Friday, 18 May 2012

Science - the death of a myth

There are a number of ways to view the idea of post-normal science, but to my mind, the most realistic is to accept that the traditional science myth is finally dying. The idea that scientists selflessly pursue their theories and resolutely reject them if they aren’t confirmed by experiment is finally crashing into reality. And about time too.

There is no scientific method. Scientists are opportunists - they go with whatever works just like anyone else. It has to be like this because what we class as science is so disparate, from quantum theory to biology to astronomy. There isn’t a single way of going about scientific discovery. It isn’t a tick-box activity, but a lateral thinking, creative activity. Successful scientists are creative people, not followers of some bureaucratic procedure called sound science.

Nobody knows in advance if a theory will deliver of not. If it does, then the theorist becomes an exemplar of the scientific method. If not it vanishes without trace, but usually only after a hard-fought rearguard action by its proponents. This is why non-scientists should not be diffident about wading in to condemn poor science.

But if scientific achievements can be judged only after the event and if there is no abstract way of ensuring success beforehand, then there exists no special way of weighing scientific promises either – scientists are no better off than anybody else in these matters, they only know more details. This means that the public can participate in the discussion without disturbing existing roads to success (there are no such roads).
P K Feyerabend – Against Method

Policy-based evidence
Many traditional scientists and many non-scientists with a traditional view of science find it difficult to accept the frequent use of corrupt, policy-based scientific evidence. This is where the science myth comes up hard against reality. Scientists can be as corruptible, vain, venal and dishonest as anyone else.
  • Futile climate change mitigation policies are still pursued at vast cost even though the scientific rationale fell apart years ago.
  • The health damage caused by passive smoking is firmly established on policy-based evidence. There never was any other kind.
  • Electric cars in the UK run on electricity almost entirely generated by gas, coal and nuclear, yet they are touted as planet-saving devices purely on the basis of policy-driven science.
  • Mass medication such as the recent statin proposal is wrong. Nothing to do with science or scientists – just wrong.
  • And so on.

 Time to move on
The decline of the scientific myth has been going on for a number of decades. Traditional myths of scientific integrity are going the way of all myths – eventually we open our eyes to the real world and the myth dies. As it should.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe as realists we should be open to what has happened. The science myth is finished, but it was always an impossibly romantic view of what scientists really do, how they actually behave. Time to move on.

Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in accordance with what they regard as the rules of scientific method, they want to universalize the rules, they want them to become part of society at large and they use every means at their disposal – argument, propaganda, pressure tactics, intimidation, lobbying – to achieve their aims.
P K Feyerabend – Against Method

The future
One cannot foretell the course of social change, but my guess is that the science myth will continue to die and we will have to adapt to a fallible and sometimes corrupt scientific business. Maybe that’s also how we should learn to view all science – it’s just another business.

Yet we will still be left with something important. We will still have our history of world-changing scientific discovery and the occasional dismal failure, but we may learn to be more honest about the failures.

Possibly we will retain a technical outlook on the real world, which we may well refer to as scientific. So principles such as cause and effect will not die out – just the myth that scientists know which is which.


James Higham said...

Nobody knows in advance if a theory will deliver of not. If it does, then the theorist becomes an exemplar of the scientific method.

That should, by definition, produce a certain humility in the scientist.

A K Haart said...

James - yes, too many scientist seem to assume that the scientific method actually exists, but it doesn't.