What Science Is Not

Sy Garte writes:

Science is not about amassing evidence to prove a point. That’s what lawyers do. That’s what advocates do, and scientists are not supposed to be advocates. One can always find evidence for or against anything…

Evidence is cheap. You can find evidence to support or refute any statement. Evidence is not the way to establish the truth. Evidence is important, but by itself is useless. Now I can hear the computer keys clicking away. “SCIENCE IS BASED ON EVIDENCE. YOU ARE ANTI-SCIENCE!!”

Actually, that is a common misconception. Science is not based on what you might call evidence. Scientists are not juries. They do not reach a conclusion about truth by hearing arguments from many sides, and weighing the evidence. The scientific process is quite different from what people generally think. For most tough scientific questions, where there is evidence pointing to different answers, scientists will usually say “We don’t know yet. I favor this answer, but it could be the other one.” Eventually, as more data comes in, one answer becomes obviously correct to everyone (sometimes with exceptions). That can take years or decades.

Experimental science is not set up to answer big questions, but very small ones. No scientist goes into a lab ready to prove that evolution is true or false or to cure cancer, or to learn how life began. No experiment or observation could do that. What they do is set up an experiment to measure the enzymatic activity of an extract of one species of yeast cells by determining the rate of disappearance of a particular metabolite labelled with radioactive phosphate. And 9 times out of 10, the experiment doesn’t work: the controls show the wrong values, the replicates give wildly different answers, nothing makes sense. After several months, usable data finally comes out. It’s usually not very impressive or interesting. The measured enzymatic activity is pretty much zero, which means either that this yeast species doesn’t degrade the metabolite, or the extract didn’t have the enzyme in it, or there is no such enzyme, or who the hell knows. That is what really happens in science labs, folks.

Sometimes we get lucky and we make a real finding. Something that can be published. Something that might mean something interesting. But proof? Truth? Sorry, no. At best we have an experimental result or an observation that is factually true (because we did the experiment according to the rules). But that fact by itself could mean any number of things. Scientifically defined evidence for a hypothesis, especially for a major important hypothesis, comes very slowly and from many different approaches…

Click through to read the rest, and to find out what it has to do with Paul McCartney…

Of related interest, let me share a cartoon from Tom Gauld which appeared in New Scientistreflecting another misperception about science:

Scientist doing his job

And related to that, let me share two online articles of potential interest, one from BioLogos about science driving one away from or leading one back to faith – or both; the other from Nautilus about neurotheology.


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  • John MacDonald

    The Scientist starts with a question about how to “interpret” a certain minute part of reality, and so does an experiment. Sounds like hermeneutics to me. And scientists do deal with the big questions, such as the big bang theory and evolution. Dawkins has written many books giving “evidence” for Evolution, such as the “The Greatest Show On Earth” : https://www.amazon.com/Greatest-Show-Earth-Evidence-Evolution/dp/1416594795/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1508943338&sr=8-1&keywords=the+greatest+show+on+earth+richard+dawkins
    And if scientists ignore the big questions, it is because they have long been “established,” such as the heliocentric model of the solar system. In general, evolution has long been “demonstrated,” so scientists don’t need to “give evidence” in favor of it.

    • John MacDonald

      Consider this example: There was a time when scientists thought the “evidence” pointed to the “conclusion” that the earth was the center of the solar system. Then, some scientists “reinterpreted” the evidence and “drew the conclusion” that the sun was the center of the solar system. At the beginning of this “paradigm shift,” the earth centered model was actually better at making predictions than the sun centered model.

      • Theories in the natural sciences, as in other fields, are efforts to make sense of the many pieces of data that are available. And so information such as the red shift of most astronomical objects, the background radiation, and so on all lead to the formation of the big bang theory. But it is not as though the theory itself can be experimentally verified in the way that the pieces of evidence which fit together so nicely into it can.

        There is an obvious analogy to the study of the individual pieces of information that claim to relate something about a historical Jesus, and any attempt to combine those into a reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus as a whole…

        • John MacDonald

          I think he overstates his position when he says “But proof? Truth? Sorry, no.” There are a massive amounts of scientific “truths” that have be demonstrated by examining the evidence, such as the fact that water boils at 100 degrees celsius under normal pressure.. Analogously, there is a storehouse of truths in any field, such as mathematical truths, philosophical truths, psychological truths, sociological truths, anthopological truths, etc.. That scientists don’t spend a lot of time trying to generate answers to the big questions such as the origins of the universe (the big bang), or how life got to be the way it is on earth (evolution), is that these things have already been “theorized” and “demonstrated,” by scientists.

          • Perhaps the rhetoric is exaggerated, but when people seek “truth” and “proof” they rarely mean things such as that water boils at a particular temperature under certain very specific conditions.

          • John MacDonald

            “Truth” just means “the agreement of the proposition with the state of affairs.”

          • That is indeed what “truth” means – under certain very specific conditions. 😉

          • John MacDonald

            And then there’s “true” friends, where “true” means “exemplary.” And then there’s the “truth” of all things, meaning the “foundation,” which is probably better left to philosophy and theology rather than science.. In that sense, science doesn’t really get at the “truth.”

          • Pseudonym

            That’s not what “truth” means in logic.

          • John MacDonald

            I meant that if, for instance, I see a red ball in front of me, and I say “The ball is red,” the state of affairs agrees with the proposition, and hence the proposition is “true.” The ball isn’t “true,” but what I say about the ball is “true” or “false.” Of course there are many meanings of “truth” when it is defined as correctness, and many more meanings when truth is not defined as correctness, such as when we call someone a “true” friend. I wasn’t talking about formal logic or predicate calculus or things like that, just what ordinary people mean when they say things like “Water boils at 100 degrees celsius under normal pressure.” That statement is “true” or “correct,’ in the sense that it agrees with the state of affairs, which we can show in a scientific experiment. Why, what do you think truth means?

          • Pseudonym

            Actually, I kind of agree with that. Mathematicians are in the business of proof. Philosophers (and I include logicians) are in the business of truth. Scientists are in the business of reliable explanations.

          • John MacDonald

            Because of my rudimentary scientific knowledge of gravity, I would say it is “true” that if I let go of my T.V. controller which I am currently holding in my hand, it will fall and hit the couch ……. Yep, I was right. Splat! Never doubted it, and one of the characteristics of the normal connotations of truth is relative freedom from doubt (Descartes). Gravity has always worked before, and it worked again this time in my experiment. Analogously in math, if I want to conduct an experiment to see if 3X2=6 (if I am doubting that for some reason), understanding what the terms in that equation mean, I can take some pennies, put them in groups of 3, and make 2 groups, and do a tally – and voila: 6.

          • Pseudonym

            In the case of the gravity experiment, that’s precisely my point: that the controller always falls is a reliable result.

      • Fergus Hancock

        Firstly, that is only partly correct. Few rejected Copernicus heliocentric model outright; most (including the Pope) thought it a useful means to an end, but not a model that could be experimentally verified one way or the other; it was a mathematical model, not a description of the behaviour of the universe. This is particularly true as Copernicus was forced to introduce epicycles, just as geocentrists had for many centuries.

        Verifiable evidence available at the time (mid- 1500s) could not verify the heliocentric model; the mathematics needed to integrate across curvature was devised partly by Kepler, partly by Leibniz and later developed by Newton, while observable phenomena, such as stellar parallax (a predicted observable confirmation of the heliocentric solar system) came up with nothing. Kepler analysed and presented evidence of regular deviations from an expected course by the moon and Mars – motions that could not be accounted by a geocentric solar system but were consistent with a non-circular heliocentric solar system.

        Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion were developed from these observations and are accepted as natural physical laws. Scientific interpretations of nature must abide by established laws unless there is an overwhelmingly compelling reason to drop them. Even Einstein did not break known physical laws; he showed that from Maxwell’s equations of light that the only frame of reference physics could rely upon was c. He didn’t break Newton’s laws; he showed they were limited and not abosulte.

        The strongest reason to side-step or reject existing understanding in physics is where predicted behaviour is then observed, followed up by further observations, then verified using indirect or alternative methods to arrive at the same result. The other side of the hand is that scientific notions and hypotheses are created in order to be tested and refuted. Most science that ends up being rejected is insufficiently tested to demonstrate beyond doubt that it is not an invalid interpretation of the data that is collected.

        • John MacDonald

          My point was just that when children are learning to do science, which is to say learning the basics of science, they are taught to make a testable hypothesis about some element of reality, and conduct an experiment to see if it conforms to the hypothesis. For instance, they may heat water to 100 degrees celsius at normal room pressure to test if it boils. If the water boils, this doesn’t “prove” the hypothesis. As Hume pointed out, just because water has boiled under such conditions in the past doesn’t mean it will do so again in the future. But that said, if enough such experiments and observations are conducted, we can say it’s “true” that water boils at 100 degrees celcius under normal pressure. In this sense, science has produced billions of “truths.”