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Science and Skepticism

Jul 17 2012
Science and Democracy

This afternoon while biking around in the Charleston heat, I thought about an analogy between science and democracy that might help some people to understand better how science works.

It seems that quite often these days, a news story will announce a shocking "discovery" by "a team of scientists". Readers of those news stories correctly notice that sometimes these claims are bizarre, and often they contradict earlier claims by other scientists. The readers then often conclude (incorrectly) that this means that science doesn't work.

It is somewhat like democracy. There does seem to be general agreement today that democracy is the best form of government. It is the ideal way for a country or other government to decide on its laws and its budget. But, nobody thinks this means that every individual voter's opinion is correct, or even that the outcome of any given election is necessarily best.

Well, science is a method for determining how the physical world works which does involve individual scientists doing experiments. However, the results of one particular set of experiments by one team of scientists is like the opinion of a single voter. It should not be completely ignored, but it also should not be blown out of proportion and considered to be the final result of the entire process. Rather, just as the opinions of many voters are combined in an election, the results of many experiments is combined in the enterprise we call science. It is only when a general consensus (much more than just the plurality required in most elections) of scientists are convinced of the result that it is really reasonable to consider it to have been decided by science.

And, moreover, even when such a consensus is reached, that doesn't necessarily mean that it won't later be reversed. It doesn't happen that often, but it is not entirely unheard of either: science sometimes "changes its mind". But, this does not mean that science should be discarded any more than we should get rid of democracy merely because the majority of votes sometimes go for something we think is wrong. Just as people often say "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of the others", the occasional failures of science should not weigh too heavily against it because the alternative methods for figuring out how the world works are far worse.

Well, I know that "nobody" reads this discussion board any more, but I thought I'd post this thought here anyway.



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