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This will be one of our longest editions in awhile, awash with Story, Poetry and Information. One of my great joys has been to reconnect with the reading of poetry daily in putting together Turfing. I think on [Read More]


"science is simply the name we place on the activities and knowledge of scientists"

Ah. Then I don't think we've been playing the same language game, Chris. The names I place on the activities and knowledge of scientists are "grant-getting" and "empire building". The name I place on rigorously tested falsifiable hypotheses that have not yet been falsified is "the state of science as it presently stands". The two are sharply distinct, in my own view; and the state of science changes hourly.

Insofar as I need to, I trust science - but remember I am a skeptic, so I keep in mind that the present set of hypotheses have different levels of reliability: they may be accidentally incorrect or incomplete, will have been incompletely criticised and tested because the way modern scientific research is funded does not lend itself to critical evaluation of the outputs (and does lend itself to systematic fraud among peers working in a field), and will undoubtedly contain hypotheses that will later be falsified. I trust science as far as I need to in order to function - Newtonian mechanics is "good enough" while I'm playing pool, for example.

To sum up: you headline your article "trust in science" and end it with "trust in scientists". In my own world-view, confounding the two is a mistake; but I accept that my world-view is mine alone.

to clarify: I'm not sure we disagree over substance, although we may disagree over some names. Also, as a skeptic, I would remind anyone who states or accepts a statement that "[x] is clearly impossible" of Clarke's First and Second Laws.

Peter: I agree that we don't appear to disagree over substance. I lost 40 minutes of blog time this morning running my wife into work, and didn't have enough time left to convince myself of what I thought science was today. :) In the end, I thought that for the purpose of this post I would assign this term to the activities of scientists. On another day, another answer. :)

I am the author of five books, two novels and three non-fiction. I have written an biography of George Adamski, and my biograph of Charles Fort, "Politics of the Imagination" won the Anomalist Prize for Best Biography in 2001. My latest book, "An American Demonology" has been well received.
I am the author of the site Combat Diaries, a satirical look at a wide range of contemporary interests.
I think this site of yours is absolutely fascinating.
Colin Bennett

I agree with you. This is really evident in the UFO field. Where a scientist will offer an explanation and it is refuted scientifically but disregarded because. UFO can't be solid bodies that land and takeoff therefore, and evidence to the contrary is faked. James Mcdonald over and over again throught published papers refuted Menzel, Klass and others only to be called "beleives in little green men type scientist." It eventually drove in to take his life So much for pure science.
Joe Capp
Brooklyn, NY

Colin: thanks for the kind words, and the sideways plug for your book. And why not, I say. ;D

Joe: sorry to hear about this sad tale. So many of these stories from the corners of science become lost, alas; it's good that people remember and recount them.

Thanks for your comments!

I write a blog about scientific evidence for psi phenomena:

While it's interesting that a majority in the UK want more influence over research, who says they are going to get it? I was drawn into writing some about the irrationality of those in the US who oppose dissociating in vitro human embryos into stem cells, but always in the back of my mind when I did that was the certainty that no matter what happened with this in the US, there is an entire world where somewhere such research will be done. Convincing the public of reality is not critical unless one is a nationalist who wants his or her country to do good research. Even then maybe it's just as well sometimes to let others make the early mistakes. In today's world, promising research will get done, no matter what the public as a whole thinks.

That's one reason why I think the genetics revolution will go much farther than some want it to go. Concerned people can draw up their ideas about how bad it is to manipulate genes or otherwise enhance normal intellectual or physical function. I'm sure they'll be legal bans in some countries, but not all of them. So then when the research has been done elsewhere, and the benefits are a fait accompli, the discussion isn't so much about uncertainty and trust any more.

Take heart transplants. Research in the US was proceeding carefully and responsibly on that. Then a surgeon in South Africa just starts doing them, showing everyone, "Hey, this is easy." Of course results were bad for a while, but research continued, and results got better. That's real science. It's not the steady responsible progress many would want. Tough.

David: while I agree that global science is currently a 'free for all', and that therefore the wishes of individual nations do not really enter into the equation, this does not rule out the possibility of a global makeover to how the scientific endeavour functions.

Your comment presupposes that the output of science is a priori beneficial. But in the general populace, this view is arguably waning - certainly from the mindless optimism of (say) the 1950s.

Take for instance the utter rejection of genetically modified ingredients in food in the UK and elsewhere. It makes little difference that some countries still use GM ingredients, since any country that does not see GM as a benefit will not use it. (And incidentally, the reaction against GM was so insanely irrational we are lucky no-one was killed. But this response was the only option the people felt they had to what they percieved as an unacceptible threat).

All it takes is a shift of perspective at a generational boundry to change the rules of the game significantly. I suggest it would be better for scientists to plan for a responsible future rather than having stiffling restrictions forced upon them by a disgruntled future world.

The metaphysical belief that progress is more important than people could eventually cut off science from its funding. I suggest making a change sooner rather than later.

Thanks for sharing your view!

"see the opening image to appreciate how ridiculous this looks"

Looks like David Jason experiencing explosive decompression on Mars

This sounded about right:

"Acceptance without proof is the
fundamental characteristic of Western
religion, rejection without proof is the
fundamental characteristic of Western
Gary Zukav, "The Dancing Wu Li Masters"

Finally, we need to develop a much keener sense of what a scientist is qualified to talk about and what he is not qualified to talk about. Climatologists, for example, are qualified to talk about the science of climatology . They are not qualified to say, however, that “we must act now” by imposing government “solutions” of some imagined sort. They are not professionally knowledgeable about what degree of risk is better or worse for people to take; only the individuals who bear the risk can make that decision, because it’s a matter of personal preference, not a matter of science.

Steven: I agree with what you say here, but on the other hand I'm not sure that most government officials are particularly good at imposing "government solutions". :) The problem is, nobody is very good at predicting the future except in very vague terms, which makes the State's role in preparing for it very difficult indeed.

Thanks for the comment!

"If the result could have been through a trick, the experiment must be considered unsatisfactory...". Spot on! if it is possible the result is a trick, then the controls need to be tightened.

When the Ganzfeld (and any other psi experiments I am aware of) reached the point of being reproduced (independently or not) and having stricter controls put in place, any apparent effect disappears.

The 'researches' response to this has been to invent the 'decline effect', which states that any psi phenomenon once scrutinised enough will stop working (now THAT is a strange state of affairs).

If any research / testing showed a testable reproducible psi effect science would be all over it, it would be a whole new area of legitimate research to draw grant money from!

The claim that science is an objective process is most certainly NOT falsified by the Ganzfeld experiment.

Paul: this post was written quite a while back. I don't think the case for the Ganzfeld has got stronger since then, but I don't think science's claim to objectivity has either. The psychology of scientific research has only become more interesting with recent findings in respect of cognitive bias.

I should note that although the term "the decline effect" was coined by a psi researcher, this was in 1930 - long before most of the details described here. So it is not an accurate summary of the history to suggest this was invented in response to increasing scrutiny of the Ganzfeld; this scrutiny came after the decline effect was proposed. I'm not sure this has any bearing on the issue, really, and as far as I know contemporary psi researchers defend their claims via meta-analysis, not via appeal to decline effect arguments. I've not stayed abreast of the field, however, as my interests have gone elsewhere.

My position remains unchanged. What is most interesting about the Ganzfeld experiment is what it revealed about the research community, not its purported subject matter. I may slightly overstate matters in saying this experiment falsifies science's claim to objectivity, but it is one of the clearest cases of how cognitive bias distorts the purportedly pure objective nature of the research community.

The way forward on this is unlikely to be defending older notions of objectivity, but rather reconstituting our conceptions of what objective research entails. Donna Harraway, for instance, moved in this direction with her "situated knowledges". Helen Longino has also written constructively on this topic, particularly in "Science as Social Knowledge" (1990).

Thanks for commenting!

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