Big Thoughts on Science

This essay by Thomas Sheahen, PhD in physics from MIT, is above my IQ, but worth the read.

The part I liked was his explanation of the implications of Quantum Mechanics as the successor to the Newtonian Classical Mechanics and that Richard Feynman said it was impossible to understand quantum mechanics. Thank goodness, I thought it was just me.

Sheahen stunned me with his little lecture about faith and trust in certain areas of legitimate science–since I am a proud skeptic looking for reliable evidence, testability and reproducibility.

The author explains that I might have to change my approach and devotion to evidence. I am still holding out.

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8 responses to “Big Thoughts on Science

  1. those who claim science and faith are mutually exclusive understand neither.

  2. It is thanks to big thoughts like these that mathematics has replaced science.

  3. Exactly KENW. It amazes me how many people think that Science precludes faith or vice versa.

  4. Faith simply means belief without the necessity of evidence or demonstration. As such, it has no connection to anything but itself. It especially has no connection with what actually exists except by accident. Even then, it has no knowledge of that connection. It has only belief in the belief. Relying on an authoritative source, either ancient or modern, without requiring evidence or demonstration is nothing but an instance of faith. However, it is a borrowed faith that you can’t call your own.

    If you want to believe without evidence or demonstration, that is your choice but having that belief consistent with what is, is not. It actually must be consistent with what is. Science, more correctly specified as reason, is the way to make and verify that discovery. Once that discovery is made, faith no longer functions because you then have evidence and demonstration. While you may still make a mistake, you have a process to discover the mistake and correct it. With faith, there is no possibility to discover and correct error. It is self referential and is belief in only itself.

    The problem now becomes which is primary, faith or reason. When the two agree, it makes no difference. When they disagree, then there is a problem. If faith is primary, then there is ultimately no room for reason because if they differ, the content of faith is always chosen. If reason is primary there is ultimately no room for faith because, again, if they differ, reason is always chosen. In a very real sense, the two are mutually exclusive. It is either faith or reason but not both at the same time.

    If you say sometimes it is faith and sometimes it is reason, then how do you choose which under which circumstance? Is it faith or reason? See the above.

  5. Steve, I don’t think you quite got the point of the essay. Sheahen is saying that we have to have faith in the integrity and technical competence of other humans when they do science. That was just as true during Newton’s time as it is today.

    When a scientist describes an experiment other scientists do need to be sure of his/her integrity and competence. But they also need details about the experimental design and equipment used to collect the evidence to determine if the observations mean what the scientist says they mean. No scientist will accept the evidence on faith just because he/she trusts the experimenter. An honest and competent person can for various reasons fail to control for a variable and get spurious results. Peer review can be seen as a cooperative process in which a community of scientists correct each other’s errors.

    Junk science arises partly through a failure of this correction process as when the chromosome count for humans was recorded as 48 and not corrected for 20 years or so because the copiers accepted the earlier count on faith.

    Junk science arises when there is a system of rewards for favourable results. Until the mid-1970′s a professor who accepted and taught the theory of mobile continents (continental drift) could not achieve tenure at a American public university. What was taught was junk science.

    I had to memorize the junk science to pass exams, I was rewarded for “accepting” an explanation of mountain building that I was convinced was nonsense. My fellow students accepted the junk science on faith.

    So I urge you not to give up your skepticism. Even if a skeptic is not correct, he still serves to spur on the scientist to do more rigorous work. .

  6. Whenever science extends beyond our ability to test and reproduce, it becomes unreliable, unscientific and opinion-based. An upper limit, if you will. It has taken centuries to work out specific issues. We have the time.

  7. Coach says: “We have the time.”
    But Al Gore told me we don’t have time – it is the end of the world! Unless, of course, I buy some carbon credits from Al’s company……

  8. Frederick Colbourne,

    “Sheahen is saying that we have to have faith in the integrity and technical competence of other humans when they do science.”

    You are equivocating on the word “faith” by confusing it with “confidence”. It is especially important to acquire evidence for and a demonstration of integrity and technical competence. Otherwise if you truly do mean “faith”, you are simply assuming the individual has integrity and can demonstrate technical competence.

    Now if the scientific matter is of no importance to you or anyone, then assume away. It won’t matter if you have assumed correctly or wrongly. If, on the other hand, if the scientific matter is of great (ie. life or death) importance, it will matter. It would be wise not to assume but demand evidence and a demonstration of said qualities before you bet you life on the person.

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