On Science

An opinion piece by Leane Roffey Line, c. 2008

In 1985, the Encyclopedia Britannica reported “The moral, political, and environmental difficulties facing science and technology today are not new”. (Macropedia, Vol. 27, p. 39). I would update that comment to 2008 by saying that now, the foundations of science, and its practical execution, are obfuscated further by attempts to integrate it into shared belief systems from the areas of religion and history. In short, science has lost its definition. We can correctly speak, from other perspectives, about things such as the history of science, the philosophy of science, the logic of science, etc. but in fact science is about something independent of those areas. Science is an activity defined by use of scientific method (sometimes badly, but in all cases, falsifiable).

Even philosophers of science do not agree on what “scientific method is” however the whole ideal of the scientific method was to avoid the effects of ideological preconceptions. I favor the notion of Bas C. Van Frassen, who states in “The Scientific Image” (ISBN 0-19-824427-4 p. 12) that:

“Science aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate; and acceptance of a theory involves as belief only that it is empirically adequate.”

He calls this “constructive empiricism”. Basically, what he means by “empirically adequate” is that a theory fits this qualification if what it is saying about things that are observed and about events in the world is exactly true when the all actual phenomena (observed at any time) present us with at least one model we can work from. Acceptance of such a theory involves more than belief, it also involves the terms from which we can seek explanation — reliability, repeatability, tests for failure, formulation of hypotheses, etc. A slow and careful stepwise measure of what we know, that can move us toward what we hope to know in a repeatable fashion.

Our scientific language is thus guided, in many ways, by pictures of previously accepted theories, although we are not necessarily constrained about how much we believe about these pictures. We must distinguish between OBSERVING and OBSERVING THAT. There is a large jump between direct observation and inference. To do science correctly, we must be ever on guard against the differences between psychological hypothesizing (what we are willing or unwilling to accept) and forming empirical hypotheses that can be tested, confronted with rival data, and tested again, and then reformulated.

Rule of inference to the best explanation works only so well in telling us which range of hypotheses to choose when proceeding with our studies into the natural world. A theory may be empirically inadequate or not, however, in NO case would it be of value if confronted with a shared belief system based on something other than a scientifically related set of observations, such as a religious text, an historical analysis, or a psychological theory as a court of last resort. It is one thing to investigate observable events in the world, but another entirely to be led to postulate the existence of unobservable events and processes. From that point, it is a further stretch up the ladder, away from science, to jump from common cause to universal cause. So at the discussion of Intelligent Design, or the validity of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (which by the way has been replaced by the science of genetics and should only be treated now as a subject in the History of Science), we are already at several removes from what science is, how it is translated into technology, how it interfaces with industry, how it is taught in the classroom.

The aim here is to indicate to the fly the way out of the fly-bottle, to paraphrase Wittgenstein (PI, 309). Unfortunately, when confronted with a statement as absolute as “I cannot buy what you are saying because it offends my religious sensibilities” further conversation is rendered impossible.

In the study of Y-haplogroups and MTDNA-haplogroups of the world it is becoming more and more evident that the structure of our own diversity not only has its roots deep in pieces of our own DNA, but in geologic time. In fact, until the time of Oxford geneticist Brian Sykes work The Seven Daughters of Eve (2001) the validity of blood groups was assumed to be important, and was at that point shown to be inadequate, as a theory to explain diversity in human population. (Sykes did work with “Mitochondrial Eve”). However, Y-chromosome Adam entered the picture shortly thereafter and now we have a very good idea of how humanity spread itself across the globe, and how long it took. It will be some time before these results can be disseminated in a form acceptable to people who accept beliefs that the earth is only 8,000 years old. Perhaps it will be of some comfort to them to know that Darwin himself was not involved in this research. It doesn’t bother me for example to extend the tree back from man to ape…eventual DNA work will either show that to be the case, or not.

I believe it is sheer mutilation to reject out of hand the intellectual and material achievements that science and technology have provided to us to satisfy the beliefs of religion and mysticism. We have taken a step backwards into the Dark Ages passing through the Industrial Revolution and bypassing the Age of Enlightenment altogether. We have, through industrial greed and the existence of the military-industrial complex, mutilated the efforts of invention to better humanity, consistently bypassing opportunity to correct our mistakes (the energy problems we are facing are but one example). This must stop if we are to survive. The art of pragmatism must take us forward now and remove science from this bog of ideological preconception in which it is trapped.

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