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The Limits of Science

I have watched with fascination, as no doubt many of you have, the development of the debate on climate change. It is strange that science, promoted by its major adherents as being objective, dispassionate (and using that awful but now ubiquitous term) “evidenced based” could result in such subjective, passionate and unsubstantiated claims by both the believers and the deniers in the debate.

The study of the mind has drawn to our attention some of the most compelling evidence for the existence of a wide range of unconscious processes that are extremely powerful. They impact both on how we behave and how we think. Scientists, like the rest of us are fallible, often insensible to their own mythology, prone to unwitting (and even occasionally quite deliberate) bias in what they do. In their work, their enterprise is the honourable one of trying to observe the world in a way that is relatively free of bias unconsciously manifested from their own personal hopes and fears. Unfortunately when we have committed a large part of our lives to something, be it a theory, a process or a body of knowledge, we have a vested interest in ensuring such things are not challenged. Our beliefs in these things become part of who we are. It is a huge trauma to then be deprived of something that we believe underpins our sense of self.

We are reliant on scientists, philosophers, mystics and poets to keep society from being lulled into a false sense of complacency. We need their challenging ideas to continue with the advance of society. We need to have them to keep reminding us of our unfounded assumptions and our taken-for-granted popular misconceptions. We need to be prompted every now and then to remember that much of what we believe is based on human constructions and not timeless and absolute truths.

However there is an attendant danger.

Guy Claxton wrote:

“Sometimes, in a temporary fit of grandiosity (succumbing to one of the pervasive myths about science itself) these people offer their researches and their theories as if they were ‘reality’. They become mesmerized by the siren’s song of Ultimate Truth and Unified Theories of Everything, forgetting that the best they can do is offer a view that works perhaps just a little better, and which recaptures a part of the inscrutable whole that the previous dominant myth had excluded.”

The prevailing orthodox approach to science was enunciated by Karl Popper in the 1930’s. Popper’s philosophy of science is dependent on the notion of falsifiability. He stated that there was no reason for example to prove that the sun will rise every day but if it does not rise on some particular day then the theory will be falsified (that is, proven to be untrue).

One of Popper’s most influential critics was Thomas S Kuhn. Kuhn published a hugely important book which he titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argued that scientists were not in fact particularly objective, but, as we intimated above, were normally supporting one scientific paradigm or another. They tend to discount data that conflicts with their chosen paradigm and emphasise that which supports it. (I suspect you have seen some evidence of this in the climate change debate!)

Critics of Popper have pointed out that it is almost impossible to falsify an hypothesis, for example, like “for every metal there is a temperature at which it will melt.” We are limited by technical constraints by the temperatures we can subject the substance to. We can subject the substance to the highest temperature we can produce and not have the substance melt. However we have no idea what might have happened if we could have achieved a higher temperature.

One of Popper’s students, Paul Feyeraband reputedly said, “The Philosophy of Science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds!”

Nevertheless, whilst I believe we are largely dealing with Kuhn’s issues of paradigms here, it is almost impossible to utilise the notion of falsifiability in the climate change debate. To begin with climate effects are hugely complex. They are currently dealt with using complex models based on chaos theory. Because climate change is necessarily about deviations from long term cycles the evidence isn’t compelling because the data we have at hand is reasonably short term.

So what are we to make of all this? We have a highly complex system under surveillance. The science is at best uncertain. There are many vested interests, those protecting scientific paradigms as well as those promoting political positions. The impacts are long term and our evidence is reasonably short term. The difficulty we are facing is that the worst predictions have dire consequences.

If we can’t be guided decisively by our scientists, is it time to consult our mystics, philosophers and poets? (Perhaps we could do worse!)

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  1. 11 Comment(s)

  2.   By Greg Brown on Feb 16, 2010 | Reply

    There are so many miss-quotes of Einstein that it is hard to know what he actually did say. One I did read and liked was a statement he made in the form of an apology to Sir Isaac Newton for disproving his theories of motion. He then went on to say that no number of experiments could prove his own theory of relativity correct but any one experiment could prove it wrong. I expect it is only a matter of time before this is the case.

    Science is a tough business. In its purest form it is a ruthless search for truth. From my observation the great scientists of the past, tended to be very introverted (I suspect many mildly autistic), had amazing passion or obsession and worked long hours for little or no pay. When great breakthroughs occurred they also seemed to prefer the laboratory to the conference stage.

    I am convinced good scientists are still out there searching for truths and still discovering them. Fortunately we don’t burn them at the stake any more for challenging accepted norms but we do tend to promote the ones that fit in with what we want to hear and try to discredit the rest. This certainly motivates a lot to conform to what society expects. Public ridicule or a good burning at the stake gets pretty much the same societal conformity. In a lot of ways not a whole heap has changed since the dark ages.

  3.   By a savage on Feb 16, 2010 | Reply

    Not to oversimplify a complex issue, but perhaps one aspect of the solution is, simply, simplicity.
    In observing my own experiences and feelings and interactions with the world, the things that feel destructive are always the things associated with over consumption, status anxiety, desire for material things…and these are the things that are driving climate change. So, by our connectedness, what is destructive on a miniscule scale is destructive on a universal scale (and multiplied when the scale of the miniscule destruction is massive, by the participation of our whole planet in consuming excessively or seeking to consume more excessively).
    This also makes me think more about last week’s blog on the demise of the family. My parents fondly tell similar stories of their childhoods, dirt poor by today’s standards but delightfully muddied in happiness. If you look at household debt in Australia, we are actually more dirt poor than people have ever been (a recent article on this is available at: http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/money/story/0,26844,26529653-5015825,00.html). Today we just have more credit to buy the things we don’t need to preoccupy ourselves with passtimes that distract us from the things that matter, like family, community, and what we might give today rather than what we might get (or for many anxious consumers lately, what we might lose).

  4.   By Phil Harker on Feb 16, 2010 | Reply

    Enjoyed your take on this subject Ted, as it reminded me of a couple of old sayings that came to me early in life and that seem to apply to all who find themselves in the human condition; “the mind can’t see what the heart won’t accept” and “the heart has reasons the mind knows not of”. Some scientists, perhaps not enough, do indeed recognise that at its core science is just as much dependant upon ‘faith’ in its basic assumptions as any other ‘belief system’. The search for objective truth, however, is probably a bit like the search for the Holy Grail – strongly believed to actually exist but ever out of reach. Perhaps this is because ‘truth’ is itself never really objective.

    I recently came across a very well written passage to this effect by Paulos Mar Gregorios and thought you and your readers may find it of value:

    “Truth is a quest, not a concept, not an idea or a proposition. And it is not a question for something objectively given; neither is it a quest for knowledge in the narrow sense. Truth is a state of being rather than a statement of fact. Truth is being without falsehood, light without admixture of darkness. Truth is what is, not what is stated.

    What is stated above is not truth. It is a personal affirmation about truth, which needs validation. Such validation would not be of truth itself, but only of a proposition about truth. Truth itself does not stand in need of validation, but is self-certifying. Truth provides its own validation. Propositions about truth may be valid or invalid. A valid proposition about truth can be a help in the quest, but is itself not the object of the quest. The object is a state of being, a state of being properly grounded and established in the truth, beyond all subject-object dualism, and beyond the threefold distinction of knower, known, and knowledge.”

    Gregorios, Paulos Mar. (1992). A light too bright: the enlightenment today : an assessment of the values of the European enlightenment and a search for new foundations / Paulos Mar Gregorios., Albany : State University of New York Press.pp.154—155

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  5.   By Bruno Bertolo on Feb 17, 2010 | Reply

    The scientists of today are no different than in previous ages; they seek to expand the pool of knowledge. Some do it well; some get it wrong. As Phil notes, truth is not an absolute and even knowledge (not to be confused with truth) evolves over time.

    As a teenager I was bemused by my chemistry teacher who pointed out that when she was a student the smallest particle was an atom; but went on to say that science had determined the existence of protons, neutrons and electrons and that these were the definitive particles of the universe. Sure enough, neutrinos were discovered a few years later and now of course there are many more sub atomic particles known to mankind.

    That said, I don’t think science has lost any of it’s value or credibility. Throughout history mankind has developed knowledge about our world that improves out lot: the ability to smelt metals, build ships, grow food, create medicine, harness the electron. These changes have given us the opportunity to move up the hierarchy of needs and spend time writing articles on the internet about the nature of our existence.

    We might have concerns today about the veracity of climate change science which will seem simple in 100 years when the “chaff has been separated from the wheat” and climate science is well understood. Imagine what it might have been like hearing about Galileo on the evening news talking about the earth revolving around the sun. How will we be viewed but our more knowledgeable descendants.

    I don’t think it’s an “either, or” debate. Science versus Spirituality. Each informs the other. Religion has long been used to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. This gap remains as large today as ever. With each advance in understanding of the complexity of our universe comes the irresistible urge to seek out a “god” to explain what our minds cannot understand. Religions that hold fast to ancient doctrine do not serve us well. Our spiritual search must be as vital and urgent as our science. Consulting mystics, philosophers and poets may well be a good start. If we are at disadvantage, it’s that our community doesn’t prepare us well for spiritual growth but rather favours indoctrination into “faith”.

    This, in my mind, doesn’t diminish either but requires us, as a species, to continue to grow, to learn, to evolve, to continue the quest for truth.

  6.   By Paul Chippendale on Feb 17, 2010 | Reply

    In respect of climate change–I don’t think it matters whether their models are accurate or completely wrong. What matters is how they are advocating we should behave–i.e. in harmony with the planet rather than exploiting it–common sense says the latter is not sustainable. I Like Saul’s book, “The Unconscious Society.” In it he emphasises the role of common sense in our decision making.

  7.   By Father Robin on Feb 17, 2010 | Reply

    Never forget Y2k.

  8.   By Father Robin on Feb 17, 2010 | Reply

    Scaremongerers are the squeeky wheels that get oiled.

  9.   By Father Robin on Feb 17, 2010 | Reply

    Check with your local paper for details.

  10.   By Father Robin on Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

    ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind’ So Einstein once wrote to explain his personal creed: ‘A religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance of those super-personal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation’ His was not a life of prayer and worship. Yet he lived by a deep faith – a faith not capable of rational foundation – that there are laws of Nature to be discovered. His lifelong pursuit was to discover them. His realism and his optimism are illuminated by his remark: ‘Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not’ When asked by a colleague what he meant by that, he replied: ‘Nature hides Her secret because of Her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse’

    ‘Subtle is the Lord… The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein’ Abraham Pais, frontispiece.

  11.   By Michelle on Apr 19, 2010 | Reply

    Not to oversimplify a complex issue, but perhaps one aspect of the solution is, simply, simplicity.
    In observing my own experiences and feelings and interactions with the world, the things that feel destructive are always the things associated with over consumption, status anxiety, desire for material things…and these are the things that are driving climate change. So, by our connectedness, what is destructive on a miniscule scale is destructive on a universal scale (and multiplied when the scale of the miniscule destruction is massive, by the participation of our whole planet in consuming excessively or seeking to consume more excessively).
    This also makes me think more about last week’s blog on the demise of the family. My parents fondly tell similar stories of their childhoods, dirt poor by today’s standards but delightfully muddied in happiness. If you look at household debt in Australia, we are actually more dirt poor than people have ever been (a recent article on this is available at: http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/money/story/0,26844,26529653-5015825,00.html). Today we just have more credit to buy the things we don’t need to preoccupy ourselves with passtimes that distract us from the things that matter, like family, community, and what we might give today rather than what we might get (or for many anxious consumers lately, what we might lose).

  12.   By Simon on Apr 27, 2010 | Reply

    The scientists of today are no different than in previous ages; they seek to expand the pool of knowledge. Some do it well; some get it wrong. As Phil notes, truth is not an absolute and even knowledge (not to be confused with truth) evolves over time.

    As a teenager I was bemused by my chemistry teacher who pointed out that when she was a student the smallest particle was an atom; but went on to say that science had determined the existence of protons, neutrons and electrons and that these were the definitive particles of the universe. Sure enough, neutrinos were discovered a few years later and now of course there are many more sub atomic particles known to mankind.

    That said, I don’t think science has lost any of it’s value or credibility. Throughout history mankind has developed knowledge about our world that improves out lot: the ability to smelt metals, build ships, grow food, create medicine, harness the electron. These changes have given us the opportunity to move up the hierarchy of needs and spend time writing articles on the internet about the nature of our existence.

    We might have concerns today about the veracity of climate change science which will seem simple in 100 years when the “chaff has been separated from the wheat” and climate science is well understood. Imagine what it might have been like hearing about Galileo on the evening news talking about the earth revolving around the sun. How will we be viewed but our more knowledgeable descendants.

    I don’t think it’s an “either, or” debate. Science versus Spirituality. Each informs the other. Religion has long been used to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. This gap remains as large today as ever. With each advance in understanding of the complexity of our universe comes the irresistible urge to seek out a “god” to explain what our minds cannot understand. Religions that hold fast to ancient doctrine do not serve us well. Our spiritual search must be as vital and urgent as our science. Consulting mystics, philosophers and poets may well be a good start. If we are at disadvantage, it’s that our community doesn’t prepare us well for spiritual growth but rather favours indoctrination into “faith”.

    This, in my mind, doesn’t diminish either but requires us, as a species, to continue to grow, to learn, to evolve, to continue the quest for truth.

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