Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Science and Truth

Scientific Inquiry intends to be unbiased.  But as a human endeavor, there are factors that make reaching this goal difficult.

There are several problems.  The first is what I would call "self-selection".  For each field of inquiry, we should ask, is it more likely that folks with a certain belief set will enter this field?  If so, that belief set will be overrepresented in the field.  And if that's so, you would think that experiments that likely would support that belief set would be trumpeted, while others would be not get as much attention.

Climate change is just such a field.  If you are a climate scientist, one would think that the majority came into the field with a belief that the climate change we are seeing currently is man-made.  If you are a young person who is concerned with the news feeds we see on climate change, you might be more inclined, if you have a scientific bent, to join the ranks of climate scientists.

This is not to say the hypothesis that climate change is man-made is not correct; But if our goal is to reach the truth, we ought to be aware of potential sources of bias.

In fact, because most climate scientists believe that climate changes made by man are threatening the planet, it is unlikely that would get a job as a climate scientist if you believed otherwise.  You might call this "job selection".

This happens often in the universities.  Where university departments should be hiring associates who disagree with the current set of incumbents, in order to get a wider set of perspectives on the relevant topics, this is not how they generally behave.  So you have departments where the perspectives are one-sided, such as a history department filled with devotees of the Marxist theory of history.  And of course any students of such departments are less likely to have diverging viewpoints as well.

And finally you have "funding selection".  Who will fund the science?  In the case of medicine, a lot of experimentation is funded by the pharmaceutical companies.  There may be a bias towards conducting and publishing experiments that support the use of the more profitable therapies and drugs.

This may affect some fields more than others;  physics comes to mind as a field less affected, but even there some theories will be more or less popular, and therefore more likely to be funded, tested, helpful in a career, and have supportive results more likely to be published.

This does not mean that scientists are dishonest, or deliberately skew results.  But what it does mean is that when a layperson is considering the scientific consensus on some question, not having the time or inclination to investigate the actual tests, she should take the scientific consensus with a grain of salt.  It also means that we should take people who disagree with the "scientific consensus" more seriously generally, and not automatically dismiss them as irrational.

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