Friday, August 9, 2013

Scientific skepticism

From Salon, how science does it backwards:
People learned that science, as a tool, as a lens to create an upside-down way of looking at the world, made life better. Your natural tendency is to start from a conclusion and work backward to confirm your assumptions, but the scientific method drives down the wrong side of the road and tries to disconfirm your assumptions. ...

 Sure, scientists are just people, prone to the same delusions as anyone else, but the enterprise, the process, slowly but surely grinds away human weakness. It is a self-correcting system that is always closer to the truth today than it was yesterday...

[Y]our natural way of understanding and explaining what you experience is terrible. When you believe in something, you rarely seek out evidence to the contrary to see how it matches up with your assumptions. ...
When you have zero evidence, every assumption is basically equal. You prefer to see causes rather than effects, signals in the noise, patterns in the randomness. You prefer easy-to-understand stories, and thus turn everything in life into a narrative so that complicated problems become easy. Scientists work to remove the narrative, to boil it away, leaving behind only the raw facts. Those data sit there naked and exposed so they can be reflected upon and rearranged by each new visitor. 
Scientists will speculate, and they will argue, but the data they extract from observation will not budge. They may not even make sense for a hundred years or more, but thanks to the scientific method, the stories, full of biases and fallacies, will crash against the facts and recede into history.
So no, the earth is not carried on the back of a giant turtle, the moon is not made of cheese, and diseases do not strike us because of our moral failings.  Facts, as David Boies told us, Facts are troublesome things.  You can't deny them.  What you do with them, well, that's something else. And so, with all this knowledge of facts, we still have children starving, people dying from unclean water, and effluent polluting our air and oceans.

And that is both an achievement of science, and a definition of its limits.

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