Science and authority
Posted by aogWednesday, 29 October 2003 at 21:11 TrackBack Ping URL

Although science is a fundamentally a skeptical endeavor of questioning and testing, in reality the field of knowledge in modern science is so large that almost all of it is taken on faith, primarily through argument by authority. Who, really, has done the experiments necessary to prove Newton’s Laws or the ideal gas equation?

What happens is that different parts of the ideosphere of science operate at different speeds. New ideas are hard tested but as they age and survive many tests, the ideas move to slower time regions of the ideosphere where they gradually settle into the bedrock. Overall, this is probably for the best as we would be hard pressed to make progress if we spent most of our experimenting on well tested ideas.

However, there is a psychological downside to this, especially when a scientist moves out of his own field and most particularly when the scientist moves in to politics. There is scarcely anything like real testing of fine grained hypotheses in that realm. This leaves the scientist vulnerable to whatever fad is sweeping the political ideosphere at the time because it has the same aura of authority as the bedrock knowledge of science.

Orrin Judd has a post on this which discusses it in a sweeping scale. My anecdote is of a micro-scale. I was reading Science News which has a cover story on a geologist who is trying to build a “better” periodic table of the elements. That was interesting and the story mentioned other attempts to improve the table. The kicker at the end was the statement

Getting the entire world to adopt the same, new periodic table will be a challenge, especially because the table will need to garner approval from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Why, exactly, is that? Couldn’t a group of scientists simply put out a new version which, if seen to be superior, would supplant the old one as people adopted it on their own? No, the only way is appeal to and enforcement by authority. Where is the testing, the questioning, the independence of thought? At least the geologist wasn’t waiting approval from some committee.

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JJ Thursday, 30 October 2003 at 12:46

I disagree with your statment, both that it is “rule by authority” and that modern science is taken on faith. These “bodies of authority” are called Peer Review groups. While not perfect, it is the ability to take a theory that is immature and subject it to the scrutiny and test of a body of experts. This is far from a political or religious body, but rather should be experts who are able to fairly judge the theory and results. While a new and not well understood or tested theory may be delayed by such a process,good theories will eventually be accepted and more scientists test the theory and this process will weed out the ridiculous or poorly designed or tested experiments and prevent a glut of “perpetual motion machines” from spreading on the Internet as fact just because someone with a Ph.D. says it is so. This is fundemental to the practice of the “Scientific Method” and what sets it apart from superstition or political agendas.

What we take as “science fact” is really just the best approximation of nature based on our observations at the time. So the case that something is called a theory should not imply that it is weak, or may be proven wrong next week. We continually test our theories because we have scientists and engineers using these “laws” as the basis of their projects and experiments (space probes, bridges, circuit boards, other manufacturing, etc.) and they WORK over and over. Science cannot be based on a whim, and the development of theories, the comparison to observation and experiment and the review by impartial peers is the underlying beauty of the scientific method.

If a scientist publishes (as many do to the science archives) before peer review and it is employed by other scientists and practicing engineers, then how does he later revise or revoke a mistake? Let Cold Fusion stand as a good example. If this were the case, then the better known scientist would be believed more than the unknown one. You would truly have science reduced to a fad without a refereed review process. It is the peer review process, by a body of acknowledged topical experts, that adds validity and trust to a new method or theory. I find the basic thesis and reasoning you offered in your article to be flawed, perhaps because you are a layman and have not participated in this process. I certainly don’t mean this in a personal way, but I am sure you would see that this process, over time, is free of the political agendas or preferential bias that is part and parcel of many “social science” or faith-based processes.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 31 October 2003 at 08:34

Actually, I am not a layman in this regard and am quite familiar with science and how it works. Moreover, I don’t disagree with any of your comment here, but it doesn’t address my point, which is the application of this method to things that are not science. Consider the larger picture - what is the net result on a day to day basis? That facts are accepted because an authority says so. It’s irrelevant why the authority does so, the habit remains.

I don’t disagree that this works reasonably well in scientific areas, but not so well elsewhere. The problem is that the habit remains, yielding the sad but far too frequent spectacle of scientists eagerly embracing totalitarianism. Check the link provided in the main post for one example.

In this case, the arrangement of the chart isn’t an issue of science at all - there is no dispute about the facts in the chart. It’s a purely a matter of style. But here we see the ‘argument by authority’ habit take effect, applying the overall methods of science to something that’s not science at all and is ill-served by those methods. Moreover, why should everyone adopt the same chart? What is the purpose of that? Clearly when we are talking about scientific facts agreement is very important, but style issues? Yet another inappropriate bleeding of scientific methods in to other areas.

JJ Saturday, 01 November 2003 at 15:45

I received my Science News yesterday and did read it. In the case of applying the scientific method to problems, I think if it is applied right, it is not biased. I do agree with your comment though, that in the case of how we look at something, there is no right or wrong. It doesn’t make sense to apply the scientific method, in the case of the periodic table what is happening IS political. It’s been that way since Mendelson, and it shouldn’t change. In this case, the Internet is an ideal way to popularize their table, but in reality why sholdn’t any good way of viewing data be promoted? I do agree. If this is popular, more people will use it. The authors may feel frustrated they don’t get a stamp of approval, but that shouldn’t stop them from publishing it on the Internet. Any scientist who values their view of the data, which is just a view, not an interpretation really, should use it. More power to them. When scientists start to have a bias or political agenda, it is an ugly thing. Let’s hope in this case, it is just a matter of them dragging their feet until a large number of people start to use such a table. It looks like it would prove a useful one to geologists and certain other scientists. Sorry I misinterpreted your original comments… I just wanted to be clear to draw a line between the Scientific Method and bodies of scientists who endorse the way something is presented. Sagan is an example of someone with whom I totally agree when it comes to scientific endeavors, but who seemed to soemtimes jump to conclusions that he wanted to find true a bit too eagerly because it agreed with his personal viewpoint. Take care. John

Ismaeel Abdur-Rasheed Tuesday, 04 November 2003 at 15:44

November 4, 2003 - The ATFE and its contractor, Applied Research Associates, have been purchasing high power rocket motors, rocket kits, launch rails, electrical launchers and other items to conduct tests at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The purpose of the tests is to provide proof that high power rockets can be used to shoot down commercial aircraft during landings and takeoffs. The tests will be documented by videotape. It is expected that the video tape will be released during a press conference for maximum media exposure.

The ATFE plans were first discovered by a high power rocket vendor who recognized the name of ATFE agent, David Shatzer, as he purchased launch rail equipment. Mr. Shatzer has been traveling across the country purchasing other high power rocket supplies using the cover story that he is a high power rocket hobbyist. He changes the story with respect to who he will be flying with depending on his geographical location. Applied Research Associates has purchased at least 40 J350 rocket motors and large numbers of rocket kits from different suppliers.

It was reported to ARSA that Applied Research Associates employees along with ATFE agents were to conduct tests yesterday at Hill Air Force Base using a target drone to simulate a commercial aircraft. The high power rockets were to be launched out of a parked van. The rockets were going to be launched one at a time at the drone as well as several at a time. The rockets did not contain explosive warheads. It is not known whether the drone was rigged to simulate an explosion as a high power rocket passed by.

The information in this story was made available to Senator Mike Enzi’s staff. It is not know at this time, what action, if any, Senator Enzi plans to take. Watch for further updates on this story as it develops.

[ from ]

- iz

Ismaeel Abdur-Rasheed Monday, 10 November 2003 at 13:04

the Rocket Challenge series is outSTANDING coverage of Amateur Rocketry, which has been under attack by the DOJ/BAFTE. This coverage shows what a exciting hobby it is for people of all ages, and how it inspires creativity, technical prowess and craftsmanship. It’s also a lot of fun!

here is the re-air schedule

[ Times shown are EST ]

—- Thursday/Friday, Nov 13/14 2003 —- 08:00 PM Wild and Weird Rockets 09:00 PM How High Can You Fly? 10:00 PM Supersonic Speed Demons 11:00 PM Wild and Weird Rockets 12:00 AM How High Can You Fly? 01:00 AM Supersonic Speed Demons

—- Saturday, Nov 15 2003 —- 12:00 PM Wild and Weird Rockets 01:00 PM How High Can You Fly? 02:00 PM Supersonic Speed Demons

—- Saturday, Nov 22 2003 —- 05:00 PM Wild and Weird Rockets 06:00 PM How High Can You Fly? 07:00 PM Supersonic Speed Demons

and here are the blurbs from TDC

Wild and Weird Rockets

The largest amateur rocket competition blasts off in Kansas — with a chance to break world records and put some of the most unusual rockets into the atmosphere. Can the Aurora hit Mach 2? And can an outhouse really fly?

How High Can You Fly?

The highest bowling ball wins! Rocketeers launch rockets with 16-pound bowling balls in a heavyweight altitude challenge. And which team will win from the ground up as teams race to build and launch an 8 ft rocket from scratch in just a matter of hours.

Supersonic Speed Demons

Speed is the challenge, as rocketeers compete to build and fly the fastest home built rocket at speeds over 1300 miles per hour. And viewers will see who can launch a rocket with the most precision in a target based, high-stress competition.

[ source: The Discovery Channel Online at ]

- iz

Tracked from Null Session: Misconceptions about the Scientific Method on 30 October 2003 at 12:55

I certainly understand how a non-scientist, who has not participated in the review-process, or a scientist who has a bad experience would find the process of peer review to be biased, but I think the reasoning is flawed and usually...

End of Discussion