Scientific Theories Are Better Than Crackpot Ideas

What are we certain we know, and what are we fairly confident is so?

For religious people, science can be hard.  Where religion is conservative and unchanging, science is tentative and progressive.  Where religion claims absolute answers, science gives the best answer we have for now.

Some people take this scientific framework to mean that science isn’t good (“oh, it’s nothing but a theory”), but the truth of the matter is that science is the best tool humans have come up with precisely because of its tentative nature, and because it’s so good at eliminating ideas that are clearly incorrect.

The trouble with humans is that we’re pattern seekers, we’re hard-wird to “solve” problems quickly, and we’re prone to equating correlation with causation.  This psychological phenomenon constantly gets humans into trouble, because we do it over and over again.  When our Heidelbergensis ancestors heard leaves rustling, that might have very well meant that a lion was stalking them; however, what’s the cost for our caveman ancestor who assumes they’re being hunted, when in reality, they are not?  The cost is very low; however, if our caveman ancestor ignored the rustling, and it turned out there was a lion stalking them, then he’s pretty much dead meat, along with Mrs. Caveman and baby caveman.

We’re programmed to think correlations important, even when they’re not, and even when there is a lot error in the relationship between two events, because historically, the cost of ignoring relationships was very high. I suspect this is why theological constructs, such as Pascal’s Wager, don’t set off BS alarms with a lot of people.

Because we live in a secular age that emphasizes pragmatism and improvement, we as a species, have developed tools to overcome our faulty biological programming, and one of those tools is called science.

Most of the things we know fall into the category of “we’re fairly confident”.  There are problems with asserting that we know very much at all, especially if you subscribe to the notion that science is better at telling us what isn’t so, rather than what is.  For skeptics, it’s important not to fall into the trap of claiming that we know too much, because it causes our brains to take shortcuts, and ignore important facts.

In science, we test hypotheses, and we look for ways to reject them.  The beauty of this framework is that it allows us overcome our biological dispositions, and to throw away ideas that are wrong, so we can build better working theories.  The more our assumptions align with reality, the more confident we become in our working theory.

Most people who are skeptical of science underestimate how well some scientific theories have been tested, which I presume is what makes them so confident in their position.

But the major problem with these people’s alternative explanation is that it lacks the most important tenet of what makes science so good:  there’s no way to test it, and therefore, it has no precise explanatory power.

For instance, if I ask a question like, why is it that only the liver can metabolize fructose in the human body?

If your answer is “God made it so,” then it raises the question: how do you know that, how do you test that, and what does that allow us to predict?

As it goes in science, one of the competing theories for why it is that only the liver can metabolize fructose is because earlier organisms could only metabolize glucose (and maybe protein, and fatty acids).  So when some organism developed the ability to metabolize fructose, that gave rise to a symbiosis between plants and that organism, where the plants most effective at coupling fructose with seeds would have been the most successful at reproducing; likewise, the organisms most effective at metabolizing fructose would have had easier access to food.


*Source: thepaleodiet.com

In this theory, there is quite a lot of explanatory power, and it would be possible to prove it wrong by finding fossil evidence, or even evidence in living organisms that cast doubt on this idea.

The potential vulnerability the scientific paradigm exposes is that it allows us to be imprecise.  For a long time, I saw this as a problem, but when you work through it, it becomes clear why it’s not a problem at all.

The example I like to use to demonstrate this is the Newton vs Einstein story.  Newton’s classical theories worked really well for hundreds of years.  It was not until our tools improved that we realized there was a slight error in Newton’s model with regards to the motion of Mercury, and science was tasked to develop a better theory.  Einstein and his contemporaries contributed the appropriate improvement.

Another example of how science can be temporarily incorrect is demonstrated in the history of pi.  The Babylonians were able to get as close as 3.125 around 3500 years ago.  1500 years later, Archimedes computed pi to 3.1428.  The Chinese got as close as 3.1547 by the 3rd Century, and within a few hundred years, got it almost right.  The point is that the exact measurement of the variable pi was imperfectly defined for thousands of years.  It was not until our tools improved that we could improve precision on its true value.

To the naked eye, the implications of pi=3.1428 are imperceptible.  It takes a serious and precise investigation into the matter to determine that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius (squared) is not 3.1428.

Here we arrive at a conundrum:  the problem isn’t what might be wrong, but what might be substituted precisely in place of it.

Herein lies the reason why there’s no problem when we appeal to scientific consensus to formulate our opinions, and why there is a problem when we go looking for views espoused by tiny minorities of scientists, such as D. Russell Humphreys, who advocates that creationism can explain the origins of our world and universe.

If a large majority of scientists hold a view that is plainly incorrect, and the refutation to this incorrect belief is well-established, that puts downward pressure on the belief, because it creates a niche for scientists to publish papers that easily demonstrate what’s wrong with the consensus, and why the incorrect belief disagrees with experiment.  When the refutation to the incorrect belief is scrutinized under peer review, and then is eventually published, the refutation propogates.

Most scientists would love the opportunity to debunk a commonly held belief, because doing so would increase their prestige in the scientific community.

If theories like evolution and the big bang were as plainly incorrect as creationists claim, there would indeed be a larger and growing number of scientists who dispute them, because our measurement tools are better than they’ve ever been, and the speed at which information propagates has never been faster.

Science is full of examples of superceded scientific theories .  For instance, it used to be held that bad air was the cause of disease.  It was not until the germ theory of disease was developed that superseded this belief.  Similarly, prior to Newton’s work, Aristotle’s physics were the primary tool that physicists had to measure the world.  Chemistry replaced alchemy, astronomy replaced astrology, Neptunism replaced Plutonism (with regards to the age of the earth).

Science is indeed the antithesis of religion for precisely the reason that religion exists – humans want an unchanging solution.  That’s not what science does.  Science is self-correcting, and anything that does that is, by definition, evolving.

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

2 thoughts on “Scientific Theories Are Better Than Crackpot Ideas”

  1. I don’t think religion and science are antithetical at all. And I’d doubt the ethics of a person who claims science is made up.

    Yet, I’d point out kindly that the positive logic criterion of “must be testable” was abandoned before we were born, just like reductionism today is facing issues. One must remember science is a method and all methodologies have philosophical underpinnings that need to be challenged to stay healthy.

    The issues raised by causation in parallel to change and the assumption of a universe are far from resolved which is why the hadron (sp) colider and the new infared telescope are so exciting to watch.

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    1. I think we live in an age where the theories we have are so good and so strong, that a lot of the work being done right now either builds on them, or tries to prove them wrong; in other words, there aren’t as many new theories popping up as there have been historically, because we’ve pretty much taken for granted that what we’ve collected so far is roughly correct.

      This, I think, is at least partly due to the enormously good tools we have (faster computers, better computer models, better cameras, better insight into genetics, etc)

      I also think it depends on what field you’re looking at. There’s arguably more cutting edge stuff going on in physics and astronomy than there is in chemistry.

      My thought on the role of philosophy today is that their job is to tidy up (deductivize) the inductive collections of scientists (of course, there’s still a role for moral philosophy and historical philosophy); this is part of the reason why I have such a deep respect for people like Karl Popper, and more contemporary figures, such as Alan Chalmers, Noam Chomsky, and John Dupre (among others); even if I don’t necessarily agree with all their conclusions or positions, I appreciate the challenge they’re undertaking.

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