Thursday, September 25, 2014

Return of the Cargo Cult

Please take a few minutes to read this article by By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at

Intellectuals of all persuasions love to claim the banner of science. A vanishing few do so properly.

As usual, my commentary:

There is science, and there is the cult of science. Gobry is not anti-science, he's anti cult of science, and makes the difference rather clear, in a "preaching to the choir" sort of way... meaning, he missed a few spots. But a few spots of rust don't ruin an axe, and the main points are sound.

To many people, magic is indistinguishable from science, and the author's quite on point about that. What I do wish the author had made more clear, though, is that "magic" is in part a metaphor for technology without understanding. Keep in mind Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Too many people seem to believe that because they have and use devices, that they themselves are somehow scientific and advanced, even though to them there is little practical difference between a remote control and a magic wand. Science may lead to technology, but that's not a necessary requirement for either.
For the record, technology refers to techniques (physical and procedural) based on knowledge that may be acquired by science and applied by engineers. In the context being discussed, science is the application of a method. As Wikipedia phrases it, it is "a way of pursuing knowledge". As science is a procedure, it may fairly be described as a technology itself... the technology by which we gain new physical knowledge. But technologies are not science.
I'm underwhelmed by arguments claiming that earlier generations were not as advanced as "we" are, stated by people who readily use that collective pronoun without the slightest indication that they possess any of the "advanced" knowledge to which they would lay claim.  I'm even more underwhelmed by people who believe that if they throw some "sciencey" words like "energy" or "resonance" into a bullshit statement, that it suddenly becomes science. The world is littered with New-Agers who practice this, and who most directly and literally confuse "science" with "magic". I've engaged a few of them on this blog.

I think Gobry errs in his characterization of folks like Dawkins and Tyson. They do not have to be leaders of a science cult in order to be figureheads for the same. I certainly don't believe that either thinks that science is "like magic". However, hordes of their fans seem to. The risk one takes when when attempting to popularize science is that it may be glamorized instead. Popularity without understanding leads to the cargo cult, despite the intent of the figurehead. I don't think the Gobry communicates that clearly, and have no idea if it's one of his beefs. It's one of mine.

Gobry does have a point, though, when pointing out that these scientists are speaking outside of their domain and areas of expertise when discussing matters of religion and philosophy. Tyson, for one, unapologetically has no interest in these subjects. Where they intersect with his show Cosmos, inaccuracies abound.


Be careful not to let politics get in the way of your reading of what was written. For instance, the author doesn't simply state that global warming can't be predicted... rather, it's quite clearly qualified with a 100 year timeframe. This, combined with the fact that he acknowledges the fact of the greenhouse effect (and thus does not deny a global warming trend), communicates that it cannot be done with specificity.

Gobry errs in criticizing scientific predictions because it is "impossible to run an experiment on the year 2114". At least he does admit to fallibility, using "our botched understanding" in the title of the post..
Before we move on we need to understand that there is no fundamental difference between "experimentation" and "observation". An experiment is nothing more than a contrived circumstance set up in order to observe something you're not likely to see naturally. The benefits of an experiment include the fact that the conditions are reproducible and can be tightly controlled to limit the number of alternate explanations of an observation. 
Furthermore, how you phrase a statement is supremely important to your understanding of the subject, and it's routinely done poorly. For instance, you may have heard it said that the average life expectancy in the Middle Ages was 35. This leads you to believe that adults tended to live until age 35, and that's completely wrong. In reality, most people died as infants, but if you made it to 21 and weren't a soldier, you'd probably make it well past 60. It's important to avoid misleading precision.
Gobry also errs in insisting upon experimentation rather than observation, and I'd also argue that his choice of 100 years may be a bit of a straw man, but his larger point is that "scientific" predictions are routinely made with inappropriate specificity. In science this is terrible because it inappropriately communicates a certainty that simply doesn't exist.

And, while you can't experiment on the future, science can certainly make predictions which are tested in the future by observation. Waiting for confirmation of a prediction simply means that the observation isn't over yet. For instance, in 2008, Al Gore did predict that North Polar cap would have completely disappeared as of 2013. This was a mere five-year prediction that was busted by observation. Now, there are reasons for that wrong prediction, but those reasons highlight Gobry's complaint about unpredictability. Anybody can make a prediction. Science is distinguished by the evidentiary basis for its predictions and their accuracy; and broad principles justify only very broad statements. Note that I'm not using Gore as an example to deny climate change... I'm pointing out crappy science. "The greenhouse effect results in globally higher temperatures" is a valid statement. But overly specific claims for systems containing a huge number of variables over a large time span are not.

Politicization of science makes for crappy science. Open inquiry is the heart of science, but when married to politics, "science", bereft of its heart, is used as a baton to shut up dissenters. While "it's settled science" is useful for that purpose, it's bad science, particularly when applied to complex systems. It discourages further inquiries in directions that may achieve significant results. For instance, while it's true that CO2 traps heat, it's also true that the Antarctic glaciers are melting due to volcanism. Today, Slashdot reported a new study that provides an alternate explanation of Pacific Northwest temperatures (do to shifting wind patterns). Knowing the contributory factors may be the difference between taking meaningful action, inappropriate action, or learning that we have no more chance of halting climate change than early humans had of halting the end of the last Ice Age.


Putting a few of these previously discussed points together brings us to Gobry's point about "lab coats". There is the pop-culture view of science as being done by Really Smart People, coupled with a "don't try this at home, kids" mentality.  In reality, "scientists" are not lab coated geniuses with special ninja science skillz. Anyone who inquires about the world and seeks answers using the Scientific Method is a scientist. Anyone..


One of the hallmarks of science is its egalitarian nature. In good science, an idea is evaluated on its own merits, and those are never, ever dependent on the social standing of the body in which the brain that produced the idea is housed. Of course, the observations must be sound, the methodology must be sound, and the conclusions must be logical; but those same constraints apply to every scientist everywhere.

I miss Watch Mr. Wizard. Don Herbert had a simple approach to teaching science that is largely lost on modern wannabes. A child would visit, and he and Herbert would perform some scientific experiments regarding some principle of science. Before the experiment, Herbert would ask questions prompting the child to form a hypothesis. They'd test the hypothesis and revise it as a result of experimentation, and Herbert would follow it up with the generally accepted explanation. He'd limit a show to a few related concepts explored thoroughly. No sillyness. No rat costumes. No rapid-fire shotgunning of concepts without time to reflect. Modern science education shows are strong on show-and-tell of scientific principles, but weak on instruction of science itself. Knowledge is served, not obtained. It is a consumer product.

We glamorize "science" when we should popularize the Scientific Method. There is no intrinsic barrier to science... not even religion. But the Scientific Method is rigorous, and the general public is not. This isn't a lack of capability, but a lack of instruction.

1 comment:

  1. A very good post. Very valid points on climate change and on Tyson.