), an end (due to the instability caused by the mass of the higgs boson) and coming from nothing (quantum mechanics), have all been taught by the Church for centuries, often in the face of bitter opposition.

            Additionally, we now find that complexity, which includes life, is a necessary part of the evolution of the universe from low to high entropy. Far from being a random occurrence or a superfluous by-product, life is a necessary outcome without which the universe cannot evolve. This suggests that the universe has been uniquely configured at its inception so as to make life indispensable.

          • Doug Shaver

            It is not merely the fact that it cannot be falsified which supports the presupposition that the universe is designed.

            If it cannot be falsified, it cannot be supported by anything except a prior commitment to believing it.

            For example the universe having a beginning (big bang), an end (instability caused by the mass of the higgs boson) and coming from nothing (quantum mechanics), have all been taught by the Church for centuries, often in the face of bitter opposition.

            An indefensible epistemology is not vindicated just because it happens to reach a conclusion supported by a good epistemology.

          • Peter

            You are confusing support with prove. The hypothesis that the universe is designed can neither be falsified nor proved. It can however be strengthened by observations which are consistent with the hypothesis and therefore support it.

            The hypothesis of design would suggest that creation has a beginning, and the current observations confirm this. It would suggest that creation be very finely configured at the outset to evolve in a manner where life becomes inevitable, and again the observations agree with this. Finally, the hypothesis would suggest that creation has an end, and again the very latest observations are consistent with this

          • Doug Shaver

            You are confusing support with prove

            I am talking about there being some evidence for a hypothesis. If there cannot, even in principle, be any evidence against a hypothesis, then it makes no sense to speak of there being any evidence for it.

  • So, the threat to science is a reliance on empiricism and falsifiability?

  • Randall Ward

    Big title but the professor doesn't know squat about ID.

  • Howard

    " William Dembski, a prominent proponent of intelligent design (ID), recognizes that ID is not science." That's news to me. I read Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe and he certainly seemed to be trying to make the case that it is, as the title implies, science. One problem is it is very bad science, maybe even pseudoscience, because the "specification" of his "specified complexity" comes after having observed the the thing he wants to specify.

    Well if it's not science, what is it? Some sort of quantitative philosophy? After all, he does want to use numbers. But if he is using numbers, it should be possible to quantify the "intelligence" necessary to design an amoeba, for example. First of all, it will only take a finite intelligence to design anything finite, so it will be impossible to prove that the intelligence was God. It should be possible, though, to determine how "intelligent" a genetic algorithm running for N generations with M members would be, though -- remember that the "intelligence" used to create a product need not imply sentience. It would be interesting to know if the extrapolation of genetic algorithms to planetary populations and geological timescales would be capable of producing an amoeba, but no one seems to be researching that question.

  • FreemenRtrue

    He is attacking the non-science of climatology, among others.