Why science is so darned powerful

What is Science? A school kid’s definition goes something like this: Find a hypothesis (from somewhere); make sure it is falsifiable; test it against reality; if it fails, discard it; if it doesn’t, published it. Rinse and repeat. We’ll call this SKD view of science for shorthand.

There is some truth in it. In the same way that, being a good tennis player means, being able to hit the ball really hard, keeping your knees bent, and keeping your eye on the ball. While that’s got some things right and that seem to lean somewhat in the direction of what it means to be a good tennis player, there is much that could be taken away and gobs of stuff that could be added to give a richer and more accurate description of the concept.

The SKD is used as a weapon by some who want to lend their ideas the aura of science, and by ‘aura,’ I mean the credentialing and authority that comes with the label science, without understanding how science works or how it is practiced. Or why it is so powerful in explicating the world. I’m thinking in particular of the anti-evolution, and the climate change denier, crowd. Some of these folks’ tactical approach is to discredit the work of scientists because they fail in some way the SKD view and therefore is not ‘true’ science (Note: whenever someone puts ‘true’ in front of science, let it serve as a warning that you are about to be introduced to something that is ‘not’ science.)

So what is science? First let me explain what it is not. Science’s (and I’m going to act as if science is a ‘person,’ or a unified concept in this post, and say things like ‘Science is’ and ‘Science does not permit x’ as a handle or shortcut, but as you’ll see I will subvert this use later and show that it is neither unified nor a single monolithic thing, but bear with me, it does mean something), anyway science’s, upfront, nonnegotiable stance is methodological materialism. This means no hidden forces. No influence from God, angels or demons. No magic. No miracles. This does not mean that scientists don’t believe in God, or miracles, or that science claims that nothing that does not fit its materialist claims is worth knowing. No, science does not claim that it will reveal all truth, in fact it really can get little purchase on lots of things we make value claims about like art, ethics, religion, etc. It doesn’t even claim to get at things (this despite misguided attempts by the likes of Richard Dawkins to claim that it can discover all truth). So science is not a method that speaks to all truths of every kind.

Some seem to be afraid of methodological materialism. But you are very familiar with methodological materialism. It’s what you expect from your car mechanic. She assumes that whatever is causing the clunking noise in your DeSoto, it is a mechanical problem, with a particular cause, and that she can take actions to correct it based upon new car parts, tightening, or loosing, bolts, or some such action based purely on the physical realities about the ways cars are put together from metalish things, lubricants, gadgets, and such. If she said, “It looks like malicious fairies have given the engine a curse that causes dark fluxuals from the netherial world of Kandoonianus.” You would likely get a new mechanic. Not that there might not be a curse from said fairies, but that’s not the way to bet, and you expect, and your experience with the world suggests, that the best way to approach car repair is from the perspective of methodological materialism. This assumption is science’s best move too. For exactly the same sorts of reasons. Your mechanic may be an atheist, Buddhist, or Mormon, but this is irrelevant to how she investigates your car. She assumes it is a mechanical problem and moves from there, regardless of what spiritual commitments she might have.

Methodological materialism =/= no threat to spirituality. Methodological materialism = good scientific assumption.

So defining science:

Here’s a nice practical definition: Science does the best things it can to explicate the world using a bunch of tools that have worked so far. What? Yeah. Sort of a minimalist description, agreed, but let’s roll with it for a minute and unpack that word ‘tools.’ Or rather unpack what some of those tools are. In addition to the tools, let’s look at stances or postures and attitudes that science takes.

Some tools

Experimentation: Yes. Hold as much as you can constant. Simplify the world as much as you can. Then manipulate something and if you have controlled everything else then the relationship between effect and your cause must be, well, causal. A great deal of effort as been worked out in getting these experimental tools down. Taking measurements, handling the data, randomizing things so your own biases don’t get in the way and you can average out other effects you aren’t interested in, statistical analysis, great stuff. So experimentation has been important in science. It turns out easier to falsify rather than confirm things, so you usually want to aim for that. Hence the KDS above is not a bad abstraction/simplification of some really hard stuff (see Fleck #1 below).

Observation: Well as much as we would like to do experiments, the world is too big and complex to pull it off all the time. Take astronomy. Getting galaxies into the beaker has proven fairly hard. Ecological systems too. Geology too. Emergent behavior—very tricksy. When the parts do not sum to the whole, and the whole influences the parts, everything you want to do with science gets trickyery. You still want to measure and stuff. Correlate. Hypothesize on what you think will happen if other stuff happens. You want to carefully gather data, categorize, systematize, organize, any –izing you can do, you should. You want to propose explanations of what you see. All very important in science. No SKDing here though. Or very little anyway.

Modeling: If you believe in a world that is causal you ought to be able to mathematicize things. Math is a formal way of writing down quantitative descriptions of how some things are thought to influence other things. Sometimes a good causal theory can be written down with a few strokes of a pen—like Einstein did. Then using that math, predict things, if you are good at predicating it’s a good sign you’ve got a good model. What more could you ask for from a model? Things have gotten more complicated with computers, and the range of phenomena you can describe has skyrocketed. Most important, modeling brings together experimentation and observation in helpful ways. These three things constitute the main tools of science. Models of course are abstractions of idealized worlds and should never be taken for reality, but they are very useful for testing whether you understand how the world works. They have both explanatory and predictive power when they work right, which are two of science’s highest values.

So given the tools. What activates define and constrain science that make it so darn powerful for explaining the world?

A stance of openness to revision and holding results as tentative: Science is very humble. It has to change its mind sometimes. Conclusions are tentative. New facts, new analysis, new interpretations, sometimes force a confrontation with old facts, old analysis, and old interpretations. Science thrives on this. It holds as open all its findings. Not to change them willy-nilly, mind you. No, science is more than a list of suggested ideas to hold onto this week. Its claims have been but into the furnace for testing, heated, then sledge hammered to see if we can get the claims to crack. When they don’t we gain confidence we are onto something. We always know we might find a hotter furnace or a bigger hammer, so science is ready to change. But it does not bow to claims that it might be melted or cracked—you actually have to do it. For example, Intelligent Design creationism has been waving hammers in the air for fifteen years shouting, ‘we could crack evolution anytime we want.’ Except they haven’t actually given it a whack yet.

Peer Review and Publication: Science is not the Internet. All voices don’t get a say. Your voice has to pass muster. Your claims have to be examined. Your analysis, your interpretation has to be scrutinized by experts. It has to fit into the context of other work that has been done. This is a bloody process. Science is a crowded field and only the best, most well tested, ideas get through the gauntlet. Then when something is published. It is still open to the scientific community for further scrutiny. The claims continue to be prodded, attacked, poked, repeated and replicated, and bothered until it gives, or people start to think there is something here worth looking at. If it isn’t published in the peer review literature, it’s not science. Hence the power of things like Anthropogenic Climate Change in which the peer review literature is united and the air-hammers of the internet say something else. Peer Review is vital to good science. If it is not playing the science game, it’s not science.

Research Programs: In science, it is within disciplines and their own research programs that best practices are established, through trial and error, traditions, lab experience, repeatability, instrumentation, training, agreement, finding what works and what doesn’t. New technologies, come and go, their use is tried against former methods and winners and losers are arranged. Collaborations are formed, dissolved. Students are trained and credentialed in these programs and improve ideas, challenge old ones, bringing their creative genius into the work. Changing and improving things. Not in some absolute way, but in practical ways.

So that is science. Not the clean ‘method’ that often get’s cartooned as what science is in the SKD. In short, it is a Darwinian process of ideas. Ideas, theories, hypotheses, are thrown into a struggle for existence. Fitness is defined as how well the claims confront the world and its processes. Only the best survive and to go on to reproduce. If something new comes along, it has to fight in the arena. Prove its mettle. Enter the gladiatorial contest and survive to fight another day. Science is practiced by people. People with all the same weaknesses, shortcomings, misalignments, as any group. But the structure is in place to create a dynamic marketplace of ideas. And nothing has come as close to explaining so much. It works and that is its highest recommendation.

#1. In his book, Fleck details how his research team discovered the Wasserman reaction for syphilis diagnosis. As dry as that sounds, it reads like a detective novel. Its import however lies in a careful view of how science works. Not in the observe-world—make-testable-falsifiable-hypothesis—test hypothesis—publish-results way, that he acknowledges is how things get written up, but in the nitty-gritty world of how science really works. He details how the research was filled with false starts, flashes of creativity and speculation, back tracking, back to the drawingboarding, team work, collaboration, trial and error, abandoned trajectories, instrumentation problems, how conceptual foundations had to be rethought, how he had to bring in knowledge and background education, the use of inference, induction and induction, and the ugly messiness that goes into real science. In fact he quips, “If a research experiment were well defined, it would be altogether unnecessary to perform it.”

Fleck, Ludwik, 1979. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


  1. It isn’t science that is so powerful, it is engineering that is.

  2. No… engineer’s are helpless without our scientific innovations…

  3. A stance of openness to revision and holding results as tentative: Science is very humble. It has to change its mind sometimes. Conclusions are tentative

    The anthropogenic global warmists seem to have forgotten this part. The evidence for AGW is so shallow as to be dangerously close to non-existent. And yet the majority of climate “scientists” have a religious fervor against any alternative explanation, to the point of “hiding the decline” and “redefining what the peer reviewed literature is”. Sort of like the Soviet view of the scientific enterprise.

  4. Steve,

    You forgot to link to the real reason why science is so powerful. :)

  5. Wes Brown says:

    I appreciate the nod to the humility of science. Many faithful can be appalled at being asked to justify an ideal. Asking is arrogant. On the flip side, people familiar with science consider the oft-used argument from ignorance flagrantly arrogant. Opening yourself up to even the possibility of being wrong is one of the hardest things people can do.

  6. Wes Brown says:

    This is a starting point for exploring if and how science and religion can interact.

  7. Joseph Smidt (4) ftw.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Well articulated, Steve; thanks.

  9. Mark, are you accusing climatologist of engaging in fraud, conspiracy, or ignorance, or stupidity? I don’t think you realize the seriousness of your claim.

  10. Vin, I think Mark D. is thinking about Alien Abduction, which has the same approach to evidence as the deniers: copious web presence, no science. If this turns into an argument about Climate Change I will moderate with abandon. Admin I’ll be away for the block. If anyone starts the web assaults of the denier industry put them on hold till I get back.

  11. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 6
    I think Dawkins is correct in his criticism of Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria. It’s a nice try, but I don’t see how you can push a religion like Mormonism (or any other form of Christianity) that far out of the physical realm. Seems like you’re just trying to put religion in a little box to protect it from scientific criticism.

  12. I’ve always like Gould, though I understand the impossibility of really separating science and religion…Dawkins gets a little hateful and Beckish at times.

  13. It might be science-lite, but have enjoyed Gould’s books as well. Almost as much as Steve P’s books. Almost.

  14. Thanks Tracy! I’d be honored to keep such company. The problem I see in a strict separation as MikeInWeHo #11 suggests is that there is is definite bleed over between the two in both directions. But Mormons can be fully invested in science.

  15. Vin (#9), Yes. However the topic of the ethics and reliability of leaders in the climate science field are has been ruled to be out of order, so I will abstain. It was just the first thing that came to my mind when presented with the question of how powerful (or reliable) science is.

    There are areas (like materials science and quantum mechanics), where science is extremely powerful because it has been validated thousands of times in experiment and in practice – to as many as twelve decimal places, which is virtually unheard of. I wouldn’t say that kind of reliability inevitably extends to most medical research, most social sciences, or some of the more far reaching and unrepeatable conclusions of natural history and astrophysics for example.

    The only way you know you really have a good theory is if it predicts the results of experiments and other future and unknown events in a manner and to a far greater degree of accuracy than you could possibly have predicted without it. Epidemielogical studies are flaky because they notoriously cannot do this. So you have scandals like nutritional recommendations changing dramatically every couple of decades, or worse.

    And even when your theory can predict future and unknown events with considerable accuracy, that does not guarantee that the model reflects the “way things really are”, because there may be other models that account for the evidence just as well, and until you design and conduct the right experiments, you may not be able to tell the difference between them sufficient to know which is better.

  16. Thanks for the SKD Mark. That’s a nice illustration of what I meant.

  17. I’m being glib above Mark@15, but you are mistaking accuracy for knowledge. The claims of the sciences you condem are not strong because they are right, but because they are fallible and open to change as new information is processed. Yes, epidemiology is messier than measuring the speed of a ball rolling down a plane, but as information accrues, epidemiology opens itself to those new findings. To suggest that medicine has made no progress in the last 30 years because studies are not mesurable the 12th decimal point is to miss what science is about. Next time you go to the hospital ask for the doctor who has not read anything in 30 years if you think nothing has happened. Yes there are ups and downs, reversals and abuses (see the horror of the vaccine and autism sham at Jared*’s site). But it is this openness, and Darwinian selection that I’m writing about that make it powerful. Not that one can measure something really, really well.

  18. To suggest that medicine has made no progress in the last 30 years because studies are not mesurable the 12th decimal point is to miss what science is about.

    Now you are putting words in my mouth. Why not argue against what I actually said, instead of imagining the most absurd conclusion possible, and arguing against that instead?

    It is just intellectual laziness. Like calling anyone who has a different position about global warming causation a “denier”. No time for rational discussion, just call people names instead.

  19. I mean presumably you are here to actually persuade people, and not just preach to the choir of all those who agree with your snide remarks, right?

  20. Cool it, Mark D.

    SteveP, I think this post really needs a photoshop of your face onto He-Man holding aloft his sword, buzzing with lightning bolts, yelling, “I HAVE THE POWER!”

  21. Good post. I like Richard Feynman’s (pretty smart guy) definition of science:
    “How do we look for a new law? First, we guess it. Don’t laugh. That’s really true. Then we compute the conssequences of the guess to see what it implies. Then we compare those computation results to nature – or to experiement, or to experience, or to observation – to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

    This is why a scientific outlook is pretty humble, despite some criticisms to the contrary.

  22. Wes Brown says:

    I also disagree with Gould’s non-overlapping view. If religions claim that gods or spirits interact with the natural world, they can be observed and criticized. When there are positive statements made about history, counter and confirming evidence can be sought out.
    SteveP (#14) I agree that the continuing revelation of the church allows them to fully embrace science. The hard part of the system, however, is the (sometimes huge) time gap between scientific discovery and doctrinal change.

    /This post is perfectly timed for people to watch Colbert’s latest on science/religion. http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/370183/january-06-2011/bill-o-reilly-proves-god-s-existence—neil-degrasse-tyson?xrs=share_copy

  23. I would like to say that in general I agree with this post. My concern is a fundamental one in the philosophy of science – when does “scientific conjecture” become “scientific knowledge” or even “scientific truth”.

    Unlike many philosophers of science, I completely agree that given enough time, in most cases the scientific process will provide enough evidence to make that transition. Otherwise we could hardly know anything at all.

    But “consensus conjecture” is not “consensus knowledge”, let alone “consensus truth”. The fact that 9 out of 10 experts in the field believe that such and such scientific theory is right has no bearing per se on how far down that path the scientific process has proceeded.

    So how do you know how well established a scientific theory is? Conduct a poll? Hardly. The only way to know how reliable a scientific theory is (i.e. how much it corresponds to anything legitimately called “knowledge” rather than “conjecture”) is predictive power.

    That means the ability to predict both future and unknown events in a manner you would not otherwise have easily guessed. Accuracy is knowledge, in fact in science some level of accuracy is the only way you know anything at all. Until then you are just engaging in scientific conjecture – conjecture that you hope will someday be proven out well enough to be promoted into the “knowledge” category.

  24. “So how do you know how well established a scientific theory is? Conduct a poll? Hardly.”

    A consensus in science isn’t a vote. It means that hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of labs, modelers, data analysis from multiple disciplines have been unable to pick the consensus story apart. Despite what some would have you believe (and I don’t mean you Mark D.) scientists are not in a conspiracy. There are strong incentives to find holes in argument, data and modeling results. Careers are made and broken on finding holes in such. A consensus means that the people who are in all the world best positioned to find these sorts of problems in the story, have been unable to do so. It’s a powerful statement. A scientific consensus doesn’t mean that scientists have all raised their hands in affirmation, it means that the literature in the peer-reviewed publications is converging on the same story and that refutations have been rare and confirmatory evidence has been abundant.

  25. A consensus in science most definitely is a vote. Many purported scientific consensus have incredibly well educated and well informed experts in the field who believe that the consensus position is wrong.

    That is not to say that the people who agree with the consensus do not have rational basis to believe that the consensus conjecture is likely to be the truth, but rather that until the conjecture has predicted something substantially unlikely to be predicted in any other way, it remains conjecture. An unfalsified conjecture to be sure, but still a conjecture. This is a baseline principle in the philosophy of science.

    So when people make statements like “that is what the science says”, I tend to think they are engaging in a fallacy of composition. There is scientific knowledge and scientific conjecture, and the more controversial something is the more likely it falls into the “consensus best guess” category. The idea that anything that hasn’t been falsified yet is likely true is an argument from ignorance, usually with an argument from authority mixed in.

    Predict something unlikely (or with substantial degree of accuracy), and then we know that you are on to something. Otherwise the suspicion is that a theory of science that has never proven out a non trivial prediction is taking a free ride on the credibility of theories that have. It might be demonstrably false tomorrow.

  26. John Mansfield says:

    “There are strong incentives to find holes in argument, data and modeling results.”

    Also strong incentives not too. Consider Glenn Seaborg, discoverer of transuranic elements and the one who moved the actinide series into its proper place on the periodic table.

    “This bold revision of the periodic table was a hard sell,” Seaborg wrote in an article published in Actinide Research Quarterly in 1997. “When I showed it to some world-renowned inorganic chemists, I was advised not to publish it—such an act would ‘ruin my scientific reputation.’ However, I did publish it after the war, and it became a guide for the chemical identication of most of the subsequent members of the actinide series.” (link)

    Sure, our boat-rocking concept might be recognized with immortal glory in a decade or two, too, but who are we kidding? We’re no Seaborg. We’re second-tier scientists who can go on comfortably doing a job we like, and it would be foolish to gamble that on the long odds that we, of all people, are revolutionary geniuses seeing through everyone else’s confusion.

  27. David Wakefield’s fraud is a sobering example of misuse of ‘science’. He went on tour to promote an idea that could not be replicated and did not fit within any working theory. People trusted him because he was a “scientist” showing what he did in his “study”. The reality is that he had been dismissed by science for a decade and was working totally out of bounds of the scientific method. Observation, replication, prediction, and peer review are the best tools we have against misled or malicious authorities.

  28. JM makes a really good point. I think that often there are just as many, if not more, incentives to believe with the status quo.

    I’m not in a scientific related field. Instead I used to be in finance, with strong ties there still. Its a world full of people claiming that they are the pinnacle of honesty and integrity. In my field we had thousands of people with fiduciary responsibility of others’ money, with both the SEC (government agency) and the NASD/FINRA (Self Regulating Organization) looking over our shoulder. We had every reason to be honest, with every fail safe, and yet you still have Bernie Madoff and his ponzi scheme, Goldman Sachs selling bad product from one customer to another one while not divulging its conflict of interest, Subprime based SIVs and CDOs being packaged as AAA rated by independant analysis. (by Standard and Poors no less, a highly regarded institution owned by McGraw Hill).

    Steve, I agree with you on the grounds of what “science” is. I admire science and appreciate the honest introspection and investigation done by those in scientific fields. However at the end of the day, there are still scientists. Humans with human failings. I don’t believe in widespread conspiracies nor rampant corruption, but I do believe that it is almost always the tendancy to go with the flow, accept the status quo, and not challenge your bro.

    Possibly I’m just being ignorant, but given its a world that thrives on being wrong most of the time (careers are made and destroyed by proving those who came before wrong). I have to side with agent Kay “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow. ” (I don’t stand behind his assessment of what people knew 500 and 1500 years ago, since those are misconceptions . . . but the idea is valid)

    I say all this, because there is a certain erudite arrogance that is often (though not always) displayed by those in “science” scoffing at those who don’t believe that which they know with certainty. While you extol one of the virtues of science being its ability to admit when its wrong, I question its arrogance that it has right up until that inevitable moment.

  29. SteveP–I love this.

  30. wondering says:

    “are you accusing climatologist of engaging in fraud, conspiracy, or ignorance, or stupidity?”

    I don’t think any of these is necessary for a critique of climate science. Much more plausible is that climate scientists are overconfident and affected by “groupthink.” That wouldn’t be surprising, since pretty much EVERYONE is overconfident in their beliefs and vulnerable to groupthink. John Mansfield’s story about Seaborg is a good one; the rewards for overthrowing the consensus can be large, but it’s also very risky and difficult, especially when there are political and even moral dimensions to the question.

    I must say that the tendency to label anyone who expresses doubts about AGW a “denier” doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. It’s not right to lump together people who express doubts about the models, or the magnitudes, or the scientific process, in with the truly ignorant who deny (for example) that CO2 is even a greenhouse gas at all.

    (And by the way I am not endorsing what Mark D has written or the tone he has used to write it. He, too, seems overconfident in his beliefs.)

  31. Wes Brown says:

    Science does not say what is true. Science acknowledges where the evidence leads. This is why it is ever-changing. The evidence of the day led people to believe in a flat earth, etc. Oddly enough, it was not God nor scripture that corrected the false notion.
    Science can still be bumbling and slow. There are egos and paychecks involved. Scientists are subject to human biases and social pressures.
    Given that baggage, the various scientific methodologies allow us to continually make progress and better understand our world.

    wondering (#30) I, too am peeved at some of the misnomers concerning this topic (especially climate skeptics & 9/11 truthers). But when it comes to one’s opinion regarding science I prefer to use the terms accept and deny. It bugs me when people say they believe in evolution. Belief has almost come to imply that you accept without understanding.

  32. **biting tongue**

    I must say that the tendency to label anyone who expresses doubts about AGW a “denier” doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. It’s not right to lump together people who express doubts about the models, or the magnitudes, or the scientific process, in with the truly ignorant who deny (for example) that CO2 is even a greenhouse gas at all.

    Here’s the thing–if you’re expressing doubts that are valid scientific criticisms, you’re not a denier, though calling one like that a skeptic is valid. Questioning the models and the magnitude of likely impacts is something scientists *do* and if you ever ask them about it, they’ll show you all the uncertainties. Scientist are, in some sense, always skeptics. (If you disbelieve this, ask any group of scientists what science was wrong in “An Inconvenient Truth.” You’ll get as many answers as scientists that you ask.) Going from, “there are uncertainties in the models” to “thus I don’t believe in global warming” is an unwarranted leap, though, and does justify the label of “denier.” You can’t be looking for a reason to disbelieve.

  33. Wes Brown says:

    Great clarification, Kristine. Skeptics are not to be confused with the modern cynic. Skepticism is scientific seeking, not blind doubt. A good skeptic won’t deny or debunk anything without having a more plausible explanation first.

  34. John Mansfield says:

    “A good skeptic won’t deny or debunk anything without having a more plausible explanation first.”

    This is an oft-repeated sentiment that I don’t really understand. It can be very easy to know something is wrong without having a correct explanation yet at hand. For example, Le Verrier noted that the precession Mercury’s orbit couldn’t be reconciled with Newtonian mechanics. Decades later, general relativity explained what was really happenning. Should Le Verrier have kept quiet because he couldn’t think of a better alternative to Newtonian mechanics? Of course not.

  35. Wes Brown says:

    Good call, John. I admit the statement is a bit Pollyanna. I was thinking more along the lines of amateur skepticism. Ghosts, esp, alternative medicine, alien abductions, etc. all have some degree of evidence for them. Skepticism dismisses most of these claims solely based on the weakness of the evidence, not for any particularly strong counter-evidence.
    Better testing methods and psychological insight have since given us more plausible explanations.

    /I guess my previous claim also ignores the burden of proof fallacy

  36. Actually, its true, that sometimes its hard to tell if science is just ‘going with the flow.’ A philosopher that almost everyone knows if you’ve looked at philosophy of science at all named Kuhn, argued that science usually is engaged in ‘puzzle solving’ in which the dominate paradigms are not questioned, but the edges are filled in. However, the notion that this is just another glee club with everyone trying to harmonize, isn’t accurate. It is easier to get funding for puzzle solving, but the rewards are for break throughs. Sure it’s driven by very human, humans, but just like in economies, the shear number of scientists competing for funding and attention means that most them are trying to find holes. Playing in the arena is a very bloody dog fight. Cutting someone out of the competition by showing they are wrong and you have a new take that deserves attention is the bread and butter of winning scientific glory. Getting in top journals, winning rare funding, is to speak to the financial types, driven by competition which many do not survive (think of starting a new business: any thing that can lesson the competition of the other guy, promote your brand, and sell your product gives you an advantage). There are strong market incentives for there not being a consensus. If there is, the nature of the world has driven us there, not some sense of ‘let’s not make waves.’ This is why science has been so successful. It is a Darwinian competition where only the fittest survive.

    One of my earliest blogs was on this kind of dog fight.

  37. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat

    This is wildly overstated. No well educated person has believed the world to be flat for at least 2000 years.

    Also, as insightful as he was, I think Thomas Kuhn was wildly pessimistic with regard to the possibility of scientific knowledge, most particularly with regard to his conception of “commensurability”. Anyone with a undergraduate level physics education knows that Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics are commensurable in a a way that Kuhn claims that nothing is. Newtonian mechanics is more than some sort of incommensurable “paradigm”.

    If there is ever any sort of incommensurable paradigm shift in science, it means that the prior theory was so far off the mark that it was hardly better than ignorant superstition.

  38. For example, the Ptolemaic view of the universe and the Copernican view are fully commensurable in every respect. The laws of physics just have all sorts of odd and artificial terms in the Ptolemaic frame of reference.

  39. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat

    This is wildly overstated. No well educated person has believed the world to be flat for at least 2000 years.

    Thanks Mark, I do hope that you read the preceding sentence that stated I was quoting the movie Men in Black, and the succeeding sentence where I stated I realize that it is a common misconception that people thought the earth was flat, and that I wasn’t standing behind the claims in the quote, only the idea that it evokes.

  40. B. Russ, Yes, I knew you were quoting Men in Black. It still annoys me that they taught me stuff like that when I was younger, though, along with crazy stuff about how dark and benighted everything was in the Middle Ages, how a well educated person could know everything there was to know back then, and so on.

  41. 40- Had to make sure.

    Yeah, its sad what we’ve been taught in school.

  42. Matt Thorley says:


    While there may be minor issues over which we might quibble, I appreciate your explanation of “science”. I agree that the SKD definition is simplistic. There are things like cosmology, archeology, geology etc. that do not completely lend themselves to SKD “science”. And I truly do appreciate the increasing use of models to test hypothesis and make predictions. So let’s just say I generally agree with your definition of “science”. It really is so darned powerful.

    Now what? What’s the point? While I may take issue with a few things, I don’t see how any reasonable person could disagree with you overall. So where do we go from here? What actions do you recommend? Or should this just be filed away in the nice to know file?

  43. I agree with Matt(42): While a more rubust understanding of what science is and isn’t is nice to have, _per se,_ I missed something … What’s the point?

    Moreover, why was BCC the venue for this dialogue?

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