The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘Knowing’

The Self-Correcting Nature of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 29, 2013

Often I get asked what I think is so special about science. Many times people criticize my science-oriented worldview by saying that “science is just one view” or that “science is only ‘one way’ of knowing” and so on; it goes without saying that most often I hear this criticism of science and its methodology from those who are running counter to that methodology, usually in an effort to promote some brand of pseudoscience or similar nonsense.

Well, the purpose of this post is to point out one of the most valuable aspects of science: that particular aspect of its methodology which displays the self-correcting nature of science.

First, allow me to admit, right up front, that science isn’t necessarily about finding “Truth” with a capital “T”; as much as I and my fellow scientists support science, we must acknowledge that it, at best, offers us a kind of provisional truth. That is, the “truth” (note the lower-case “t”) that science offers us is always open to revision based upon new information, and this is – contrary to what some might think – one of its greatest strengths. And, as such, what science can do is approach, however slowly and asymptotically, a more and more accurate view of the world around us as a result.

This ability of science to be open to new information, to be capable of being revised, to be self-correcting, is precisely in opposition to the kind of dogmatism which is offered by so many other modes of thought. Too often, other modes of thought, whether they be grounded in religion or some kind of rigid ideology, start with the “Truth” (capital “T”) and work from there; I like to reference the following cartoon in order to illustrate the difference…

creationism vs science

Of course, the example of creationist pseudoscience is but one example, but I think my point is made.

Something which should be added to this discussion is the fact that, just as in any human endeavor, science is prone to making mistakes. In fact, the history of science is full of errors, failed experiments, and even outright fraud; but the self-correcting nature of modern science once again comes to bear as a great strength in these cases.

For example, it was scientists who discovered the fraud behind the cold fusion fiasco in the late 1980s, wherein a pair of researchers publicly claimed (fraudulently) that they had produced fusion in a chemical reaction on a lab bench; it was careful and persistent application of scientific methodology which pointed out the errors in the claims that “faster-than-light” neutrinos had indeed gone superluminal (it ended up, at least in part, being a mistake in the experimental design); and this process continues to this day with doubts raised (yes, by scientists) about recent claims of stem-cell cloning.

This self-correcting, self-policing nature of science to peer into its own processes, methodology, and motivation is more than admirable, in my opinion; it is vitally necessary to have a mode of thought that incorporates this kind of inquiry in our world. That is because all too often when we convince ourselves of some kind of “Truth” (note that capital “T” again), it leads to the shutting down of inquiry, doubt, and analysis so necessary to see whether or not the “Truth” is just a lie.

Give me that kind of humility over the smug, self-assuring claim to “Truth” any day.

Posted in scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Doomsday Comes to the Movies

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 20, 2009

A recent article by Ben Radford provides an excellent skeptical analysis of a doomsday pseudoscience being popularized in the new movie “Knowing”, which stars Nicolas Cage as a professor who decodes a string of numbers that supposedly predicted past disasters and also predicts an upcoming apocalypse.

knowing

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer for the movie which pretty clearly lays out the plot and the pseudoscience behind it…

The skeptic shown briefly in the trailer (the guy who tells Cage’s character to “just step back a moment”) hits it dead on – given enough random data, pretty much anyone can find pretty much any pattern for which they are looking. As Ben Radford goes on to elaborate in the article…

Though the plot is fictional, this scenario has occurred many times in the real world. In 1997 Michael Drosnin published a best-selling book titled “The Bible Code,” in which he claimed that the Bible contained a code (hidden in numbers and letters) accurately predicting past world events. Drosnin’s work was later refuted, with critics demonstrating that the “meanings” he found were simply the result of selectively choosing data sets from a vast sea of random letters.

Similar “hidden codes” were found in other books such as “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace,” demonstrating that any sizeable text can produce such codes if you look long enough.

In psychology, the tendency for the human mind to find coincidences, patterns, and connections in random data is called apophenia.

The main problem with the pseudoscientists & conspiracy theorists who cater to this style of doomsday thinking is common among the woo crowd… they count the hits & ignore the misses, and in order to count the “hits” as true hits, they have to massage and arrange the data!

So, while I find Nicolas Cage to be a good actor and enjoy a good disaster flick, I anticipate an unfortunate amount of woo-related activity due to this movie, the recent economic downturn, and prophecies of impending world doom related to the year 2012. All of this put together makes for a nice mix of irrational fear out of essentially nothing. And while fantasy does make good movies, it makes lousy real life.

Posted in media woo, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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