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You should come to my workplace and tell this to actual scientists, who seem to have no trouble hypothesizing things they are unable to falsify, who pick up methods because "other people are doing this", not because of some underlying epistemological criterion, and whose epistemologically broken hypotheses have no trouble getting published in top-flight journals.

I also object to you saying "better explanation" without defining what that is. What makes something "better"? It's more intellectually satisfying? It feels "right"? It has a lower p-value? The ultimate subjectivity of this criterion, which is really at the root of all scientific endeavor, is why philosophy of science remains so difficult to pin down.

In the end what makes up scientific knowledge is that a bunch of people we call "scientists" approve of it, and pass it on in their writing and speech. Philosophers of science are welcome to come up with theories about how science operates, but I suggest they might benefit from some anthropological approaches, because scientists are sure not reading and applying their philosophy books.




> You should come to my workplace and tell this to actual scientists

I would be happy to do that if your workplace is not too far away and you want to invite me to speak.

> I also object to you saying "better explanation" without defining what that is. What makes something "better"?

The short version of the answer to that is: a superior explanation is one that explains more phenomena with fewer ad hoc assumptions and free parameters. (There are other characteristics of good explanations. For example, they are hard to change without losing their explanatory power. The classic example of a bad explanation that runs afoul of this criterion is Ptolemaic epicycles: why circles? Why not some other shape? It turns out that any shape can actually be used to construct Ptolemaic epicycles because what Ptolemy actually discovered was Fourier analysis, though he didn't realize it at the time.)

The long version of the answer is: read Popper. Or David Deutsch.


The actual scientific establishment at any given time and place is never going to be a 100% pure implementation of scientific ideals.

Some might not be doing science at all, even though it says so on the building and their business cards.


This. And that’s always what these criticisms miss. Science’s strength is that any one individual or even groups of individuals can be bias. That bias might persist (theories of static universe, vitalism, etc etc) for a long time within the scientific community.

But science is the only method that eventually will rut out the biases. It’s self correcting, but you need to look at it from the long view.


>But science is the only method that eventually will rut out the biases. It’s self correcting, but you need to look at it from the long view.

This is just dogmatic nonsense. Absent a mechanism, how does this vaunted self-correction operate? If the individuals that make up the scientific community can't be trusted to be free of bias, and that bias can persist for generations, what, in point of fact, is the mechanism for rejecting it?

The fact is that insight does not emerge from any particular method, and science really has no foolproof way to advance inexorably towards the truth. This is why scientific advancement is frequently stalled - because it isn't fucking foolproof. You can claim otherwise, but you're at odds with both any kind of theoretical basis and with the observed history of science.


> This is just dogmatic nonsense. Absent a mechanism, how does this vaunted self-correction operate?

There is indeed a mechanism. All it takes is a single individual that lacks the bias to develop a competing hypotheses that can be tested through experiment. A single person can take down years of group bias. The reason this is possible is because the scientific method requires evidence and the ability to falsify competing hypothesis. If for instance you went against the current “bias” that now takes Darwinian evolution for a given, and proved your hypothesis with data, then the scientific community would be forced (and indeed would honestly be delighted) to embrace the new understanding.

> This is why scientific advancement is frequently stalled - because it isn't fucking foolproof. You can claim otherwise, but you're at odds with both any kind of theoretical basis and with the observed history of science.

History shows an inexorable march forward in understanding the universe brought about via the scientific method. At no point in the history of the scientific method has this been reversed. It may be true that advancement stalls out in certain areas, but that’s to be expected. No other method has ever shown anything close to the scientific methods ability to understand how the universe actually functions.

Any given hypothesis, any given experiment, any given consensus is not “foolproof”. But the scientific method over the long run is indeed “foolproof”, because ultimately data and it’s ability to falsify hypothesis will always overturn mistakes.

“I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved, as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.” — Charles Darwin


>History shows an inexorable march forward in understanding the universe brought about via the scientific method. At no point in the history of the scientific method has this been reversed.

Again, this is just dogma. Science is frequently wrong and sometimes remains wrong for decades. You can say "well eventually someone will correct it, and we'll be open to that possibility", but that is JUST DOGMA. It is not incontrovertible or inexorable.

As for "at no point in history has this been reversed", let's take a few simple examples. One good one is the recent serotonin theory of depression, which enjoyed a good run and racked up a few billion in drug sales before evidence began to accumulate that it is wrong. That is a reversal; people introduced a faulty theory and proceeded with it for decades. Even if we accept that Kirsch and others are overturning this, it was STILL WRONG for a long time.

Or let's take another prominent recent example: fat. For decades we were told that eating fat is bad for you and causes obesity, but sugar was okay. This is all garbage science that persisted because (1) people were incentivized to look the other way and (2) the epistemology was weak.

Or let's take decades of bad science on female physiology that persisted merely because science was controlled by men who were uninterested in women's health. This didn't change because of some self-correcting mechanism in science, it changed because feminism resulted in women taking up the role.

>No other method has ever shown anything close to the scientific methods ability to understand how the universe actually functions.

This is not the question under issue, and obviously if I really felt otherwise I wouldn't be doing science every day. But I don't believe there are foolproof 'scientific methods' that give us an ability to understand anything, there is just our commitment to observation and examining evidence. That is it. We do NOT have a foolproof epistemology.

Where this becomes especially important is where our epistemology is weakest. Nutrition and psychology are good candidates because (1) what we are trying to examine is poorly understood in the first place and (2) we lack good methodologies for dissecting the underlying questions.

In general biology is not as tractable as physics, which is governed by fundamental physical laws that can be modeled using a few parameters. Biological complexity is much greater and can't be attacked using the same methods - you can't do thought-experiments to figure out how ribosomes operate. The mathematical tools required are mostly statistical and are often inadequate to model the complexity we observe. This means our epistemology just fails most of the time - without the necessary tools we can't generate the insights required, nor can we set up experiments to test the propositions we wish to make.

> ultimately data and it’s ability to falsify hypothesis will always overturn mistakes.

Data has no abilities, and falsification is only possible if you're able to create hypotheses in the first place. Creating a hypothesis requires insight; insight requires human understanding. If humans are unable to grasp the basic concepts at work (e.g., how cytokine cascades modulate immune responses) because they are too complex and are not easily amenable to controlled experiment, we can't do "science" to move ahead on these problems.


Your examples are headline understandings of science, and not how science actually progresses. Science has an issue with public perception of how it functions, hence when knew data demonstrates that old hypothesis were incomplete or indeed wrong, people like you say “See, the scientific method doesn’t work” when in fact these are beautiful examples of how science progresses.

New understandings of the “serotonin theory of depression” for instance, which is more accurately termed “monoamine hypothesis of depression” does not mean that science doesn’t work.

Science makes the best of what data is available. Monamines like serotonin substantial impact the course of clinical depression. Current understanding via the scientific method reveals that early hypothesis don’t explain everything. This is a refinement. It does not discount the effects of SSRIs it other antidepressants which currently help millions of people. Could we do better once we have a more complete picture of depression. Yes. And the scientific method is how we will get there.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity updated Newton’s laws of physics. Was Newton and the scientific method wrong? No, he simply didn’t have all the data, and the scientific method allowed us to refine those hypothesis.

I urge anyone who has trouble with the scientific method to read Carl Sagan’s fabulous book, Demon Haunted World.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Demon-Haunted_World


>Your examples are headline understandings of science, and not how science actually progresses.

I do science every day. I have done science for all of my adult life, at the best research institutions in America. I have a very intimate understanding of how science works.

My guess from your writing is that you are NOT a scientist, you're an engineer with a deep technical education. You have learned a lot of science but you don't spend much time actually doing it. In point of fact science is a culture; its practitioners are subject to all sorts of weaknesses, moral and rational, that end up in its method.

Let me give you an example from my field - my current PI invented CTLA4 blockade, a cancer immunotherapy, in 1996. His PhD advisor, Jim Allison, just won the Nobel Prize for this work. Since about 2014 people have become interested in immunotherapy following several successful new therapies, but it was largely ignored since 1996 - why? Because the cancer establishment wasn't interested. People who wished to study the immune component of cancer were shunned or ridiculed, and what is now an entire field was reduced to a rump study of the "tumor microenvironment" that could never receive funding.

Why is it receiving funding now? Because drug companies are interested now that there are successful therapies on the market. The actual scientific evidence, meanwhile, was produced a generation ago.

What this means is that whatever epistemology is at work in "science" is not merely evidence-driven, it's subject to all sorts of human foibles, being done by humans.


Your story is a shining example of the scientific method. It sucks it took so long. But that’s the whole point of science. Those human foibles are unavoidable. But in the end the science won out.

I guess I’m not sure what you are arguing? Science has to contend with human bias. Any method has to. That’s not going away. Isn’t it still the best method we have, short of altering humanity?


P.S.

I’m always tickled pink at people who like to debate the validity of the Scientific Method online. You do realize that the scientific method is what made your computer and the the internet possible, right? The insights in physics, chemistry, etc. Everything that involves the behavior of electrons in things like semiconductors relies on quantum mechanics.

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Semiconductor#Ear...


Yes? Jesus i hate this argument. You realize people were inventing devices long before they had science, right? You realize that making transistors says nothing about your ability to make valid claims about psychology, right? Having understood one principle does not mean you can understand anything.


This argument doesn’t jive with the facts that the scientific method was required for us to have computers. It’s a simple fact, which you can read about. The complexity of solid state physics meant that early electronics had issues that couldn’t be resolved until a complete understanding of quantum mechanics was made.

Also making transistors doesn’t have to say anything about psychology. The field stands on its own. So does the advance of medicine and psychology via the scientific method.

“We can try nearly futile psychoanalytic talk therapy on the schizophrenic patient, or we can give him 300 to 500 milligrams a day of clozapine. The scientific treatments are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives.” — Carl Sagan


>“We can try nearly futile psychoanalytic talk therapy on the schizophrenic patient, or we can give him 300 to 500 milligrams a day of clozapine. The scientific treatments are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives.” — Carl Sagan

This is a particularly bad example; clozapine is not much of a treatment, it is just a tranquilizer. It doesn't cure schizophrenics, it chemically lobotomizes them. When the tranquilizers stop, psychosis resumes. This work also didn't really come out of scientific studies, it came out of the system of mental institutions, and it isn't really about treating disease, it's about controlling and successfully institutionalizing mental patients.

As for science, schizophrenia has remained stubbornly intractable to it, because science keeps looking for things like brain abnormalities (finding none in decades of searching - other than the stunting that results from long-term use of neuroleptics), since this is what it is able to operate on epistemologically. Meanwhile, outcomes for schizophrenics are actually WORSE in terms of recovery in the developed world than in the developing world, probably because of the use of antipsychotics, discussed here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mad-in-america/20100....

In other words, this is a domain where it is pretty clear that the scientific establishment has bit the big one, and alternative treatments based on things more like talking therapy (e.g. Soteria houses) and understanding schizophrenics as requiring stability, empathy, etc., rather than chemical tranquilizers, are more likely to be promising.

What's especially damaging here is the attitude of superiority, that "science knows best", that it has already understood something better, that whatever science is doing is implicitly better. This sort of arrogance is purely dogmatic, and leads to error. I seriously suggest you abandon it.


> In other words, this is a domain where it is pretty clear that the scientific establishment has bit the big one, and alternative treatments based on things more like talking therapy (e.g. Soteria houses) and understanding schizophrenics as requiring stability, empathy, etc., rather than chemical tranquilizers, are more likely to be promising.

How will you evaluate if these alternate therapies are effective? You'll have to use the scientific method to research whether your alternative methods result in better outcomes for patients. Otherwise its just faith or some other nonsense.

Also, you're conflating a current treatment (clozapine) with the scientific method. The scientific method does not dictate that treatments need be pharmaceutical. Just that your treatment efficacy, whether its talking, empathy, Chinese herbs, etc etc, is evaluated via facts that can falsify your treatment hypothesis.

Again, science is not a straight line up. It has hiccups, it makes mistakes. But rigorously apply the scientific method (analyse the data of schizophrenia treatment in detail, accept the facts, revise understanding, challenge the current dogma), and eventually you'll come to a better understanding.


First, I appreciate the debate here, and don't take anything personally. Hopefully you feel the same.

So here you cite an article that uses the scientific method to determine if the current medical guidelines for care of schizophrenia could be better. The takeaway from the article is not to abandon science in the care of those with schizophrenia, but to better apply the data that current treatment has provided.

New hypothesis: blanket use of clozapine has worse outcomes Data: comparing countries with lower use versus higher Result: skepticism and the scientific method opens new areas of research into the treatment of schizophrenia

So I still don't understand your argument.

It really seems like you are arguing that people make mistakes, they are bias, and they often can take the results of science as some holy word and ignore new data that conflicts with their beliefs

That is all TRUE, and I wouldn't argue against that. But that is a result of poor education of science, even within the scientific community. Being a scientist does not insulate one from anything, even a lack of understanding of how the scientific method should function.

The answer isn't to abandon the scientific method. It's to educate people, scientist or layperson, about what science really provides.

It doesn't provide ultimate truths that are unquestionable. It doesn't result in anything close to perfect understanding that is mistake free. There is no superiority, that "science knows best". Instead science is humble and says the results of the scientific method are ALWAYS open to revision in the face of conflicting data.

As Carl Sagan says, the scientific method only says the following:

"First: There are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised."

Science, and the results of the scientific method are not sacred truths. If that is your argument, then we agree. Arguments from scientists based on them being scientists (from authority) are worthless. If these biases are encountered within the scientific community (which honestly they must be, since we are all human) the solution is more rigorous application of the scientific method, and better education on how the scientific method functions. Not abandonment of science.

"We accepted the products of science; we rejected its methods." --Carl Sagan


My argument is that basically all of what Sagan says is wrong.

The argument from authority is paramount in science; in fact it is the entire basis of the scientific enterprise. This is why it is important for you to ridicule other ways of knowing, as you did above ("You'll have to use the scientific method to research whether your alternative methods result in better outcomes for patients. Otherwise its just faith or some other nonsense."), implying that there are no other valid or useful epistemologies besides science. Of course this is not true, because the vast majority of people are not scientists, and yet are able to gain useful knowledge about the world without making use of "scientific methods".

You have continually asserted that all it takes to reject incorrect scientific knowledge is for one person to show up with new observations controverting a theory. But this is not true; it is not sufficient for you to do an experiment showing X to be false or Y to be true - because science produces knowledge by consensus. The basic requirement of science, above all else, is that your result must be peer-reviewed. That is it; there are no requirements of method, no statistical thresholds that must be crossed, no rules about the kinds of evidence that are admissible. The entry of your experiment into the domain of science requires you to cross this threshold. Even after that your experiment faces further review and scrutiny from members of your community.

This immediately means there is an important social dimension to doing science, based on a principle of authority: who gets to do peer review? The answer is: those who have been accorded respect by the community of scientists.

What this means is that powerful scientists are gatekeepers on what is considered to be "true" according to science. It is their judgement that determines what is scientifically valid and invalid, above and beyond the evidence. In general we expect that these people are correctly motivated and believe ideologically in the project of science, are good moral actors, scrupulous, etc. - but all of these things must be true in order for science to succeed.

Without this foundation of authority, science has no mechanism for validating evidence, which, unfortunately, is not self-evident. It is up to these people, and their judgment, to make the determination that some hypothetical is consistent or inconsistent with the facts - that is, whether something is true. It has been observed many times that this can hold up the progress of science.

And, to underscore, this is the extent of the scientific method. There are no rules for what the reviewer must do; they are merely handed a paper, told to critique it, and their determinations are handed back for further argumentation. The bounds of the disputation are up to the disputants. What this means is that the actual epistemology (how we decide "what is true") is continually shifting. One might summarize this by saying that the "scientific method" at any given moment consists of the set of instruments (physical or conceptual) that the community of scientists brings to bear on a problem. Right now there is a vogue of meta-analysis papers; meanwhile, multiple-test correction didn't even exist before 1960.

This is just a taste, I'm not really prepared to develop what should be a book-length argument in a HN comment, but it indicates basically what I am saying: there is a lot, lot more to the "scientific method" than falsificationism can present to us, and the sociological dimension of scientific knowledge is equally important to understand, but underappreciated by people like Popper.

Most of my thinking here has been shaped by two books, both seminal works: one is "Leviathan and the Air-Pump" by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer; the other is "Against Method" by Paul Feyerabend. I recommend you read them both.


Using words like "inexorably towards the truth" makes it sound like you're conflating "scientific truth" (which is a progressively less distorted view of reality facilitated by actual measurements and vigorous competition among competing explanations) with "religious truth" or "philosophical truth" which are much more difficult to pin down.


That's generally right. However, a non-trivial number of well-educated, scientifically minded persons do not take a long enough view. A possible explanation: it is difficult for humans to care about research timelines that may or may not be longer than the average human life. Maybe it's some sociological theory X, and you think, "well, yeah, X has some kinks, but they should be worked out within the next decade or so." In reality, you should essentially have no attachment to said theory. And in reality, far too many people have attachments to one or more theories that have yet to be proved out fully, and could be proved out fully in a decade/century/etc. or worse... never proved out at all.

In the case of currently 'proved out' (whatever we take that to mean) theories, a non-trivial number of persons have excessive attachment to one or more of them, since, taking a long view, said theories could be overturned or reinterpreted, etc.




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