An Excellent Commentary On Science

Robert Tracinski, who writes about politics and culture
(click for source)

We live in an age of shocking scientific illiteracy, and to add insult to injury, some of the loudest “cheerleaders” for science are some of the most ignorant when it comes to science. No one illustrates this better than Bill Nye, who is considered by many scientifically illiterate people to be today’s spokesperson for science, despite the fact that he is woefully ignorant about the science upon which he pontificates (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

As a result, it is refreshing to run across the work of someone who is not even trained as a scientist but can write about science realistically. I was recently sent an article by one such person: Robert Tracinski. He has a degree in philosophy, but has spent more than 20 years writing about politics and culture. Nevertheless, the piece I read was about science, and it has some very important words for the scientifically illiterate among us. The title of the piece is Why I Don’t “Believe” in “Science”, and while the title might surprise you, I strongly recommend that you read it in its entirety. As a trained scientist who does original research in my field, I can tell you that it is one of the best commentaries on science I have seen from a layperson.

Is it surprising that I am recommending a piece from someone who doesn’t “believe in” science? It shouldn’t be. As he writes in the piece:

The problem is the word “belief.” Science isn’t about “belief.” It’s about facts, evidence, theories, experiments. You don’t say, “I believe in thermodynamics.” You understand its laws and the evidence for them, or you don’t. “Belief” doesn’t really enter into it.

I couldn’t agree more. The problem, of course, is that some of the people claiming that they “believe” in science the loudest don’t understand the least bit about it. They think “belief in science” means accepting the scientific consensus on any issue. That, of course, is the opposite of science. As Tracinski writes:

Some people may use “I believe in science” as vague shorthand for confidence in the ability of the scientific method to achieve valid results, or maybe for the view that the universe is governed by natural laws which are discoverable through observation and reasoning.

But the way most people use it today — especially in a political context — is pretty much the opposite. They use it as a way of declaring belief in a proposition which is outside their knowledge and which they do not understand.

There are a lot of people these days who like things that sound science-y, but have little patience for actual science.

I couldn’t agree more. If you want to use science as a means by which to understand what is going on in the world, you are in for some hard work. It doesn’t mean just parroting what the High Priests of Science proclaim. It means studying the evidence related to the issue, educating yourself about how different groups of scientists interpret that issue, and then deciding for yourself what position is backed by the most evidence. It also means being willing to change your mind if you learn additional evidence that contradicts your original position.

Your “belief” is quite irrelevant, as is the dogma promulgated by the High Priests of Science. Only the evidence is relevant, and if you aren’t willing to investigate that evidence, you are not using science.

14 Comments

  1. David H says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this article!

    I agree with the main message of the article.

    However, I disagree with some of the wording in the article, in that I think it is appropriate at certain times to say I “believe” in science. Particularly the example he gave of thermodynamics. Shortly after I took my thermodynamics class while working towards my electrical engineering degree, someone came to the town in which my university was located selling machines that he claimed produce energy by extracting heat from the surrounding air. This is impossible according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. So I undertook as a public service to convince the good citizens of of this town not to buy this machine from this person. I did this because I “believed” sufficiently in the 2nd law of thermodynamics to conclude that this salesman was a fraud. I finally managed to convince a local resident. Together we went to the meeting where this salesman was going to make his pitch, to confront him on the fact that his machine could not possibly work. He got wind of our plan and skipped town, with $10,000 he had gotten out of an unsuspecting customer. No one saw or heard of him again. So if you take the word “believe” to mean sufficiently convinced to take action, as I did in this case, rather than blind obedience, then I think “believe” can be an appropriate word to use.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I agree, David. It does depend on how you are using the word “believe.” One distinction I make is “believing” in science is not the same as simply believing the pronouncements of a group of scientists. However, I think that’s what most people mean when they say they “believe” in science.

  2. Aaron T says:

    I like when he said it’s a “badge of tribal identity”. A trope used to bludgeon the opposition into silence. Sounds more like political mud slinging and less like science to me!

    But on a philosophical level, in science, there are certain presuppositions that must be first ‘believed’ before drawing conclusions from the data. Everyone must do this, usually without even knowing it.

  3. Alaska Nivanuatu says:

    Haha:

    “My father has a Ph.D. in physics,” he said. “I believe in science.”
    This prompted some well-deserved mockery along the lines of, “My father was a cartoonist. I believe in Daffy Duck.”

    1. Bruce Rennie says:

      This reminds of a gentleman whose father was a nuclear physicist for the Canadian government in the 50’s and 60’s. This gentleman became convinced that the particular model being used at that point was fundamentally flawed. So he spent a number of years in the early to mid 60’s developing a new model by going back to first principles. One of the aspects of the model developed at the time was that protons were made up of partial charge components (1/3 e base units). This was before 1964 when Gell-Mann came out with his quark model.

      One of the other aspects was that the strong force is a property of electromagnetic forces at the nucleus level and not a separate force as such. This led him to a model that allowed the calculation of the binding energies of each nucleus from H to Fe that was in a much closer agreement with experimental observation.

      The thing with this is that he did it as a personal project because he was seeing major problems with the prevalent theories of the time. He was not interested in publishing his work as it was not relevant to his field of expertise. He was satisfied with what he had done and then moved on. It was only in the mid to late 70’s that he even discussed it with a friend. It was via that friend that I got to see some of that work.

      What has been interesting, since that time, is in finding out how many different models have been developed and ignored because they don’t fit the developing consensus view. Even though these models have fewer “magic” numbers involved. Now, of course, it is unknown as to whether of not there is an actual potential for a better explanation over current explanations for what we actually observe because there is no research going on into those models.

      But I have observed that there are some biggish names in various fields of science who act and speak as though they “believe” instead of being able to stop and check. Their general approach is to ad hominem attack anyone who disputes what they say, instead of actually addressing the questions or arguments being put forward.

      I was trained as an electrical engineer and computer scientist. As encouraged by you, Jay, I have delved into various areas that interest me in more detail and what I am finding is that there are a lot of holes in the current crop of consensus models in all sorts of fields. We have evidence that in part appears to be supporting various models, yet a closer look at that evidence suggests that the models are not only incomplete but mayhaps be barking up the wrong tree.

      One of our problems, which is always going to exist, it that we often use proxies instead of being able to take actual measurements of the properties we are wanting to explain. The problem here is that the interpretation of what the proxies are telling us can be interpreted in different ways. We end up “believing” something that “ain’t necessarily so.” There are assumptions that we just don’t question.

      Sometimes, we need to bite the bullet and say that we think that some model is more correct, but we really don’t know. Our current level of understanding is quite meager, irrespective of the “huge” amount of knowledge we have accumulated over the last century or so.

      Science, as an activity, should be fun, even though it is hard. I have come across enough people who have left research in various fields of science because it is NOT fun. They enjoyed the challenges but it was the human factors that caused the problems. The politics or the religion promulgated in those organisations can just be so depressing to active inquiry.

      One last thought, the laws of thermodynamics – is this an actual property of our universe or is it the consequence of man’s sin from the garden of Eden till now? There is enough indicators in the bible, for those who do take it as authoritative, that the thermodynamic “decay” we do see was not originally meant to be.

      1. Jay Wile says:

        There are four laws of thermodyanmics, and only one of them (the Second Law) can be interpreted as promoting “decay.” However, I don’t see how the universe could function coherently without it. For example, the Second Law restricts the flow of heat, forcing it to always go from hot to cold. That way, objects come into thermodynamic equilibrium rather than just getting hotter and hotter while something else gets colder and colder. It also keeps boulders from spontaneously rolling around (you might think that’s the First Law, but it is actually the Second Law), liquids from freezing above their freezing points, and many chemical reactions from running in the opposite direction. Thus, it seems to me that all four laws of thermodynamics are neccessary for the universe to operate properly.

        1. Bruce Rennie says:

          Jay,

          Though what you say appears to be true within our universe as it exists at this point. How things would outwork in a “perfect” universe is only something that God actually knows. My point is that “decay” (entropy) appears to be a result of our sin.

        2. Jay Wile says:

          I agree that only God knows how things would work in a “perfect” universe. However, there would still have to be a law that prevents hot things from getting hotter, cold things from getting colder, and a ball from spontaneously rolling uphill. I am not sure why it would be different from the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

  4. John D says:

    That WAS a really fantastic article. Spot on in every way. It sadly makes a lot of sense for people to be drifting this way. For most people in a secular society consensus is all they have – in lieu of God’s law, tribal law prevails.

    The part he barely touched on, which you have mentioned in many of your articles, is how concensus is reached. Pigenholed grant money, with a secondary filter of ostracizing deviants, and a final filter of a one sided media blitz all but secures the narrative of the day.

  5. Jake says:

    Tracinski has correctly diagnosed the left’s misuse of science, but I doubt he trusts his iPhone to work because he’s done the requisite testing. Ultimately he’s expressed the same rationalist conception of science the left thinks it has: Science isn’t a miraculous machine operated by other machines plugged into the manual of the universe, and evidence isn’t a thing that just sits in boxes waiting to be opened, such that the true scientist opens all the boxes. Believing these is the real problem — is what allows the notion that we can appeal to science as an ultimate arbiter in the first place — and pointing to science’s supposed objectivity doesn’t counter them at all.

    Anyway, Tracinski is also wrong about Kuhn, which also isn’t surprising, and I’m irritated he’s spreading Morris’s Ashtray nonsense. Thankfully The New Atlantis disposed of it quite handily.

  6. Victor Ferreira da Silva says:

    Well… I have nothing else to comment, since the article and the other comments puts everything on the table. Then, I just say congratulations for your article and congratulations Mr.Tracinski for your contribution!

    God Enlighten you all!

  7. Kendall Banks says:

    Do you think there is a problem with “hidden” information in the sciences? What I mean by that is, what if we aren’t actually able to access the real data that’s out there because of government intervention, or censorship, or even the fact that some science isn’t being done because it’s not getting funding. That naturally limits our ability to make good conclusions since we can only go on the information that’s available.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I suppose that’s a possibility, but my experience in the world of scientific research makes me skeptical that the government can “hide” much of anything when it comes to science. Scientists are generally a very independent bunch, and while some might be willing to behave unethically to secure funding, I doubt that most would. As a result, the data usually find a way of coming out.

      Now, of course, if the science isn’t being done, then we can’t know the results. However, the way to fix that is to find funding and do it. Young-earth creationists looking for carbon-14 in dinosaur bones is a great example of that. Old-earthers would never do such research, since they think it is silly to look for a short-lived isotope in a fossil that’s supposed to be millions of years old. However, young-earth creationists ended up finding dinosaur fossils and raising the money needed to do carbon dating on them. Not surprisingly, all of the samples tested had plenty of carbon-14 in them.

  8. Eric Leach says:

    I always say that saying you believe is science is like saying you believe in hammers. Science, particularly the scientific method, is simply a tool we use to try to understand the world around us. And science is hard. Correlation vs causation, confounding factors, bias, all of these things and more can throw off your results. The scientific method in the hands of a great scientist can yield great breakthroughs in knowledge, but in the hands of a hack can end of telling us that aspirin prevents hearts attacks. Just a hammer can be used to construct an exquisite piece of furniture or a sloppy facade or to hit someone on the head, the value of the scientific method depends greatly on the practitioner.

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