The reach of science…

Posted on January 14, 2011


“Life is a series of collisions with the future.” Gasset

Peter: ” So Professor, you’re saying that the arm of science is kinda short – that it  can’t reach very far into the future. You’re also saying that its fingers are too clumsy to pick up all the evidence within it’s reach. So we’ll always have to fill in the gaps with theories, beliefs, hunches, biases. In short we’ll always have to rely on faith-based reasoning to build bridges where science can’t go, to places where we collide with the future.?”

Jenny: “Wow! There’s a brain hiding inside there after all.”

Professor Wiggly: ” Peter, notice that even though science lacks evidence about the future so can’t provide us with reliable bridges or empirical stepping-stones, humans have done pretty well so far by traveling on faith-based reasoning – on trusted assumptions. Our most trusted assumption is that the future will be like the past – and it works most of the time… except when our lover cheats, or we have a heart attack, or a plane flies into the World Trade Centre, or the economy tanks and we lose our job…. It’s on such occasions that our trusted assumptions, out faith-based reasoning collides with future.”

Jenny: ” I guess the modern marriage ceremony is a classic example of faith-based reasoning. Past experience tells us that what… over half modern marriages fail but we presume ‘not ours’. I guess that’s an example of one of Simon’s emotionally anchored assumptions that run the world.”

Peter: ” What kind of emotionally anchored assumptions do scientists rely on.”

Professor Wiggly:’ Those who study the behavior of scientists would probably say that the so-called ‘scandal of induction‘ is the most common emotionally anchored assumption that scientist rely upon. Induction simply means reaching a conclusion on the basis of incomplete or selected evidence. Science seeks laws but never has access to ALL the evidence (including future evidence) so that all scientific conclusions are always tentative – are open to revision as new evidence emerges. A famous scholar – Karl Popper – pointed that scientist  typically forget this and focus their efforts on collecting evidence supporting their pet theory, rather than trying to disprove it. No amount of positive  evidence proves the theory that  all swans are white. But one bit of negative evidence  – one black swan – disproves it. Popper proposed that scientists stop generating and cherry-picking positive evidence to support their theories – stop practicing the scandal of induction – and spend more time attempting to disprove them. In doing so they would get a clearer picture of the reach of science. Nevertheless it must be said that science tolerates a few deviants who work hard to descredit the hit parade theories of the day by seeking negative evidence – by looking hard for black swans – and thus helps keep science more ‘honest’ than it would otherwise be.”

Jenny: “Can you give us examples of such deviants helping discredit a hit parade theory supported by cherry picked evidendence, sustained by the scandal of induction?”

Professor Wiggly: “Of course. For years the universally accepted theory was that ulcers were caused by stress and spicey foods. A couple of maverick scientists in Australia challenged this ‘truth’ and provided evidence that ulcers were caused by bacteria. For years the scientific community ignored this work, sticking to their emotionally anchored assumptions about stress and spicy foods – supported by the scandal of induction. As happens pet ‘truths’ dies slowly, gradually the new theory gained supporters and finally the Australian scientists were awared the Nobel Prize. As someone once observed science progresses slowly one funeral after another as one old ‘truth’ is buried and a new one is born.”


Posted in: Sciencing