Posts Tagged ‘Theory

16
Oct
11

Saints and Science

The Roman Catholic Church (and others similarly, I believe) has a system for designating a hierarchical status of Sainthood – and various lesser beatified statuses – to deceased notables.

The Scientific Method, which has produced vast changes and improvements in knowledge and the human condition, is a rather different system. The following is a brief (especially for including just one aspect of the Scientific Method) comparison and contrast of the two systems.

The system for canonizing (a higher step in beatification) a Roman Catholic Saint is formal and specific. Well, sorta specific. The position of ‘Promoter of the Faith‘ has disappeared and is replaced by the ‘Promoter of Justice‘. These positions ostensibly have the same function – to provide evidence against a candidate’s canonization – but very different procedures. Now, skeptical or contradictory evidence is considered only if church authorities are in the mood.

The net process for achieving Sainthood is, essentially: (1) die (2) be popular with a bishop who can make a convincing case for your coolness (heroic virtue) ; this gets you on the ‘OK to pray to‘ list (3) get lucky enough that a sick person (or other person in need of supernatural intervention) prays to you for healing, instead of praying to an actual Saint or to the all-powerful God of the Universe (4) get luckier, so that the sick person claims that a prayer to you has healed them ; this is irrespective of any medical treatment they received (5) get so terrifically lucky that the sick person was not so horribly ill as to die (6) get lucky all over again with another person in need of supernatural intervention.

The Roman Catholic Church will examine these fortuitous events according to these generalized criteria: (1) is the candidate dead? (check!) (2) did someone pray to the candidate for something to happen? (check!) (3) did that something happen? (check!) (4) did someone else pray to the candidate for something to happen? (check!) (3) did that something happen? (check!). That makes a Saint.

The Roman Catholic Church will NOT examine these fortuitous events according to these generalized criteria: (1) did lots (thousands? millions?) of people pray to the candidate for something to happen? (2) did those somethings not happen? (3) did lots (thousands? millions?) of people pray to non-Catholic, or even non-Christian, dead persons for something to happen? (4) did those somethings happen without benefit of Church sponsorship? (5) did the two somethings that did happen, happen for non-supernatural reasons (medicine, human intervention, a generous donor)?

Quite a system they’ve got there, there in that Roman Catholic Church. Hell, folks could pray to Dusty Cat (may he rest in peace), have nice things happen, and the Holy See wouldn’t consider his feline soul to be beatified. It should – no real, substantial difference there. Dusty’s soul was beautiful, though.

Science is a bit less hierarchical. It can be political and competitive, but such is not always a detraction. In fact, as with the Free Enterprise System, competition is good.

The Scientific Method is fundamentally the opposite of beatification. Beatification seeks proof. Hey, we all want proof, right? It’s what we are evolved to seek – a correlation such as ‘eat red stuff, get sick‘ or ‘prayer, then healed‘. The Scientific Method instead seeks falsification.

Prior to the Scientific Method, science was not terribly different from beatification. The result was that it was subject to ‘false positives‘ – favorable results that were unrelated to the supposed cause. It too often ignored contradictory evidence. Vast amounts of work were wasted on alchemy, which really went out of its way to ignore negative results. You couldn’t falsify an alchemist’s pet supposition or belief.

All that sort of b.s. diminished to a tiny remnant when science began to depend on falsifiability. Gee, sometimes science falsifies falsifications! It has become absolutely insistent on only accepting results which have survived many attempts at falsification. In fact, even after a scientific theory – we don’t use the word ‘Law‘ any more – is accepted as ‘true’ (good enough for practical work), Science still re-checks periodically. The recent news from CERN‘s OPERA experiment regarding superluminal neutrinos is the latest example. CERN’s press release (not a peer-reviewed article claiming a reliable result) indicated the possiblility (with reservations noted) of neutrinos moving faster than the Cosmic Speed Limit – the speed of light. Everyone suspected a systematic error, and, by golly, there was one. But scientists always try. Newton (you know – the guy with the apple and that Law) needed some correction, and Einstein might get some too!

We owe modern life and the accelerating progress of knowledge to the Scientific Method. As for deceased Saints causing actual miracles, “Paris Hilton will win the Nobel Prize for Physics before that happens.

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18
Feb
11

The Myth of Special Data

Pick your favorite topic of anti-scientific gobbledy-gook. There is, invariably, a component that is little discussed. The anti-science crowd (even if a small minority, it’s still a pile of addled folks) often argues that the scientific data for a certain theory* (evolution, anthropogenic global warming – AGW, etc.) is flawed or mis-interpreted. That seems to laymen to be a reasonable approach to criticism of scientific findings – they think that each theory has its own special data which supports that theory.

That is false.

*Theorynoun ; a firmly-established scientific principle, having acknowledgement of validity by the consensus ultra-majority of scientists in that field of speciality ; the term used formerly, prior to Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory, was ‘Law‘ ; Example: the Law of Newtonian Gravity was superceded (improved and supplanted) by the General Theory of Relativity.

Scientific theories are like reverse-engineered recipes. And how do scientists reverse-engineer the recipes of nature? Laymen (Sorry to pick on you folks again! But, technically, my B.S. in Physics makes me closer to your status than to scientific standing) might think that scientists grab chunks of nature’s lemon meringue pies and start taste-testing. They (scientists, not laymen) would keep tasting (measuring) and trying things with their samples of lemon meringue pie until its secrets were revealed.

That practice, known as analysis, is a useful and important part of science. It is utterly insufficient to advance scientific knowledge as we do or to explain the progress we have so far achieved. Scientists have a broader perspective. They know that a sharp focus upon the particular is inherently limited. Their research is generalized – the study of ALL desserts could, and definitely does, facilitate scientific progress in researching a specific dessert (lemon meringue pie?). Furthermore, the study of baked goods, which includes a significant portion of the dessert category, ultimately has applicability to a specific dessert (lemon meringue pie?). The study of foamed recipes, which includes a significant portion of the dessert category, ultimately has applicability to a specific dessert (lemon meringue pie!).

The result of scientific research that is generalized is that our knowledge is highly interdependent. The principles (including the acme of principles – the Theory) discovered are not specific to only a narrow range of examples. There are no scientists who have discovered only the recipe for lemon meringue pie. A strong general scientific foundation provides explanatory power for a wide range of subjects – such as for all baked, egg-based foods.

There are scientists who research foods, but the food analogy was utilized as an introduction to specific issues from anti-science.

Anti-science folks discuss their issues (and boy, do they have issues!) with the implicit** assumption that there are special data regarding a particular disliked scientific theory. That is, they assume that there is specific data that is relevant mostly only to evolutionary theory, or to AGW, or to vaccine safety, etc. They attack what they suppose to be the ‘special data’ with the belief that its refutation will dispose of a disliked theory while not affecting other science significantly.

**Implicit for some (I think most), but there are those  who make it explicit. They are utterly fixated upon their single unassailable Authority, and they don’t even want friendly visitors ruffling their superstitious feathers. They are so perverse that, to quote Johnny Kaje, “… attacking all of science, for most of these folks, is a feature, not a bug.” Yeah, ALL.

They (the folks who don’t quite dis-respect 100% of science) utterly fail to comprehend the web of knowledge that ties every scientific theory to vast numbers of strands of knowledge. Those ice cores, reviled for the data they offer regarding AGW, also support our scientific understanding of geology, biological evolution, and astrophysics. If anti-science folks were correct in their criticisms of ice core data, giant swaths of science would crumble – not just the one theory of AGW.

That interdependence of scientific research could, if anti-science folks were correct, have extremely personal consequences for most of us. Do you have an inkling of an idea about how many of the important medicines are developed? It escapes most laymen that the ‘special data’ which supports biological evolution also guides medical researchers in developing medicines. Yes, they sometimes find medicines by ‘screening’ – simply trying stuff. Much, even more, medical research is derived from such ‘special data’ that also supports biological evolution.

If an omnipotent being were to decree (Ken Ham’s dream) the anti-science position about evolution’s ‘special data’ to be correct, then an immense array of modern medicines would stop working.

Since most of the anti-science folks have strong influences from their religious beliefs, I recommend to them that they avail themselves of the possibility that I just described. If their Supreme Being is all-powerful, there is no need of haggling with school textbook committees. They should beseech their Supreme Being to make – what they ‘know’ to be true about certain disliked scientific theories – true for all of nature.

They had just best not expect their Viagra to work the next day.




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Basic Understanding

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
- Edward R. Murrow

Intellectual Property Notice

All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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