Friday, October 16, 2015

Science wants too much to be right sometimes

There has been for years a tremendous hue and cry from certain quarters about how science is the answer to all of our questions, and religion and philosophy are dying. Even the revered (perhaps overly revered) physicist Stephen Hawking has recently came out and said the the universe didn't need God for its creation. That is all very well; he is, after all, trying to sell a book, and it seems that whatever must be done for publicity is all right. That's hardly a reasonable approach to truth, however. Any truth, in fact: scientific, philosophical, or theological. Yet why should we stand on moral grounds when science and progress are all that matter?

Well, perhaps because what we need to do in this day and age is to take a step back and ask ourselves: can we indeed trust science?

It can be found that the scientific world is rife with scandal, should the media decide to take as a hard of a look at the world of science as they do with religion. Indeed, scientific fraud is at least as well represented within our history as scandal sometimes seems within things religious. The Piltdown Man comes to mind, or the Cardiff Giant. And before you begin grousing that those are old news stories made in times where we hadn't progressed enough scientifically to see they were frauds, let us remember two things: it was decades before science acknowledged the error of the Piltdown Man, and that science can be as rigorous in its unwillingness to bend as they accuse religion of being.

Piltdown Man was made of the jaw of an orangutan on the skull of a human. It is difficult to believe that anthropologists way back in 1912 could not have noticed that with little more than a cursory review of the evidence. Yet that did not happen. Why?

Could it be because the purveyors of science, and by that we mean the people who make money off of it, at the time were so married to the Theory of Evolution that they would not even think of it as a hoax because it seemed to blend so well into their pre-established arguments? It could be easily alleged that their desire for, ahem, orthodoxy, could not allow them to search for the actual truth, until it was so obvious that even the priests of science had to yield.

But it is not only the older hoaxes which call attention to the arrogance of what often passes as modern science. As recently as the late 1990's we had the fraudulent researches of Jan Hendrik Schön, who made up his research yet was hailed as a rising star among scientists. And there's Shinichi Fujimura, a Japanese archaeologist who buried his own artifacts to be dug up later. His fraud went on for almost 25 years before discovery.

Then, in 1996, we had the Sokol Affair, where physicist Alan Sokol submitted and had published a paper in the journal Social Text which was totally fraudulent. He had announced on the day the article appeared later in Science Wars that his work was an experiment to “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” The experiment was quite the success. Yet he was basically accused with a violation of academic ethics rather than hailed by exposing the lack of a healthy skepticism which is supposed to be so important to the scientist.

A similar incident occurred in 2006, known as the Rooter Paper, where a computer randomly generated a paper which then submitted to and accepted as legitimate by a scientific conference.

This is not to say that all science and all scientists are bad. Yet it is interesting to note that the fraudulent scientists are viewed as outside of true science while the sins of religion are seen as inherent to religion. Is that good science, or bad philosophy?

The bottom line is that science, like religion, is practiced by human beings. Human beings who are as subject to lie and cheat if they feel sufficiently threatened as anyone else. Our lesson is not to take science at face value merely because it clothes itself in the garb of truth any more than we take religion as purveyors of truth without an honest review of their credentials. Because the biggest liars might just be on the biggest stage, and may be wearing, not robes, but lab coats.

No comments: