THE PARADOX OF SCIENCE: The surprising success of science


The book with the above tentative title that I have been working hard on for the past year is finally done! Well, not really. As has been said, “A book is never finished, it is merely abandoned by its author.” No book (or article or painting or any other form of free composition) is ever really completed because one can always keep refining it, seeking to make it better. On each review, I find things I want to change and it is only when I find that I am changing the same things back and forth that I realize that it is time to end the process.

When I say I am finished, it means that I have reached the stage where I have said all that I pretty much want to say in the book and all that remains is polishing it before sending it around to publishers. I could use the same publisher as my previous two books, but those were more aimed at the education community while this is for a more general audience and I will seek an academic or trade publisher. Finding a new publisher is a tedious process.

Here are some excerpts from the introduction so that readers of this blog get an early look at what I am trying to say.

Why should the success of science be surprising at all? Many people have got so used to science working so well in providing the underpinnings of the marvels of our modern society that it seems obvious that it can only do so because it is generating true knowledge that tells us what the world is really like. But how valid is that belief? This book will argue that the idea that we can know if scientific theories are true or that they provide an increasingly accurate representation of reality cannot be sustained upon closer examination. The basis for why science works so well has to be sought elsewhere.

There are those who use the deep inferential nature of scientific knowledge to argue that it is less sound than other forms of knowledge that are more readily and transparently accessible. But in fact, apart from those things that we personally experience, inferential knowledge is pretty much all that we have, except that some forms of it seem to be more concrete and reliable than others.

Almost all knowledge is inferential knowledge. The knowledge that we obtain from science is different only in degree from the knowledge obtained in other fields in that the inferential chains are often longer and require more esoteric tools to uncover. It also seems much more unfamiliar because it deals with a world that we cannot imagine easily because it lies beyond the reach of our senses or in which events took place a long time ago before humans were around to record them or in distant parts of the universe. Those who seek to pursue agendas that go against the scientific consensus in some areas have tried to exploit this feature of the deep inferential knowledge structure of science to sow doubt as to the validity of the conclusions.

One group of people who have adopted the most extreme forms of this skepticism are the religious fundamentalists who believe, based on their interpretation of the Bible, that the Earth has existed for less than ten thousand years and that the theory of evolution is false. One such sect instructs the children of its followers to challenge teachers who make assertions about anything that predates recorded history by asking them “Were you there?”, implying that only those things that have been directly witnessed by humans are the things we can know for sure and that everything else is questionable.

But they are not the only ones who try to find ways to challenge the robustness of scientific conclusions. Astrologers, homeopaths, psychics, faith healers and the like have challenged science by appealing to supernatural effects that they claim are outside the scope of science. There are also business interests that have challenged the health risks of smoking and the damage caused by acid rain and chlorofluorocarbons. Opponents of childhood vaccinations similarly deny the effectiveness or necessity of vaccines. Climate change denialists challenge the robustness of the scientific consensus that the planet is in danger of undergoing irreversible and deleterious changes by questioning the validity of estimates of long ago temperatures. All these groups suggest that some piece of contradictory evidence, or making an ad hoc change somewhere, can change the conclusions.

These concerted efforts to undermine confidence in scientific conclusions need to be countered because of the short and long-term harmful effects of the policies that these criticisms seek to advance. But in doing so, we must be cautious to not make claims in support of science that cannot be sustained. Some of the critics of science use quite sophisticated arguments gleaned from the fields of the history and philosophy of science, and countering them requires equal or even greater levels of sophistication about the knowledge generated by those fields.

At their root, such questions involve how we know things that lie outside the range of direct human experience and how sure we are of that knowledge. We look to science for answers to such difficult questions because it is that field of knowledge that specializes in addressing questions that are not amenable to direct experience and has been so successful in utilizing the answers obtained, and this book will discuss how it does so.

Many people do not really understand how science works. Why should this be a source of concern? After all, many people don’t understand how planes fly and yet we board them for long distance travel without any qualms. Many people do not understand how smartphones work and yet can use them for all manner of communications. They don’t understand how microwave ovens work and yet can use them to cook and heat their food with facility. In living our lives today, we are surrounded by technology that we have little understanding of and yet we are unfazed and use them effectively and easily. What is wrong with treating science the same way we use each of those devices, with little or no understanding of its inner workings but using the information and products created by it for our benefit without going to all the trouble of trying to understand how all that knowledge was obtained?

But there are good reasons why achieving more widespread understanding of the nature of science is beneficial. Very little actually hinges on whether or not we understand how our everyday appliances work. But a lot hinges on understanding the nature of science and the inferential reasoning used in acquiring scientific knowledge. Science is not just a collection of factual information that underlies modern technology. Arriving at that information involves making difficult decisions about what is true and what is false, what is correct and what is wrong, what is reliable and what is unreliable, and since the consequences of those decisions can be so important, over time the community of scientists has developed ways that enable them to make reasoned and reliable judgments about many important questions.

Many of the ways to do so have practical relevance in all aspects of our daily lives and can often be critical in decision making for individuals and for public policy. Indeed we often unconsciously use many of those same decision-making processes but because we are not explicitly aware that we are doing so, our everyday decision-making is often idiosyncratic and inconsistent. By being aware of how the scientific community arrives at its conclusions about which theories can be relied upon and which ones should be jettisoned, we not only gain more confidence in those theories, we become able to make better and more consistent judgments ourselves, about important questions concerning our society and even the more mundane aspects of our own existence. But getting to that happy state of a deeper understanding of the way science works is not straightforward.

To really understand how science works, we need to understand the logic of science, how scientists reason their way to conclusions. Learning about the principles of logic in science is important because one needs a common framework in order to adjudicate disagreements. A big step towards resolving arguments lies in either agreeing to a common framework by which a judgment can be arrived at or deciding that one cannot agree and that further discussion is pointless in the absence of new information. Either outcome is more desirable than going around in circles endlessly, not recognizing what the ultimate source of disagreement is.

An important issue in science is how we decide on the existence or non-existence of postulated entities. Establishing existence seems more straightforward. For example, we believe in the existence of horses because there is direct evidence for them. But establishing non-existence is more problematic. We (or at least many of us) do not believe in the existence of unicorns (or leprechauns, pixies, dragons, centaurs, mermaids, fairies, demons, vampires, werewolves, and a host of other mythical entities) because there is no credible evidence for them even though we cannot logically prove they do not exist.

This book will explain how we know what we know about what exists and what does not, and argue that even though we cannot logically prove a negative, that does not prevent us from treating many things as effectively non-existent on the grounds that their existence is irrelevant and superfluous. While this basic idea is simple, complications arise when the evidence is not in a form that is directly accessible via our senses and thus available to everyone, but instead is inferential, extracted from data that requires sophisticated equipment to observe or measure, and complex theories in order to interpret and understand. This results in most people not being able to evaluate the evidence themselves and then the question of what constitutes credible evidence becomes more problematic. But if people understand the process by which the evidence is evaluated by people who have the knowledge and skills to do so, this might help in resolving many of the doubts and uncertainties that have been exploited by some to advance dubious agendas.

How we make judgments about the existence or nonexistence of any entity is based on scientific logic but this logic is not only applicable in the province of science. It is used in all manner of academic disciplines that deal with the empirical world. Indeed, it is also what everyone uses in everyday life while not being explicitly aware that they are doing so. This book will try to make what has long been implicit explicit. But scientific logic applies to far more than questions of existence and non-existence. It is also used to determine the laws that govern the behavior of entities and how we judge whether these laws are valid, and is thus worth knowing about for those reasons alone.

When one looks closely at the structure of scientific knowledge, the initial easy assurance that it must be true becomes harder to sustain and this is what makes its success so surprising. But as will become clearer, invoking the ideas of truth and correspondence with reality turn out to be unnecessary and the success of science can be understood without recourse to them. In making that case, this book has been strongly influenced both directly and indirectly by Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work on the theory of evolution On the Origin of Species. Just as he said that his entire book consisted of “one long argument” about the nature of evolution, so is the present book one long argument about the nature of science, starting with dispelling many of the myths and misconceptions and folklore surrounding the nature of scientific knowledge before laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding of how science arrives at its knowledge structures and why we are justified in having such trust in them. That journey will take us into many areas of knowledge involving science, history and philosophy of science, mathematics, and law and I hope readers will learn some interesting things along the way.

I would really welcome feedback from readers on the ideas presented in the introduction, since my target audience consists of people like you. I am particularly dissatisfied with the subtitle as it does not completely capture the nature of the argument.

The book has been a lot of fun to write. I hope that readers find it to be enjoyable too.

Comments

  1. Mano Singham says

    The statement was about the nonexistence of entities. The negation of propositions, like the one you state, are a different matter and can often be done.

  2. John Morales says

    I like the tentative subtitle; it echoes Eugene Wigner’s The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences and is nicely alliterative.

  3. John Morales says

    I found the excerpts from your introduction cogent, informative, and easy to read.

    There is one aspect that caught my attention:

    To really understand how science works, we need to understand the logic of science, how scientists reason their way to conclusions.

    I think that’s a necessary, but not a sufficient condition; as I understand it, modern science (particularly at its theoretical frontiers) is the result of a collaborative enterprise where its methodology–not just its logic–is crucial, and that this is part of the ‘how’ is not suggested within the provided excerpts.

    (I can’t imagine you don’t address that within the book itself, though! 🙂 )

  4. Mano Singham says

    John,

    Yes, I dwell quite a bit on the collaborative nature and the methodology of science because there are many interesting things to be said about both of them.

  5. Dan says

    Sounds interesting, especially “the initial easy assurance that it must be true becomes harder to sustain”.

    On the title, I would flip it around to “SURPRISING SUCCESS: The Paradox of Science”. That removes the redundancy, and would also work fine with a longer subtitle like: “The Paradox of Scientific Dominance Despite Its Dubious Foundations” or whatever else you wanted to capture.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Echoing John’s opening sentence in #4. One minor typo;

    A big step towards in resolving arguments…

  7. Mano Singham says

    Dan @#6,

    Thanks for the title suggestion! The redundancy issue did concern me. I am a little concerned about the ‘dubious foundations’ part. My point is that the basis for science’s success is different from what is popularly thought, not that it is dubious. That is what I am really struggling to get across in a brief subtitle.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#7,

    Thanks for pointing that out. You cannot imagine how many times I have read that opening chapter and yet I still managed to miss that typo! This is why a fresh pair of eyes is so essential and why I have sent the manuscript out to a few people to read.

  9. deepak shetty says

    This book will argue that the idea that we can know if scientific theories are true or that they provide an increasingly accurate representation of reality cannot be sustained upon closer examination.

    Sounds interesting. The cynic in me feels that those (usually non believers) who need to understand this wont read this book (or dislike it)

  10. Thud says

    Hi Mano,
    I suggest the you clarify very word “science” early in the introduction. In online pieces I’ve read, “science” is construed very broadly, including all evidence-based and logic/reason-based studies.
    The physical sciences have very low uncertainties so they are established as engineering practice, except on the frontiers cosmology and quantum field theory where they’re largely irrelevant to everyday concerns. The complexities of large systems, human-made as well as biological, social, and ecosystems are where real uncertainty arises, noise, modeling errors, chaotic interactions, risk, etc.

  11. mnb0 says

    “The statement was about the nonexistence of entities.”
    Is “The Monster of Loch Ness doesn’t exist” a statement about the nonexistence of an entity or the negation of a proposition?
    Drain the Loch Ness, look hard and you can prove that it doesn’t exist.
    Is “a square circle doesn’t exist” a statement about the nonexistence of an entity or the negation of a proposition? Do you think it correct to say you can’t prove it?
    I’d say you can prove something doesn’t exist if a) your search domain is limited or b) the concept is incoherent (there may be more). Herman Philipse in

    https://global.oup.com/academic/product/god-in-the-age-of-science-9780199697533?cc=sr&lang=en&

    shows convincingly that god is an incoherent concept. That’s good enough proof for me. And for you?

  12. Mano Singham says

    I actually deal with the ideas of gods and the Loch Ness monster and square triangles in the book. There is a difference between logically contradictory entities and those that are not so.

  13. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    The statement was about the nonexistence of entities. The negation of propositions, like the one you state, are a different matter and can often be done.

    You’re being way too generous.

    Let me cite this paper:
    > How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism
    > (final draft – to appear in Foundations of Science)
    > Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, Johan Braeckman
    https://sites.google.com/site/maartenboudry/teksten-1/methodological-naturalism

    Let me be daring, and sum up the article, and make some points that IMHO follow quite readily from the paper, and which are implicitly stated, but not outright stated.

    Long ago, humans were doing primitive science. They were still doing empirical reasoning. Over time, we developed better and better methods, and those became part of the modern scientific method.

    Long ago, when humans were doing empirical reasoning, they did not know if there were spirits, ghosts, goblins, etc. They posited many hypotheses that were premised on the existence of such things, and over time, many were shown to be wrong, and not a single one was shown to be right. Logically and conceptually, it could have been otherwise. It could have been that there are river spirits who control when the river overflows its banks and floods the nearby land, and if so, we could have verified this through empirical reasoning.

    After so many failed hypotheses of this nature, and after such a long-lasting, diverse, and widespread set of hypotheses and tests, the only reasonable conclusion to make is that there are no such things as the supernatural. Materialism is demonstrably true. Philosophical naturalism is a conclusion of the scientific method. Because we have conclusively demonstrated the truth of philosophical naturalism, future science is done under the working assumption of philosophical naturalism, and that is why modern and future science operates according to methodological naturalism. Provisional methodological naturalism only makes sense on the premise of philosophical naturalism, and philosophical naturalism is something that must be justified by empirical reasoning, and philosophical naturalism is justified on the basis of the known evidence.

    Of course, the conclusion of the truth of philosophical naturalism is a tentative conclusion, like any other conclusion of science, and with new evidence of the right kind, it could be revoked. Methodological naturalism is not an intrinsic limitation of science. It’s simply a provisional approach to assist us in making faster progress, which is justified by our belief of the truth of philosophical naturalism.

    We’ve come very far in fundamental physics. With the discovery of the Higgs field, the standard model of physics is now complete, and it fully and completely describes every experiment that has ever been done on Earth. Due to the mathematical structure of quantum field theory, we can place very tight limits on what new physics there might be. These observational and mathematical limits are extremely tight: there are no new physics that has any measurable effect on our everyday life, nor on almost any conceivable experiment that could be done on Earth. In short, if there was a new kind of force or particle in quantum field theory, and if it had any possible effect on our lives, then we would have already created it in a particle accelerator. We haven’t, and therefore we have strong evidence that there is no such thing.

    I brought up the quantum field theory topic just to drive home this point: there is no room for supernaturalism in the world of modern scientific knowledge. It is not merely that I lack a belief in Unicorns. It is not merely that a belief or non-belief in Unicorns is superfluous. I am quite convinced in the truth of the positive assertion that Unicorns do not exist. Same for ghosts, goblins, and gods. Sagan’s famous phrase “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is simply wrong: absence of predicted evidence is evidence of absence. It’s beyond time to accept these simple scientific truths, and to stop artificially restricting where we allow science to investigate.

  14. John Morales says

    [meta]

    EnlightenmentLiberal above, you do realise who you’re lecturing about science and its entailments, right?
    You’re embarrassing yourself, even if you don’t see that.

    After so many failed hypotheses of this nature, and after such a long-lasting, diverse, and widespread set of hypotheses and tests, the only reasonable conclusion to make is that there are no such things as the supernatural. Materialism is demonstrably true.

    The very nature of empiricism is that it’s not analytic; all scientific conclusions are provisional, and could in principle be overturned by new observations. This has actually historically happened (consider Lord Kelvin’s scientific determination of the age of the Sun).

    (I believe that’s to what Mano refers)

    Philosophical naturalism is a conclusion of the scientific method.

    Nope. You mean to refer to methodological naturalism; science has no stance on metaphysical naturalism, since it’s outside its purview.

    I brought up the quantum field theory topic just to drive home this point: there is no room for supernaturalism in the world of modern scientific knowledge.

    Which is an entirely different claim to science having disproven supernaturalism.

  15. says

    I look forward to reading it!!!

    One group of people who have adopted the most extreme forms of this skepticism are the religious fundamentalists

    I’m hoping your discussion also embraces some of the questions raised by more rational extreme skeptics, such as the pyrrhonians or David Hume. Hume’s Sextus Empiricus-inspired assault on general knowledge is really interesting to me (I think Cisko does a good job trying to deal with induction in “Without Miracles”)

    that does not prevent us from treating many things as effectively non-existent on the grounds that their existence is irrelevant and superfluous

    That worked pretty well for Epicurus!!

    Maybe when the book comes out you can do a few readers’ commentary postings.

  16. Mano Singham says

    John @#16,

    You made some of the points I wished to make too, especially concerning the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. The former is chosen by scientists because science is unworkable without it, while the latter is a strong inference made by many scientists because of the tremendous success of the former. I go into that quite a bit.

    Kelvin figures prominently in my book since I deal at length with the evolution of ideas about the ages of the Sun and the Earth.

    I also go into quite a bit of depth as to why there is really no such thing as ‘the scientific method’.

  17. Mano Singham says

    Marcus @#17,

    Hume and Epicurus absolutely make appearances in my book. It would be ungracious to write a book of this nature without a tip of the hat to those two giants!

  18. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    […] methodological and philosophical naturalism. The former is chosen by scientists because science is unworkable without it, […]

    And this is the precisely wrong-headed position that I wished to attack, and it’s also the wrong-headed position that the Boudry et al paper attack at length in their article.

  19. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    all scientific conclusions are provisional, and could in principle be overturned by new observations.

    Absolutely agreed.

    […] science has no stance on metaphysical naturalism, since it’s outside its purview.

    Wrong, and clearly so.

    Again, I strongly encourage you – and Mano – to read the Boudry et al paper, and to watch Scott Clifton’s Skepticon 7 talk, available on youtube.

  20. Mano Singham says

    Holms,

    For non-fiction, subtitles provide a way to give more information about the contents and tease the reader into thinking about the topic. Of course, one dos not have to go full Darwin and have the very wordy On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life!

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    So, neither John nor Mano will engage with me at all, except John to say “you’re wrong” without giving reasoned arguments. Wonderful. Well, Mano tells me to stop, I intend to continue preaching proper philosophy whenever I see elementary mistakes like this one.

  22. John Morales says

    EL, you want to believe science has disproven the supernatural and has adopted philosophical naturalism, go for it.

    <shrug>

  23. Mano Singham says

    Enlightenment,

    I did engage with you. My practice is that when I have made my point, then I see no need to repeat it over and over. If others disagree with me, I cannot help that.

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