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The Philosophy of Science: Part the second

June 12th, 2010 · No Comments · Philosophy of Science

Yay! Research Proposal presented, got on the bus this afternoon and there was a pirate and a ninja, then I found twenty cents in the gutter; it’s been an awesome day. Anyway here’s the next part of the series of articles I wrote (and
edited by Mr William Muirhead so blame/thank him too).

Or, I’m right and all of you motherfuckers are wrong.

Consensus is a dirty word in science; consensus insinuates unanimity in decision and we won’t get unanimity in any scientific decision until the day that a bespectacled, blood-splattered and gore encrusted theorist crawls to the top of a pile of bodies and declares his as the ultimate description of reality. So until my glorious day of victory arrives, we’ll have to settle for the next best thing. The muddled, fuzzy, mess that is scientific consensus.

What the hell is scientific consensus? What’s the difference between scientific consensus and normal consensus? And why do I keep writing scientific in italics? Scientific consensus implies general agreement by the scientists in a field of study NOT unanimity; there will always be dissent. You can almost guarantee that the number of opinions on a subject area in science is equal to the number of scientist in that area plus x (where x is equal to the number of those scientists with Dissociative identity disorder * (the number of personalities expressed – 1)).

Now, a number of these opinions will align, and some may appear to be exactly the same – to the untrained eye (but that’s because you really don’t understand what we’re talking about, outsider. Now go play with your microscopes like a good little boy/girl/anthropomorphosis blob and leave the real science to the experts.) As more of the opinions meld and align through the processes of scientific communication (i.e. publication, conferences, peer review and sheer bloody mindedness) harmony on that idea forms. And finally, a point is reached where those within the discipline recognise that a consensus has been reached.

What I like best about scientific consensus is that even when it is “reached”, different people can have a different interpretation of what exactly this consensus is. You’ll have a larger group who are all happy and in agreement, a smaller group that doesn’t like aspects of the consensus but agree with the general terms around it and can work with it, and then there’s that little group who cross their arms and go “nope, you’re all wrong, we may not agree on what the right answer is but we all agree that the answer you have is wrong”.

That little group is sometimes called sceptics.

DUN DUN DAAAA! (DRAMATIC MUSICAL STING!)

Yes, and the real reason I’ve written all this is revealed. That’s right, I’m not here to talk about those lovie-dovie scientists who group hug and high five over their great consensuses (consensii?). I’m here to talk about those that walk in the shadows, hiding in the darkness, shunned by the greater scientific establishment for exploring ideas most would find repugnant because someone must…actually, there is no way it’s that romantic being a sceptic. But there is a truth of the matter is that sceptics have been getting a bad rap lately, especially (well, almost exclusively) in the field of anthropogenic (human induced) global warming.

Okay – let me make one thing clear, I personally believe that on the balance of evidence we are quickly approaching brown trousers time with regards to global warming and that (and this is the important part) this global warming has been induced by the activities of humans. I also believe that we had better start correcting our behaviour right now, before we turn our beautiful planet into a giant shit hole.

Actually since I’m going into aside territory here, there’s one other point I’d like to make about the science of global warming, which is this:

There is perception that everything will be okay, because scientists will come up with a solution to the problem. We just need to give them enough time and enough resources and they will solve everything without us needing to take the “hit” on our current unsustainable way of living. So we only need to cut things down a bit, just enough for an extra decade or two, to give “them” the time they need. Here’s the thing though: scientists have been looking very intensely at this problem for a very long time and they have came up with a solution: STOP FUCKING THE PLANET UP!

Aside over.

So if I’m this hippy, tree-hugging guy who thinks we are on our way to hell why am I worried about the hurt feelings of a couple of scientists who can’t get with the program? I care because scepticism is an important part of the scientific process that should be respected for the value it adds rather than scorned. Without scepticism a lot of the science we hold as true today would never have been born.

Copernicus was an astronomer and mathematician who was a bit sceptical about the Church’s proposed model of the Universe i.e. the Earth as the centre of creation with everything else orbiting around it. He speculated that maybe, just maybe, the planets orbited the sun instead. This proposal received the standard rebuttal from the Church i.e. an offer to be tied to a piece of wood and set on fire, a rebuttal so sound and compelling that Copernicus decided to withdraw his silly idea and buy a few extra crosses for his mantelpiece.

Later, after he was dead, his book was published and Copernicus was crowned as prince of science because he was correct and the Church was wrong. Bully for you, Copernicus! All this didn’t really help him much, because he was dead, but at least he got to be right in the end. Also, as a heretic he gets to spend eternity in the sixth circle of hell trapped inside a flaming tomb – bonus!

The more important part of all that though is to remember that Copernicus was a sceptic who challenged the establishment, a rebel you might say. He was mocked and derided but he still upheld his beliefs and thanks to his hard work I had to study thermodynamics rather than the Bible. At this point I’m not sure if I’m grateful for this or not, so let’s see what the Bible has to say:

MICAH 3.5; This is what the LORD says: “As for the prophets who lead my people astray, if one feeds them, they proclaim ‘peace'; if he does not, they prepare to wage war against him.

Actually the Bible is a lot more interesting that thermodynamics (from memory the various scrawls on the desk were a lot more interesting that thermodynamics, especially the lecturer eject button which I must have mashed through the desk in an attempt to relive the boredom.) But thermodynamics is a big word and FAITH is a small word so I guess we should give Copernicus props for standing up for what he believe in. Well actually he didn’t, he died and his book got published but we’ll ignore that part and instead focus on how his works lead the world into a new age of reason. This is why scepticism is important – because no matter how firmly we believe in something, and there was some very firm belief in the Church at that point, there has to be some acceptance that you might just be wrong.

Scepticism forces the consensus-holders to defend their position, which in turn either strengthens the supportive science for that consensus or disproves it. I’m pretty damn certain that anthropogenic global warming is true, but I also accept that some parts of the overall theory might be wrong. In fact as part of being a good scientist I accept that the whole thing could be wrong, which would be really awesome, but highly unlikely.

Scepticism is an important part of science that should be respected as long as those being sceptical also recognise that they could be wrong, too. This is part of the ethics of science and is another major basis for how the entire process works. The fundamental understanding of mutual respect, trust and responsibility between scientists is the firm bedrock on which science is built.

Scientists are human though and as with all things human you can’t trust the bastards as far as you can throw them (which if you cut them up into little bits first is surprisingly far) and there will be those who exploit this trust. Which is why, after writing that scepticism should be respected, I’d also note that this doesn’t mean their theories get to skip the process of science. Maybe if I saw a few more peer-reviewed articles sceptical of anthropogenic global warming I would be less sure of my faith in it. Until such time, though, I’m personally going to keep working on ways I can help save Earth, hopefully involving public nudity and/or volleyball.

Good science will win out in the end, but naked people playing ball sports on an array of individual trampolines comes a close second.

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