Science – the death of a myth

There are a number of ways to view the idea of post-normal science, but to my mind, the most realistic is to accept that the traditional science myth is finally dying. The idea that scientists selflessly pursue their theories and resolutely reject them if they aren’t confirmed by experiment is finally crashing into reality. And about time too.

There is no scientific method. Scientists are opportunists – they go with whatever works just like anyone else. It has to be like this because what we class as science is so disparate, from quantum theory to biology to astronomy. There isn’t a single way of going about scientific discovery. It isn’t a tick-box activity, but a lateral thinking, creative activity. Successful scientists are creative people, not followers of some bureaucratic procedure called sound science.

Nobody knows in advance if a theory will deliver of not. If it does, then the theorist becomes an exemplar of the scientific method. If not it vanishes without trace, but usually only after a hard-fought rearguard action by its proponents. This is why non-scientists should not be diffident about wading in to condemn poor science.

But if scientific achievements can be judged only after the event and if there is no abstract way of ensuring success beforehand, then there exists no special way of weighing scientific promises either – scientists are no better off than anybody else in these matters, they only know more details. This means that the public can participate in the discussion without disturbing existing roads to success (there are no such roads).

P K Feyerabend – Against Method

Policy-based evidence

Many traditional scientists and many non-scientists with a traditional view of science find it difficult to accept the frequent use of corrupt, policy-based scientific evidence. This is where the science myth comes up hard against reality. Scientists can be as corruptible, vain, venal and dishonest as anyone else.

  • Futile climate change mitigation policies are still pursued at vast cost even though the scientific rationale fell apart years ago.
  • The health damage caused by passive smoking is firmly established on policy-based evidence. There never was any other kind.
  • Electric cars in the UK run on electricity almost entirely generated by gas, coal and nuclear, yet they are touted as planet-saving devices purely on the basis of policy-driven science.
  • Mass medication such as the recent statin proposal is wrong. Nothing to do with science or scientists – just wrong.
  • And so on.

Time to move on

The decline of the scientific myth has been going on for a number of decades. Traditional myths of scientific integrity are going the way of all myths – eventually we open our eyes to the real world and the myth dies. As it should.

Maybe we should not be surprised. Maybe as realists we should be open to what has happened. The science myth is finished, but it was always an impossibly romantic view of what scientists really do, how they actually behave. Time to move on.

Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in accordance with what they regard as the rules of scientific method, they want to universalize the rules, they want them to become part of society at large and they use every means at their disposal – argument, propaganda, pressure tactics, intimidation, lobbying – to achieve their aims.

P K Feyerabend – Against Method

The future

One cannot foretell the course of social change, but my guess is that the science myth will continue to die and we will have to adapt to a fallible and sometimes corrupt scientific business. Maybe that’s also how we should learn to view all science – it’s just another business.

Yet we will still be left with something important. We will still have our history of world-changing scientific discovery and the occasional dismal failure, but we may learn to be more honest about the failures.

Possibly we will retain a technical outlook on the real world, which we may well refer to as scientific. So principles such as cause and effect will not die out – just the myth that only scientists know which is which.

8 comments for “Science – the death of a myth

  1. Andrew Duffin
    May 18, 2012 at 8:27 am

    Your criticism is not of science, but of the politicisation of science.

    The true scientific method does and did exist; you’ll find it in research labs and such like places all over the civilised world. If it did not exist, no new medicines would ever be invented, there would be no computers, motor vehicles would not get continuously more efficient, and so on.

    Where it goes wrong is when political power and big (VERY big, i.e. State) money come into the frame. Nobody is immune to the temptations presented by such things, and that is when science falls.

    • Mudplugger
      May 18, 2012 at 8:57 am

      Quite right.

      Maybe it’s time to have mandatory linguistic definitions for the differently sourced outcomes. ‘Sponsored Science’ for all those things funded by any form of vested-interest (including government), ‘Free Science’ for those which are independent.

      Henceforth it should be illegal to use the word ‘science’ without either one of the prefix words, then we would all know where we stood, all the time.

    • May 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      Yes you do find it in research labs, but in my experience not often at director level.

  2. May 18, 2012 at 9:03 am

    To policy based evidence can be added Bruce Charlton’s Evidence Based Medicine. When science is abused and used as Science, as in the climate scam, then it is cheapened.

  3. Dave_G
    May 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Penny (to Leonard) – “So, what’s new in science?”
    Leonard (after thoughtful pause) – “nothing…..”

  4. Greg Tingey
    May 20, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Lets see shall we?
    “There is no scientific method.” – LIAR and IDOT, of course there is …

    “There isn’t a single way of going about scientific discovery.”
    TRUE – BUT there is a standard, tried-&-tested method for VERIFYING discoveries, or ideas or hypotheses, once the original work has been done.
    This verificsation process is the really important bit.
    Someone else must be able to do “it”, whatever “it” is.

    You are using “Theory” in the non-scientific sense, I see – the correct term inside Science is: Hypothesis.
    Real theories are very few & far between – they are broad underlying explanations for a wide range of phenomena. Examples include … QM, Plate Tectonics, Evolution, Nwetonian/Einsteinian mechanics, Periodic Table.

    “Scientists can be as corruptible, vain, venal and dishonest as anyone else”: CAN BE – but you strongly imply they ALL ARE.
    LIAR & CHEAT – I saw you palm that card.
    Scientists who really do cheat get sacked and dismissed, or hadn’t you noticed? Unlike, erm, politicians, say, or journalists.

    Now we come to the real point of your ignorant and ill-informed rant.
    Climate Change.
    It’s happening, and the likely probabiulity is that humanity has a large part to play in that.
    You don’t like it, but tough.
    IF your claims ar correct, you are saying that every serious scientific body on the whole planet is wrong, and the screamers, backed by a couple of Oil companies (Exxon & I think, Texaco) and some very rich very nasty US billionaires (can you spell “Koch”) are correct.
    Where is your evidence for this?

    Electric cars – well, at present, you are correct. Energy storage of electrical power is crap at present, as is PV conversion, but -it’s getting better.
    The real scientists & engineers are working on it, & I predict that 20 years from now, electric vehicles and “solar” power will be highly economic. I suggest you examine the energy-conversion efficiency rates AND costs of such things over the past 20 years, and look at the trends.
    It is clear what is happening. The magic word here is “graphene”, I think.

    Oh, not “passive smoking”, purleeese!
    Look, about 20% of the population are hopeless addicts. OK, they should be free to indulge in their addiction – especially since I am of the opinion that there should be NO restriction on the use of ANY drugs, provided they are licensed as pure and free from adulterants (Which is at least half the problem with “illegal” drugs, anayway)
    There is no reason why their second-hand smoke should reduce me to coughing helplessness in the middle of the street when some tosser lights up in front of me, and I get a lungful of secondhand burnt camel-dung.
    What was that about freedom? And, What about my freedom to breathe clean air?

    Oh, the “Scientific myth will continue to die”, will it?
    Back to curing diseases by laying on of hands, and witch-trials, and all the other superstitions and murder.
    And you have the ignorant stupidity to write this rubbish on a COMPUTER, using the INTERNET. Uh?

    Now, bloody grow up.

  5. May 22, 2012 at 7:16 am

    I appreciate that you are writing for a general audience, but you should be more careful about your use of language – especially when addressing a readership who may not have a background in science and therefore could be misled by the incorrect use of scientific terms. Such ambiguities as confusing theories, hypotheses, speculations, and models will not help the reader.

    As an example of how misused words can bring confusion, consider that to both a police officer and a priest the word “confession” has a specific meaning within their profession – the two meanings are quite different, and the two types of confession are not interchangeable.

    • May 22, 2012 at 11:04 am

      I take your point and do understand the pitfalls. However, in my view theories, hypotheses, speculations, and models are terms which scientists do not use with precision in the real world.

      Part of the problem is the need to communicate with non-specialists, but I don’t think that is anywhere near to being the whole story.

      I think this terminological precision is a myth in that there is no scientific method which provides working scientists with a secure route to “good science”.

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