The Galileo Conspiracy: 5 Questions Your Science Professors Hope You Never Ask
As a young lad, I took on my first scientific experiment simply because I could. Like most curious youngsters who own walky-talkies, I could only resist for so long the urge to bury one of them (well behind enemy lines) in the bread aisle at the local grocery store, to see what startled shoppers might make of extroverted wheat. This, my first foray into the field of agorology -- the very scientific study of shopping, shoppers and shoppingcarts -- told me just what I needed to know.
Would they simply scurry off, fearing all that is both sourdough and articulate, or might they try to hunt down the source of the taunting loaves? The jovial, phoney French accent that greeted each customer in the aisle proved harder to maintain -- while trying hard not to laugh -- than I had anticipated. In the end, fear of the manager (bigcheesophobia) cut short the data-gathering event, but not before we -- Tony (my assistant) and I -- had learned far too much. We now knew the inside truth about science, kept hidden for many ages: it's a real kick in the pants.
Much time passed, and the California State University (at Hayward) received, and then quite foolishly approved, my application for admission. There I learned that the representatives of "science" bore the right to decide all matters of cultural importance; that scientists could provide the answers we need; and that science is "self-correcting," and so marches forward with unrelenting progress. Just look at the microwave ovens, and the GPS gadgets in our cars. Science carries the badge of authority in all matters of knowledge. Or so the story goes.
But then it happened. I took my first history of science class, and began studying the items that interested me, even if they weren't on the menu. Then came the individual study course in the philosophy of science. By then I had meandered into areas of study best dubbed "plainly unauthorized." Here, I had realized that the science textbook authors (and most of my science professors) had completely -- I believe the scientific term is -- "discombobulated" almost everything they had taught me in my science classes.
Oh, they managed the empirical details in the books well enough. Like motorcycle riders who smile too often, the experts had strained out the empirical gnats with an aggressive and precise toothpick. But conceptual camel-swallowing became the order of the day. In other words, their story of what science actually is, how scientists employ its methods, and what science can actually accomplish -- the whole story surrounding the details -- proved phonier than a well-modulated, French accent in a grocery store.
To help illustrate these well-educated fibs, which I have boiled down to five for the sake of brevity, I have put this section in the shape of a question and answer format. Here sit before the readers eyes THE five questions your science professors hope you never ask.
Question 1. Professor, isn't it true, that when you call a model or theory "true" merely because it makes accurate predictions that you in fact commit the fallacy called "affirming the consequent?"
Answer: You'd better believe it, Bucko. And nearly all scientists do this on a regular basis. Coincidentally enough, so do the textbooks these guys write. "If a mother, then also a woman" seems obvious enough. In logic, this takes the form, "If P, then Q." But reasoning in the reverse direction leads to trouble. "If a woman, then a mother [Q, therefore P]" doesn't ring true at all. Many women do not practice motherhood. Likewise, "If my theory is true, we should find 'Q' to be the case [If P, then Q] does not in any way validate the reverse, "We did find 'Q' to be the case, therefore my model is true [Q, therefore P]."
This is like the man who argues that "If it is bread, it does not talk. It does not in fact talk, therefore it must be bread." Imagine that: science professors make a career of reasoning that poorly, and your sandwich never said a word.
Question #2. Professor, isn't it true that many highly successful theories in the past gained the allegiance of entire scientific communities, only to suffer rejection later as so much molarky by the same group?
Answer: Yes. In fact Dr. Larry Laudan, former chair of the history and philosophy of science department at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote a book (Science and Values) where he catalogued over 30 such theories. He indicated that he could have lengthened his list extensively (and others have done this). These truth-status flip-floppers trounce about like a salmon on deck, where "true yesterday" becomes "false today." Here, truth comes with an expiration date like raspberry yogurt. And who knows, these theories may yet make a comeback -- only to get smoked again (as salmon are want to do).
This tells us that theoretical science shows itself fickle when it comes to truth-telling. In court, they call this "perjury," but let us avoid the unpleasantries of name-calling. One commentator on this problem recently put it quite sublimely in these words: "If the history of science were a single person, it would present to the world just that sort of person we should least want to see driving heavy machinery or carrying sharp objects."
Question #3. Professor, isn't it true that theories considered false today by the scientific majority, as well as in the past, have often turned out to be very useful? And doesn't this show that no established relationship between true theories and useful theories exists?
Answer: Yes, and yes. And this shows from the empirical facts of history that any theory might be highly useful, and yet utterly false, so that it's utility offers no real guide to whether or not it's true. And you guessed it: Dr. Laudan has a long list of these successful-but-false theories too. And he isn't the only one.
Question #4. Isn't it true professor that scientists often resolve the contest between rival theories by choosing the one as "more probably true" which appears either simpler or more elegant than the others, and doesn't this tell against the alleged "objectivity" of what is supposed to be a truth-seeking enterprise, reducing it to the status of a Miss America beauty pageant?
Answer: Yes, but don't tell my wife or she won't let me go to work either.
Question #5. Professor, isn't it true that various scientists working in different fields put to use a wide array of different methods, depending on factors like which field of study they work in, the nature of the claim under question at the moment, and the like? And doesn't this rather abolish the popular myth that anything like "THE" scientific method has ever actually existed?
Answer: Of course. Philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend at UC Berkeley wrote a book in the late 90's entitled "On Method," which proves just that point. Brain-scanning Neurologists do not do anything like what mechanics do when the latter search to find out how much pollution your car puts out. They use different instruments, and entirely different methods. Some methods involve developing computational models to run different stress-condition scenarios (structural engineers do this), while others amount to sticking a fancy wand up your car's tail pipe.
Conclusion: The heroic model of science -- with scientists in the driver's seat as the keepers of true knowledge -- amounts to a political ploy designed to exalt those with white labcoats as the final arbiters of truth about what kind of what this "really" is. But the kind of reasons scientists (and their textbooks) must invoke to prop up this flimsy mythology make no headway against the empirical facts known to students of the history and philosophy of the sciences. Moreover, if stripped of their technical jargon, and rendered in the common tongue, such half-baked reasons would not earn scientists a passing mark in a second-semester logic course at any decent college.
The way I see it, if you are going to try to fool people, you might as well go all the way, and head for the aisle with the heckling rye.
About the Author: Christopher Brown, a former radio talk-show host, attended the California State University, and then did hard time in seminary (Orlando, FL). He now manages the websites for Ophir Gold Corporation, at Writing With Power: http://scriberight.blogspot.com, or else OGC's Free Web Traffic at http://ophirgoldcorp.blogspot.com