Is Science a Special Interest?

Is science fatally biased? Does it actually constitute a partisan special interest? Should we rightly ignore scientific claims or dismiss them as pseudoscience or a hoax when they or their implications disagree with our political views or religious beliefs?

Not unless reality itself is a partisan special interest, not as I understand it, and I have over the years taken great pains to do just that — To understand science as best a layman can, if nothing else as an educational pursuit.

Science is far from solely the purview of academics, though like any learned skill, it takes training and experience to do well. But anytime you methodically try out an idea in the real world using some reliable observational method, employing these to reach a more accurate view of the outcome, then you’re doing science, even if you do it in a kitchen while microwaving different popcorn brands to compare their kernel popping rates rather than experimenting with test-tubes of exotic chemicals in a lab while wearing a respirator.

But because it’s done by people, and people are flawed, science is messy, imperfect, sometimes prone to error, and with regard to the context of discovery, culturally dependent. But it’s the process of justifying discoveries, not just making them, that best reflects the virtues of science, its universality in the process of testing our hypotheses to see if they really make the cut.

Discovery is all well and good, but a new idea, no matter how revolutionary, must be put to the test, or it is of no use. Science uses methods designed from the bottom up, confidently established by the repeated testing over centuries of accumulated experience to do what it does — to tell us how the natural world works — and it does this better than anything else to date.

It’s the process of justification more so than initial discovery that makes science progressive in its findings, ever closer getting us to a clearer picture of the world.

Science is not itself an ideology, or a belief system, or a philosophical position on the way things are, but is a set of methods, though far from pristine and perfect, the system of values, assumptions and techniques of which work very well when not hobbled by external ideological interference.

Most ideologies by their very nature do not lend themselves well to an objective search for truth, especially those whose doctrines favor, promote, nurture, and exploit the biases of their adherents, especially those whose doctrines involve some form of fact denial, or which fail to acknowledge established facts of human behavior — including the realities of human greed and selfishness…and altruism.

I’ve heard from people I know a view which I think is mistaken, that double-blinding an experiment or study is irrelevant when the researchers involved have a bias or vested interest in the outcome, such as the political or financial implications, of a study they are conducting.

The problem I have with this view, the reason I think it’s mistaken, is that it ignores the whole purpose of blinding studies in the first place, showing an unfortunate lack of understanding of what blinding is and why it’s done.

For those unfamiliar, double-blinding in a nutshell:

Double-blinding is a procedure that involves keeping certain key pieces of information out of the hands of both subjects and experimenters in a study. For instance, it would be used in a medical study testing the safety and effectiveness of a new drug on human patients, in which neither those in the test group nor the control group know which one they are in, and whether they’re taking the real drug or a placebo…

…and most importantly, neither do those directly conducting the study while it’s being carried out.

Because experimenter expectation and bias can unconsciously influence the results of such a study, through the interaction of patients and experimenters and subtle behavioral cues given out and not consciously noticed by either, double-blinding is an essential tool for sidestepping this problem by effectively taking it out of the picture.

Best of all, it works.

Merely criticizing a such a protocol as ineffective by cynically accusing those using it of a suspected vested interest or bias, when this is not only irrelevant to the method used but also not even established, sounds suspiciously like an ad hominem attack or a fallacious appeal to motive.

Sure, you could argue that a given study wasn’t properly blinded, but how would you know?

Without proper grounds from credible experts in that field who’ve looked at the study in question, you’d need the data and the expertise to understand it, full knowledge of scientific methodology, and of access to records of or even direct observation of the conduct of the study yourself before you can rightly make that argument.

In short, you need to have a basis for knowing what you’re talking about. Failing all else, you’d need to be an expert in the field yourself — not a likely prospect without training, knowledge background, and experience.

Any valid argument to that effect requires much more than suspicion of ideological interests, more than just allegations of academic misconduct supported only by, for example, hacked and stolen emails, possibly doctored and posted anonymously online without any real context.

If you don’t like the facts, however politically or theologically inconvenient, it does little good to attack the fact-finders…

…for doing so shows that you can’t tell science from politics or religion.

References —

Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World Through Experience & Reason, by Professor James Hall, via the Teaching Company, 2005

Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, by Steven Novella M.D. via the Teaching Company, 2012

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5 thoughts on “Is Science a Special Interest?

  1. Finally, I organised a WordPress account so I can “like” posts etc. Yay! Go me. I think this post is great (my opinion). I often struggle with this. When people believe things that are so obviously unsupported by the evidence, I wonder if I should say my piece or let them believe as they like. I don’t like to see my friends and family falling for “snake oil”, especially at the cost of such things. However, I feel that sometimes my “evidence” talks are not well recieved and then I’m just seen as being difficult. So often I hold my tongue these days. Sad, I know.

    Like

  2. Fringe science believers like to mock the errors of science and scientists. To fringers, this proves science is a sham, therefore the fringe science is the true science.

    But I’ve noticed over the years a major difference: science retracts its errors and fringe science does not. This is not perfectly done, of course, but there is a process in place.

    Retraction watch reports on retractions in scientific journals. It’s a good education in human error but also in deceit, of how people will put their personal interests ahead of the common good — and how they get caught.

    http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/

    Science papers can be retracted if other scientists cannot reproduce results. Often, the original researchers will be asked to produce their raw data for review; if they can’t, or won’t provide it, the paper is pulled.

    Here’s how it’s done in fringe science:

    In Flying Saucers from Outer Space (1953), Donald Keyhoe reported a sighting of aliens by Joseph Rohrer in Colorado. Keyhoe never contacted Rohrer, he got the story from newspaper wire services. James Moseley interviewed Rohrer shortly after reading Keyhoe’s book. Rohrer explained he had given a short series of humourous talks about saucers — he showed Moseley his lecture notes — which included an obviously false sighting. It seems a local reporter wrote up the story without understanding the mocking nature of the presentation. The paper later published a retraction but Keyhoe might not have been aware of this.
    This is a classic case of a believer finding the evidence he likes — and he stops looking.
    But it gets better. Moseley reported his findings to Keyhoe:
    “During our brief June 1954 meeting, [Keyhoe] said he realized his error ‘right after I okayed the book proofs, when it was too late to make changes.’ Yet, as far as I know, no correction was made in the numerous later printings and paperback editions of Flying Saucers From Outer Space.”
    James Moseley and Karl Pflock, Shockingly Close to the Truth! (2002), pp 90-91.

    Like

  3. Sorry I haven’t been commenting. I’ve been crushed with work/research for several months.

    There is a hazy plan for me to be on a podcast this summer to discuss alien abduction, but that’s all I’ll say because I’ve blown several deadlines already. (Hate making false promises.) But I will say that whenever — if ever — I lay out my findings, I’ll send you a note.

    Like

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