by Michael Davidson
Let us assume for the sake of argument that there is a subject or activity known as ‘science’. Not just a bunch of separate activities grouped together because of a certain ‘family resemblance’. What supposedly makes ‘science’ special is the ‘scientific method’. This guarantees that the findings of ‘science’ are true.
The Royal Society is one of the premier scientific societies in the world. It was founded in 1660 with the motto “Nullius in verba” – “take nobody’s word for it”. The original members credited Francis Bacon (1561-1626) with the inspiration to found their society.
Bacon’s idea of the scientific method was to proceed from repeated observations to general principles. This process is called ‘induction’. Induction is defined as the process whereby a premise of the form “All observed A’s are B” leads to a conclusion of the form “All A’s are B”. Over time we can induce more and more general laws of nature. From these laws we can then predict new facts and find out if they are true by experimental test.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) claimed to have arrived at his laws of motion and gravitation from the empirical observations made by Kepler and Galileo (and his own experiments).
Unfortunately the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) later showed that the idea of induction is flawed. No finite number of observations such as
“this object near the surface of the earth falls with acceleration g”
can guarantee that
“all objects near the surface of the earth fall with acceleration g“. Aristotle (483-322BC) would have said: “some does not prove all” and would have pointed at fire and smoke which rise.
In view of this logical difficulty with induction, we can divide scientific method into two separate parts.:
a) how to get from observations to principles – the problem of discovery, and
b) how to justify the principles arrived at – the problem of justification.
The second part is relatively easy. Once we have a principle we can point to all the observational and experimental evidence that is consistent with the principle. But how we create theories is often considered a personal subjective process which logic does not illuminate.
William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the term ‘scientist’ in 1834. He maintained that ‘scientists’ do not proceed by induction but
“Success seems to consist in framing several tentative hypotheses and selecting the right one.”
Observation and experiment are thus directed by the various alternative hypotheses, rather than being collected in some kind of magpie fashion as Bacon seemed to suggest.
A key step is the isolation and clarification of a concept:
“Scientific induction is always guided by a concept which proves its worth by binding facts together in such a way to enable us to see significant generalisations that had previously escaped us.”
Science thus depends on the creative process of forming concepts and hypotheses. Since ‘scientists’ are human beings, their prejudices can skew the discovery of hypotheses. Francis Bacon had already recognised and classified several such prejudices:
accepting data that agrees with one’s own ideas and dismissing data that does not;
jumping to conclusions too hastily;
the use of vague words;
clinging to fashionable ideas rather than subjecting them to test.
A 1979 experiment demonstrates the first prejudice. 24 proponents and 24 opponents of capital punishment were shown the results of two studies that showed evidence for and against capital punishment as a deterrent.
The studies were fictional (unbeknownst to the 48 students). They were ‘engineered’ to produce positive or negative findings from exactly the same ‘evidence’.
Needless to say, the students felt that the studies confirming their view were more scientifically valid than those opposing. Furthermore they were more convinced than before that their view was correct after reviewing both pieces of evidence . This was regardless of the order in which they saw the two studies.
There are well established concepts and principles in the sciences such as ‘the conservation of energy’ in physics, the ‘evolution of species’ in biology, the periodic table of the elements in chemistry, ‘uniformitarianism’ in geology and much much more besides.
But when we get to the forefront of research in any area of science there is great controversy. The status of
‘string theory’ in physics;
sociobiology in biology ;
morality in neuroscience (or vice versa) ;
‘artificial intelligence’ in computer ‘science’
and many others are topics of hot debate.
The story you get depends on which side of the debate the story teller sits.
The pronouncements of famous scientists on topics outside their sphere and much of what passes for ‘science’ in the press is more properly described as scientism. Scientism is an exaggeration of the efficacy of science, the claim that the only knowledge is ‘scientific’ knowledge.
The only genuine claims according to this view are those that can be confirmed by the ‘scientific method’, though how this claim can be confirmed by the scientific method is not explained. This claim gives rise to an exaggerated belief that we understand more about the world than we actually do. Since the only knowledge is scientific, on this view, science tells us about the way the world really is (ie metaphysics).
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy which deals with the ultimate nature of reality: “what kinds of things exist?” and “what is their nature?” Metaphysics should be confined to inductive hypotheses from the various sciences and be described as metaphysical rather than ‘scientific’.
Scientists tend to see the world as explained by their particular science. Thus physicists see the world as entirely described by physics. Neuroscientists see the world in terms of our brains. Biologists see the world in terms of our evolutionary history. And so on. We only need to study one subject x to find that “all is x”. “All is x” is metaphysics.
The difference between scientific and metaphysical hypotheses according to the modern philosopher Robert Almeder is that scientific hypotheses are “explicitly empirically testable”. It is possible to state detailed test conditions which would confirm or deny the hypothesis.
But philosophical hypotheses are only “implicitly empirically testable”. That is, there might be some available data which would confirm or deny the hypothesis but nobody is currently able to specify what those data might be or how to get them.
Thus if there is no conceivable way we can prove a ‘scientific’ claim then the claim is metaphysical not scientific.
Extrapolating from scientific evidence to metaphysical world views is not wrong provided we label it as ‘metaphysical’ rather than ‘scientific fact’.
Thus we have such ‘scientific facts’ as
‘mind is brain’,
‘there is no such thing as free will’,
‘concepts are nonsense.’
These are aspects of the fashionable philosophical theory called ‘materialism’.
Materialism is not an essential feature of a science. Some ‘scientists’ classify any endeavour that questions materialism as ‘pseudo-science’. They brand as taboo any investigation into the efficacy of such things as ‘alternative medicine’, parapsychology, spiritualism, etc.
George Orwell (1903-1950) in his celebrated essay on literary style, dated 1945, classified ‘science’ as a meaningless word because it has had several meanings and has been used “more or less dishonestly”.
The intervening half century or so has not crystallised the meaning at all. The words ‘scientific’ and ‘scientist’ have been hijacked by so many that they are now almost devoid of meaning. They add only some kind of mystique to whatever pronouncement follows.
I am not ‘anti-science’. I believe in the power of the human imagination to frame hypotheses, to make tentative inductions, to predict effects and make experimental tests. This leads us to theories whereby we can make broad predictions and control our environments through technology. My beef is with the prevalence of sweeping ‘scientific’ pronouncements without adequate evidence.
Thus the answer to my question “Can we really trust scientists?” is ‘sometimes’. Here are a few criteria:
Is the scientist
a) speaking in his or her area of expertise?
b) not generalising into the realm of metaphysics?
c) steering clear of controversies within the field – or at least makes clear his or her position on such?
d) reviewing the evidence for his or her thesis?
e) speaking in ordinary language?
f) proposing or endorsing something that is ethical?
If so there is a good chance you can trust him or her with the information.
These are criteria that do not just apply to scientists.
There are no special considerations for scientists. The physicist Richard Feynman said it more succinctly: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
An interesting and relevant blog about the misuse of statistics is http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-01/six-ways-to-separate-lies-from-statistics.html
- Whewell W (1841,1996) The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences vol 2 Routledge p467
- Lord CG, Ross L & Lepper MR (1979) Biased assimilation and attitude polarisation: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence Journal of Personality & Social Psychology vol 37 p2098-2109 available at
- Smolin L (2006) The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next Houghton Miflin, Boston
- U Segerstrale (2000) Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the socio-biology debate and beyond Oxford University Press
- Horgan J (2010) Be wary of the righteous rationalist: We should reject Sam Harris’s claim that science can be a moral guidepost Scientific American 11 Oct 2010 available at
- Searle J (1980) Minds Brains and Programs Behavioural and Brain Sciences 3 p417
- Almeder R (1998) Harmless Naturalism: The Limits of Science and the Nature of Philosophy Open Court p166
- Dennett D (1991) Consciousness Explained Allen Lane p33
- Blakemore C (1988) The Mind Machine BBC Books p7
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- Orwell G (1945) Politics and the English Language Penguin
- Feynman R (1969) What is Science? The Physics Teacher Vol. 7, issue 6