Why science is the best tool we have to understand reality

In my previous post I was presented with some odd comments about science and how we can develop justifiable certainty. These are my responses.

There are various ways to minimise the cognitive dissonance that we experience when science treads on our precious beliefs. Denial is one way, the comments below that I respond to are largely blanket dismissals of science.

Statistical significance

Claim: “I believe my experience over what others tell me or insists is true.”
Response: I’ve never been to Madagascar but people tell me it exists. I couldn’t possibly believe them unless I went there myself.

It takes a degree of ignorance to make the statement that someone’s personal experience on a matter is somehow more valid than thousands of people who carefully test ideas over several years and decades.

This is why scientific medicine works while belief-based medicine is like a blind man in a dark warehouse trying to hit a dartboard.

In medicine, it is unreasonable to expect people to try treatments “just to see what it’s like for themselves”. People should be able to find out if a treatment is safe and efficacious from reliable evidence. Besides, there is an endless production line of nonsense treatments and remedies and it would be an unwise waste of time to just trust people’s subjective opinions (which by nature are biased and subject to a host of cognitive biases).
I am not a scientist and am not qualified to do the research that scientists do in any field you care to think of. It would be silly for me to just flat out reject science because I haven’t experienced it myself. I can, though, be open to reason and learning and benefit from the knowledge that took others a lot of hard work to acquire. The observations, facts and logic are all open to me if I choose to study further.

The scientific method employs careful checks and balances that leads to information we can rely upon. No other area of culture employs such a rigorous standard of intellectual honesty.

Imagine if everyone settled on reality by way of accepting only their subjective experience. What could we possibly learn about external reality?

Everyone’s subjective experience is by nature different and so we stumble around without an external reference checking system.

We can develop technology, medicine and understanding because we all live according to the laws of physics and our anatomies, genetics, neurology and biochemistry are all the same (with obvious genetic variations).

Be objective as possible

Claim: “All interpretations are subjective”
Response: Aside from being a hasty sweeping generalisation it also represents a false equivalence. Subjectivity and objectivity exist on a continuum. Science allows us to be as objective as possible by controlling all the variables that could influence the outcome of an experiment.

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. – Carl Sagan

There are legitimate philosophical debates about the nature of knowledge and objectivity. However, it is a fallacy then to say that scientific findings are as subjective as the musings of individuals.

Furthermore, the only reason a person would dismiss science and advance their own subjective conclusions is because it justifies them advancing whatever nonsense they like and calling it reality.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts. -Steven  Novella

Facts are not negotiable and are by definition  publically verifiable. Facts are objective. Regardless of disagreements, if we make an observation that same observation could be made by someone else.

A molecule called DNA carries all the genetic  information for an organism. The effect of mass is to curve space. The human eye can detect only light in the 390-700 nanometre range. The atomic weight of cobalt is 58.93 and trilobites are fossilised in Cambrian rock. These are objective facts.

Detection and measuring equipment has further increased our ability to make finer and precise objective readings of reality. The effect has been to develop more accurate models of reality and thus better technology.

Knowledge constantly evolves

Claim: “Interpretations in science change all the time”.
Response: Yes, scientific interpretations change constantly because our knowledge improves. This is a strength of science.

The fact we don’t know stuff and we learn more is what keeps scientists busy! The march of human progress and understanding continues!

An excellent analogy is that scientific theory is like the car. Components can be substituted or improved upon, without changing the overall truth of how a car functions. Theories will always be improved upon because the limits of  knowledge mean there will always be more to learn.

One presumption implicit in the “well science changes” argument is that somehow it shouldn’t — as if science is useless unless we have absolute unchanging knowledge. This is an unrealistic expectation of science and the knowledge accumulating process.Another fallacy is that interpretations change willy-nilly much like they do in politics. This is a false analogy as the mechanisms in politics (democracy, authoritarianism etc…) are different to those of science (meritocracy, rigorous testing against reality, logical conclusions).
By contrast, modes of thinking based on personal experience and belief tend to stay stultified in the ideas of the past. Such is  the mechanisms of belief and cognitive biases. Science was designed explicitly to overcome these human tendencies to make faulty inferences and defend prior beliefs. Pseudoscience and superstition stop where science begins.
The false premise here too is that science somehow contradicts itself by changing all the time. However, this isn’t historically accurate. Major shifts in scientific ideas have overturned premature ideas sure, this is to be expected. However, major advances often don’t overturn well established theories, they merely increase the resolution and precision.

Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity didn’t replace Newton’s laws of motion — relativity gave us insights into the fabric of space-time and how physics operates at high speeds. Likewise, quantum theory doesn’t negate relativity but does give us a look into physics of our universe at sub-atomic levels.Over time science converges on the truth – our  understanding of reality is constantly improving.

Converging on the truth

Claim: “There are multiple ways of interpreting data”.
Response: This comment is a version of “it’s only a theory” and it stems from ignorance of what a theory actually is. Science is a tool to discriminate between fact and folly.

Multiple ways of interpreting data is a feature of preliminary findings. Science advances by knocking down theories (falsification). While there may be multiple interpretations to explain a body of facts these are always provisional and multiple interpretations are gradually knocked off as scientists attempt to demonstrate that each interpretation is false.

After a time, it becomes absurd to hold on to any given interpretation because it is clearly false. The fact that people often do hold on to falsified theories is another reason why personal intuition is insufficient.

A strong interpretation (theory) connects all the dots from different lines of evidence and can predict as yet unobserved facts.

Read more information on the scientific method.


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