The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

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 »

Guerrilla Skepticism and Wikipedia

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 15, 2012

I wanted to take a few moments to update you all about a really worthwhile endeavor regarding how to more effectively spread the skeptical message: editing Wikipedia.  As you probably know, Wikipedia – the world’s largest and most extensive encyclopedia – is edited pretty much solely by volunteers.  This means that the people who express the most interest in a topic typically end up editing it.

Now, sometimes this is a good thing, as when those who are experts in a particular field take the time to reasonably and thoughtfully edit a Wikipedia entry on a particular topic.  However, sometimes this is a bad thing, as when those with an agenda edit various Wikipedia entries in an effort to distort the facts.

Enter the brainchild of my skeptical colleague Susan Gerbic: Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.  As Susan once told me, why shouldn’t skeptics start getting more involved in the editing of Wikipedia?  After all, it is the largest and most easily and readily accessed source on just about any subject, and when people go search for something related to skepticism or pseudoscience, why wouldn’t we want as much factual information available to them as possible?  If skeptics don’t step up and take on the task of getting more involved in this editing process, then are we not simply ceding this fertile ground to the peddlers of woo and nonsense?

The Wikipedia Logo

For more information or to get involved, take a look at Susan’s blog: Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.

And I have to say, I agree with Susan.  Fortunately, a lot of other people have agreed with her as well, and it appears to be having a positive impact.  For instance, take a look at techophile and skeptic Tim Farley’s post on how a Google search tool, the Google Knowledge Graph, is benefitting from this form of guerrilla skepticism…

Google Knowledge Graph benefits from skeptic Wikipedia efforts

Last week Google introduced a new feature to their flagship search product, which is called Google Knowledge Graph. I believe it has only rolled out for users in the United States so far, so you may not see it if you live elsewhere, yet.

There are several interesting aspects of Knowledge Graph, and I encourage you to read more about it. The technology behind modern search engines is surprisingly complex, and this is the latest advancement.

But one of the main user-visible features of this product is a panel that you will see on the right side of many search results. This panel shows a summary of what Google believes you are looking for.  The aim is that many times the answer you seek will be right there on the results page.

Because this new feature draws a great deal of information from Wikipedia, all the great effort by Susan Gerbic and the other skeptics who work on her skeptic Wikipedia project is now paying off in yet another big way. …

Posted in internet, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Pew Science Knowledge Quiz

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 21, 2009

I saw today that the Pew Research Center has posted an online Science Knowledge Quiz at their website as a way of testing the general public’s scientific knowledge & understanding.  Click here to take the quiz…

My thoughts on this?  First, the good news: this is a great idea, and I’ve already seen it making the rounds like crazy on the Internet.  I also have more than one teaching colleague who has incorporated into their lessons (or at least plans to do so).  This is great PR, in my opinion, for pointing out our collective strengths & weaknesses when it comes to understanding science.

Now the bad news: the questions are pathetically easy, but what is really pathetic is that only about 10% of the people taking the quiz get all 12 questions correct (full disclosure: I’m in that top 10% 🙂 ).  In addition, the questions are merely fact-based in nature – all multiple choice with no questions geared towards testing the critical thinking skills of the test-taker.

All in all, I think the popularity of this little online quiz is a plus.  I encourage you to take it yourself, and then pass it along to others.

Posted in education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: