Why many scientists are so ignorant

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by Magical Realist, Mar 10, 2016.

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  1. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Yazata I agree with you about the so-called scientific method. We were never really taught this, or not under that name. We WERE taught to record our observations in a methodical fashion in practical work. And by implication we were invited to think what theory could account for our observations. But that is about it.

    Like you, I suspect, I cringe when I see "The Scientific Method" capitalised, as if to imply that the way scientists approach a problem is somehow via a special reasoning technique.

    There is, it seems to me, a basic reasoning process in science involving a feedback loop between observation and hypothesis, but I don't think there is any rule or guide as to which comes first or how one leads to the other. I think it is also worth noting that creativity is important in the process. Hypotheses can spring from wild leaps of the imagination, or even dreams (for example, Kekulé's idea for the benzene ring).

    And there is a general principle of scepticism, that is to say reliance on repeatable evidence in order to get a measure of objectivity.

    And there is an inbuilt limitation to seeking natural causes, rather than supernatural ones.

    Really I think that is all there is to it.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2016
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  3. wellwisher Banned Banned

    Consider what happens when you add statistical modeling to this. Now the data does not even have to fit the theoretical curve, since you have fudge factors that make data points look like balloons; margin of error.
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  5. PhysBang Valued Senior Member

    This actually makes the science better, since you don't fit to random noise.
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  7. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Indeed. Correlation coefficients and all that.
  8. Russ_Watters Not a Trump supporter... Valued Senior Member

    The reason we're not taught The Scientific Method in college is that it is like basic algebra: it is taught in junior high. The methods used as adults in both cases are more complicated, but they follow. I don't cringe when someone references it; I actually remember learning it.
  9. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Interesting. I can only speak for UK practice, of course. Perhaps the US system is more prescriptive in style.

    What we WERE taught at school, not in the syllabus but by a thoughtful chemistry teacher, was about models and the way that differing models of the same thing can each have validity, depending on the task at hand. I have always found that to give valuable insights into the provisional and partial nature of "truth" and physical "reality", in the context of science.

    I think it is a pity that more scientists do not spend at least some time studying the history and philosophy of science (HPS). I confess when I had to choose a supplementary subject at university I went for quantum chemistry, not HPS, reasoning that HPS I could read for myself, whereas QM needed the specialist lectures and tutorials that I could only get at university. I did - and do- read a bit of HPS but should probably read more. Anyway, I think some of the dismissive remarks made in this thread about philosophy are rather narrow-minded - unless they were meant just to tease, like Rutherford's notorious quip about physics and stamp-collecting.

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  10. Russ_Watters Not a Trump supporter... Valued Senior Member

    I remember that part of junior high reasonably well; we learned the scientific method, precision vs accuracy, significant figures, etc. We had science fairs where we organized projects/presentations into the four basic steps....though it apparently gets introduced as such even earlier (don't remember that at all):

    For college, My experience is not exactly typical because I started school at the Naval Academy, where morality, ethics and leadership training are mandatory for everyone and I'm sure are more extensive than in civilian schools. Everyone takes a certain amount of humanities (history, philosophy, writing/literature, psychology), but I'm not sure how that compares and can't recall what level of choice I had in that. But I finished college at a civilian school where we did also learn ethics and management as pertains specifically to engineering and I also took a course on the history of science. And one called "Public Opinion and Propaganda" which was pretty useful for critical thinking skills.

    Quips like Rutherford's are intended to be insulting, but it isn't clear to me how serious they are intended to be. That said, there really is very little place for philosophy in science or even of science except as a history lesson. Threads like this are almost certainly started to try to close an inferiority complex gap. I'd be surprised if MR had any philosophy training either, but it is generally claimed if not accepted that unlike science there is no barrier to entry for philosophy: anyone can call themself a philosopher. It may not really be true, but at least they can usually get away with it, whereas armchair scientists can't.

    So, yes, it would be good if all scientists took a philosophy course or two in the beginning of their 10 years of schooling. There are parts of it that are important to a scientist's skillset. But when it comes to advancing knowledge, philosophy plays no direct role. Thoughts on the nature of reality and consciousness are really just placeholders that fill gaps until science fills them in and pushes the philosophy out.
  11. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Sure, I don't mean to suggest philosophy is much day-to-day use in science. But the philosophy of science does provide some hinterland, connecting the science practitioner to other disciplines. It makes it easier to talk to people without a science background and helps make distinctions between what is science and what is not. The last item can help to prevent people from conflating science with pseudoscience, or politics, or religion (creationism, politically driven climate change denial, new age woo, etc).
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  12. exchemist Valued Senior Member


    P.S. to the above: Just for fun, I checked Quantum Woo on Rationalwiki, and there is a rather good joke about its practitioners:

    "Proponents of quantum woo are affected by the interaction of neural-energy and their natural bozon field, which results in the creation of one moron and the decay of two neurons. The moron has a half-life of 42 years."

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  13. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

    The above expresses my view more or less better than I have expressed it myself.

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    And what I meant by the nth degree.

    As with the above. The last item though is at times intermingled among the real sciences under all those guise of questions for which no answer is ever going to be accepted by those posters.
    Again, since some have criticised me for harping on the scientific method, the scientific method is just the application of common sense, which though can be confused with what we may normally accept as intuitive. eg: the "common sense" of absolute space and time pre Einstein.

    We all tend to sensationalise a point we need to illustrate. I certainly did that with the various quotes critical of philosophy, as was the heading of this thread and the OP.
  14. PhysBang Valued Senior Member

    Common sense is usually a problem in science. We need to carefully counteract many of our common intuitions in order to function reasonably.
  15. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

    It certainly can be.....What I'm trying to say is that science via the proper scientific method, and critical thinking, will in time manipulate our common sense and logic: Science is instrumental in common sense and logic changing as we progress with the aid of science.
    Who still believes the Earth is flat?
    The following article illustrates what I'm trying to say.......

    Communicating Science: The Difference Between Science and Common Sense

    In a wilderness of common sense, science stands a lonely pinnacle

    One of the strongest features of science is that it can correct our seriously flawed cognition and give us an unfiltered view of reality. Most people put a lot of faith into relying on common sense and intuition, but as any psychologist will tell you, this faith is misplaced.

    Science helps us to understand the universe by freeing us from a reliance on gut-feelings or unchecked reasoning hopelessly rooted in the unsystematic software of our brains. Common sense, as a product of this software, will never get us as far as we may wish.

    Science, as a way of thinking, possesses many vital qualities for true understanding that common sense does not. Based on observations we make, science operates under theories, constantly revised and checked by experiment. Based on the required validity that we need to make judgments, science tests its own propositions, throwing out the theories which do not fit our world. Science also has controls, or ways of eliminating other explanations that may fit our preconceptions and intuitions but do not adequately explain phenomena. Causation, itself crucial to decision-making and judgment, can only reliably be determined through analytical methods that common sense pretends to involve but does not. Lastly, science rules out the metaphysical (so far). Common sense allows us to believe that ghosts, goblins, and angels run amok throughout our world, themselves causal agents of events in our lives. To suggest that angels cured your disease, and not modern medicine, for example, is exactly why common sense is such a poor master.

    We will take all of these components in turn. Hopefully, by the end, you will realize that the chains of intuition and common sense that bind you should be cast off, unless you prefer the darkness of ignorant assumption.


    Theories construct the enterprise of science. A theory is an abstraction that applies to variety of circumstances, explaining relationships and phenomena, based upon objective evidence. For example, evolution is a theory that applies to a wide range of phenomena (the diversity of life, development, etc.), and explains the observations of said phenomena, all of which is based upon evidence. Gravity too is a theory, explaining the phenomena that we observe in interactions of bodies with mass.

    To get technical:

    Science uses conceptual schemes and theoretical structures built through internal consistency which are empirically tested.

    Scientists also realize that these are man-made terms that may or may not exhibit a close relationship to reality (but with objectivity we try our best).

    The distinction between this structure of thought and common sense should be, well, common sense. Common sense has no structure to it, is explicitly subjective, and is subject to all manner of cognitive biases. There is no need for testing, replication, or verification when you are reasoning for yourself. No checks for you to pass or fail, no peers reviewing. It is no wonder why science is so much better at explaining things.


    Unlike common sense or intuition, science systematically and empirically tests theories and hypothesis. This is important when viewed in the light that psychological research shows us that the default mode of human information processing includes theconfirmation bias, which is a form of selective testing, and unworthy of scientific thinking.

    If unchecked, most people intuitively notice or select ideas, beliefs, or facts that fit within what they already assume the world to be like and dismiss the rest. Common sense reasoning has no problem with the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth because it sure looks like it does, doesn’t it? Humans already feel like they are the center of the universe, why not accept a belief that confirms that notion? Science is free from such constraints.


    Science controls for possibly extraneous sources of influence. The lay public does not control for such possibilities, and therefore the chains of causation and explanation become tangled.

    When trying to explain a phenomena, science rigorously excludes factors that may affect an outcome so that it can be sure where the real relationships are. Common sense has no such control. The person who believes that a full moon increases the rate of crime does not control this hypothesis. Without control they may never see that statistics speak to the contrary. Assuming a connection is never as meaningful as proving one.

    Correlation and Causation

    Science systematically and conscientiously pursues “real” relationships backed by theory and evidence. Common sense does not. Common sense leads us to believe that giving children sugar causes them to be more hyper. Science shows us that this is not the case. We see possible correlations everywhere, but that does not mean much if we can’t prove it. “It seems right” is not enough.

    When we use science to actually establish causation, it is for the betterment of society. For a long time the tobacco industry would have us believe that smoking did not lead to lung cancer, it is merely a correlation. Medical science has now shown unequivocally that smoking causes lung cancer. How could common sense ever lead us to this healthy conclusion? Would common sense ever intuit that smoke hurts your lungs or that it contains harmful chemicals? It may seem like common sense now, but remember that hindsight is 20/20. People who began smoking 60 years ago had no clue that it was harmful. Even children smoked back then. Could common sense ever grasp the methodological measures required to prove such a harmful connection? I do not think so. That’s why we use science.


    Science rules out untestable, “metaphysical” explanations where common sense does not. That which cannot be observed (at least tangentially) or tested is of no concern to science. This is why religious-based explanations of scientific concepts, i.e. creationism, is not a science and has no business in the science classroom.

    Ghosts and goblins may be thought to be the causes of many a shenanigan, but their reluctance to be tested or observed renders them, at least scientifically, non-existent. If they have no effects that cannot be explained naturally, if they are invisible, if they interact with no one and are only revealed in anecdotes, what is the difference between those qualities and non-existence? Metaphysical explanations so far offer nothing to the understanding of the natural world. Common sense invokes them heavily, see the problem?

    Casting Off the Chains
    We are just not as smart as we think we are and common sense won’t help rectify that. It did not lead us to invent microwaves, planes, space shuttles, cell phones, satellites, particle accelerators, or skyscrapers, nor did it to the discovery of other galaxies, cures for infectious disease, or radioactivity, science did. Everything that makes your life better than those who came before us is due to science. You would probably not live past 40 if it wasn’t for scientific thinking.

    You may amble your way through life, with a common sense master, assuming connections and learning little, but only a scientific structure of thought will teach you about the universe. And what else could you do with your short time in the sun other than contribute to human understanding of the greatest mysteries?

    Enough philosophy from me for one day!

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  16. Bells Staff Member

    Is that a good thing though?

    Because what you are essentially saying is that a few people, they being the scientists, will manipulate other people. Is that always a good thing?

    I find your statement here interesting because science itself is not an entity. It is the people in the scientific fields who will then ultimately have the power to manipulate other people.

    Scientists are not always right and sometimes, their mistakes can and do kill people. And this is by using the scientific method and critical thinking. I think suggesting that science will manipulate the common sense and logic of people is dangerous. It cannot do that. But scientists can do that and there are inherent dangers in that.

    Scientists should educate. Not manipulate.
  17. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

    I'll accept that: Poor choice of words by me.
    And science does educate in the main, [not perfect, what is, but do you have anything better?]
    We once thought it logical and common sense that the world/Earth was flat...we thought we were the center of the Universe, [hindered by an agenda obviously] We thought it logical and common sense that space and time were absolute entities, and the propagation of light was instantaneous.
    And while it is correct that it is the people [scientists] in their field that do educate and abolish old intuitions and beliefs, they do that with the scientific method as the foundation.
  18. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Bells I think it is clear enough from the context that what was meant was modification of what we regard as common sense, rather than anything sinister.

    And actually I think that is an interesting point. It came up before tangentially in another thread in which I was involved, some time ago. For example, common sense to people at one time was that things need to be pushed or they stop moving. Newton's first law changed that - at least for anyone with basic education. More radically, Einstein changed our ideas about space and time, in ways that, while not thoroughly understood in the population, nevertheless have superseded the previous common sense that space was just an empty nothing with no properties. Now, people dimly grasp the idea of spacetime curvature, black holes as wells into which things can fall, and so on.

    So what feels like"common sense" has changed, in the course of history - due to it being modified by the insights of science diffusing into popular consciousness.

    Common sense is of course also subject to being modified by the changing course of ideas in other fields as well, so there is nothing unique about science in this respect. Once it was common sense that women should be the ones to look after the kids..............
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  19. Schmelzer Valued Senior Member


    A rant typical for those who do not understand that the scientific method is based on common sense and nothing else.
    The view given by science is also filtered - by the theories we use to interpret our observations. Then, science can correct - but can, as well, make things worse if the actually favored theories are wrong.

    One famous example of science making things worse was the hysteria about the harm caused by masturbation. The base was a quite normal scientific observation, namely that the idiots in the asylums masturbate a lot, which was easily visible to the doctors. Today it is clearified that the explanation is simply that these idiots have been too stupid to hide their masturbation, or even so stupid that they were unable to understand that honorable people have to hide such things from others, and, last but not least, had less privacy to be able to hide this even if they wanted. And the doctors were too stupid to understand that other people masturbate as often as these asylum inmates, but hide this. The result was a scientific theory about a lot of horrible harm caused by masturbation. Which has heavily influenced child education during a quite long period of time. Even funnier the the story about spinach, which was claimed to be healthy because of a large iron content. But this high iron content originated in a measurement error or so, it was simply false. But millions of children were forced to eat the healthy iron-containing spinach even if they hated it.

    Nonsense. All what the scientific thinking is using is also used by common sense. Inventing theories to explain observations is the everyday job of each child. Rejecting them once they do not agree with their observation too. (That's why adults can laugh about their own childish theories, as far as they remember them - because they have rejected them during their childhood, once they have seen that they are in conflict with reality.) Testing them even more. A lot of parents would be happy if they could prevent their children from a lot of these tests.
    And this psychologist seems to think that to name some elementary reasoning "analytical method" makes it non-elementary.

    No. It is simply a very old, and long rejected theory. Science also allows us to believe that the world is full of strings, or phlogiston, or harm caused by masturbation.

    Common sense uses such things too. And also recognizes that if one invents a theory, it remains the own invention, which may be wrong. If this psychologist does not want to see the structure of common sense, this is his personal problem. Cognitive biases are part of science as well. No need for testing? Nonsense. To test the own theories is natural part of common sense too.
    Common sense prefers to err in the direction of confirmation of some correlations. This is useful - because the error of believing into a wrong correlation is small, in comparison to not believing into an existing correlation. Why? Most of the interesting correlations are about dangerous things. If you do not recognize a really existing danger, you may be dead. If you believe, instead, into sixty additional non-dangerous "dangers", you will not use some sixty nice possibilities. A harm, of course, but not a deadly one.

    What is mingled here is what is done in some costly experiments in modern science and, in comparison, what the lay public is doing in everyday life, without any grants. This difference has nothing to do with the method itself. Which is in full agreement with common sense, who would also prefer to control for extraneous sources of influence.
  20. Schmelzer Valued Senior Member

    Sometimes he does. Sometimes he accepts the authority of the people who say that there is such an influence. I believe into the standard model of particle physics, but have never tested it at home. Have you?
    The scientific method also looks for correlations everywhere. And, once it has found them, tries to find causal explanations. As prescribed by common sense too.
    By common sense, of course. "My grandfather smokes but is now 90, and healthy" is, on a small scale the same method, statistics. No doubt that you can reach better, more accurate results, if you study tens of thousands of cases instead of only the guys living around you.
    Nonsense. The German word "Raucherhusten" (smoker's cough) I know from my childhood, and it describes such a negative influence on the lungs in common sense. Ok, my childhood was not 60 years ago, but the difference is not that large, so 45 years ago they have certainly known it. And there was nothing new about this, at least I do not remember anybody presenting the "Raucherhusten" as a new insight of science.
    Yes. And even children have known then that it is harmful, according to common sense.

    As if there have not been many religious testable predictions. "If you do X, God will punish you" is common in religions. And proponents of other religions have often tried out such things, destroying Holy Places of the other religions. And if no evil consequences followed, this was always considered to be strong evidence against the Gods which have allowed to destroy their Holy Places without hitting back.
    The problem is that at the time they have been invented this was not known. The anecdotes reveal the empirical evidence. Don't forget that with much more resources you can achieve much better results, even if you use the same method.
    Wrong. Metaphysical explanations offer a lot, and are, of course, also part of modern physical theories. Remember how paddoboy heavily defended the metaphysical belief into a four-dimensional curved spacetime, which seems to give him a lot. It is only metaphysical, as I have shown, by presenting another metaphysical model for the same equations of General Relativity. Nonetheless, this particular variant of metaphysics is heavily defended, by scientists.

    I see no problem here. The rational way to handle metaphysics would be to evaluate and accept as equally justified different metaphysical interpretations. Their differences would allow to understand in a better way what is really supported by observation (which is what all interpretations have to share) and what is not (which is what is different in different interpretations).

    To summarize: Science is a very good thing, and it is safely based on common sense. Science is, roughly, the cooperation of a large group of people, all of them accepting common sense, who apply common sense on a large scale, share their results not only with all other scientists, but with everybody. With such cooperation, they can reach much better results than a single guy, or, say, a family. But this does not mean that they have some inherently better method. No. They use the same common sense. In an educated form - because some of the scientists, as part of this large scale cooperation, care about all the minor flaws which a small group will, with a sufficiently large probability, ignore, simply because one has to ignore them if there is only a small group. But ignorance of some errors, out of insufficient resources to care about everything, does not mean that, if pointed to this particular source of error, one would not be able to understand that, yes, this is an error, based on common sense. Science is simply educated common sense.
  21. Schmelzer Valued Senior Member

    I think that one should distinguish between popular theories about reality and the method.

    We distinguish, of course, between scientific theories which have been accepted at this or that time, and the scientific method, which is something more general. Scientific theories change, the scientific method remains almost unchanged.

    (In fact, the differentiation is even more subtle, because there is scientific progress not only by better measurement devices, but also by better designs of experiments, say, using double-blind techniques in medicine. If one would count such improved designs of experiments as improvements of the method itself, there would be change of the method. I use "method" here in a more restricted sense. Roughly, it is the method, which allows to see that a double blind design of the experiment will give more accurate results, and the double blind design is part of the actual experimental techniques.)

    But similarly there is also a difference between the theories which people believe in in a particular society, and the method used to find/establish/support these theories. What I name "common sense" is what is shared by many different nations, what is intuitively used by the children everywhere to learn, to understand our world. And it is certainly not a particular choice of the resulting beliefs.

    Once it was the scientific method to believe in phlogiston. You get the point?
  22. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Not really. All I was trying to do was to clear the charge, made by Bells, that PB was saying science seeks to "manipulate" what other people think.

    I was not trying to make a point regarding the so-called "scientific method", nor was I suggesting any particular theory is or is not better than another - though of course that is the case.
  23. sculptor Valued Senior Member

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