Monday, 16 December 2013

Revolution in the head - how to change science

Not really. The scientific method is quite simple. Think of an explanation for why something happens, come up with a testable prediction and check that against the real world outside your own head.  Simple.

Science deniers of all hues love Richard Feynman. They particularly love his quote about your results disagreeing with the theory then the theory is wrong. I don't think Feynman was that naïf. He was a bit of a showman and he knew the power of a good quote, and this is one such. Here is another:
There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in "cargo cult science." It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.


I've used that one before. It isn't one I see the contrarians give. That's because it is inconvenient for them. Science works in a messy way. There rarely is a smoking gun experiment that sets up a new paradigm.

Paradigm - that word. The classic Kuhnian paradigm shift is the Copernican one, the shift to a heliocentric model. But Copernicus himself came up with a phenomenally complex model that needed Kepler to sort out properly. The shift to the idea of plate tectonics also took time. Evidence is always the arbiter.

Our friendly science deniers love the idea of the paradigm. Apparently, the current paradigm is wrong and needs to be overthrown. They can try. Actually, they do, just usually via a route replete with ignorance or misinterpretation. I'm being kind. To overthrow the current paradigm what is needed is evidence. Not just a few anecdotes and even more misinterpreted real science but solid, reliable, replicable evidence.

Parapsychological research has been a source of contention for decades. Careful experiments have found nothing. Above chance. Carefully designed experiments have found that homeopathy and acupuncture are no better than placebo. Since placebo works roughly 30% of the time, plenty of it worked for me anecdotes can be strung together. For some that is a convincing case. For real scientists it isn't because scientists know how many fundamental principles and laws homeopathy would have to overturn for it to be true. Same for acupuncture.

I heard the blessed Lynne McTaggart say that we are creature of frequency, or something similar, on a glossy (yet still unquaintly amateurish) post on YouTube on David Icke's channel. If you have been off planet, or are a reptile in human form, David Icke is the former goalkeeper and BBC sports reporter who emerged as an alternative reality proponent in the early 90s. There are more than enough gullible people whose money has kept him afloat. Perhaps I should take the same road and fleece these people of their cash. Except I have a conscience (not that Icke hasn't, he seems sincere, sincerely misguided in my opinion). Whatever, I haven't a clue what creature of frequency means. I don't think McTaggart knows either, but on the show everyone nods sagely as if they did.

Let's assume for the moment that McTaggart is correct. What should she do to convince people like me who are, on the whole, unconvinced by outlandish claims? Well, she needs to show that it is true. She needs to measure the frequency, explain what sort of wave she is talking about, demonstrate the properties of these vibrations. In other words, give us more than an assertion. She needs evidence.

She could take the example of the discovery of x rays as an example. Roentgen had to convince people as this was totally new but he had no difficulty because he could easily demonstrate the physical reality of these waves. They were reproducible, detectable and, it was quickly spotted, very useful. All the nonsense about frequency and organisms, let alone the idea of the universe being one vast organism which comes in the same video, will remain nonsense until its proponents manage to come up with the required evidence.

Those searching for the new paradigm ignore important things, like the laws of thermodynamics. It's unlikely those laws will be overturned. Yet for some of these alternative science things to work, that is precisely what must happen. You can't just suck all that quantum energy out of the zero point field. It's not how things work. Chad Orzel has a chapter in his lovely book How To Teach Quantum Physics To Your Dog explaining gently how idiotic some people have got with quantum physics. If Feynman didn't understand it then Chopra, McTaggart, Wlliam Tiller, Rupert Sheldrake and me aren't going to get it. But I'm not the one making outlandish claims, inventing science that doesn't exist, particles that have no evidence and so on. So I don't have to defend my claims.

I have become increasingly convinced that science denial is really wishful thinking. Wouldn't it be nice if this were different? Well, yes, some of the time but there are plenty of wished for outcomes that are not pleasant for everyone. I might wish for health, wealth and happiness for all, someone else might wish a horrible disease upon me. Not a good outcome for me. I would love there to be a pleasant, reliable and cheap cure for cancer. I know that cure isn't vitamin C. I know because the science tells me so, not because I wish it to be true or that Linus Pauling said it was so. Science doesn't work by wish fulfilment or by intention. Cannon balls fell at the same rate before Galileo demonstrated what was before our very eyes and have continued to do so afterwards.

The wishful thinking comes from the fact that scientific facts don't bend because of opinion. They don't alter except in the face of evidence. Climate science deniers often shout about taxes that they don't like (who does?), conspiracies or politics. Well,conspiracies do exist, but one as wide as to encompass all climate scientists, including the handful of contrarian ones, would quickly fray. And as for politics,if we accidentally make a better world ...

I find it strange that the main outlet for climate science denial is the World Wide Web yet so many such deniers decry global efforts to hold back the effects of our undoubted uncontrolled experiment in terraforming. The world is not the global village of the sixties, it is the global metropolis. We don't get our information via paper, radio and tv any longer. It comes through shining screens that we can interrogate. In my pocket I have a Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy better than the one envisaged in 1977 by Douglas Adams. And it usually tells me to panic.

Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Darwin, all changed science and they changed it by ensuring they had the evidence, whether it was observational, experimental or in the form of mathematical models. They put their ideas up for criticism. They expected it. Darwin answered his critics in later editions of the Origin Of Species. Scientists know that is what will have to happen. They know other findings could change their theories immensely, even falsifying them. And they work to convince their fellow scientists, the ones most likely to find fault in their science.

The fake scientists, in the other hand, don't seem keen on criticism, polishing their ideas or presenting them to real scientists to be critiqued. Funny that. Shouting and screaming about changing the paradigm doesntmactuallymdo the trick. It is evidence that will do the trick.

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