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Author Topic: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?  (Read 815 times)

Offline thedoc

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peter monaghan  asked the Naked Scientists:
   Chris,

Here's a question:

Some prominent public advocates of science and rationalism claim that, unlike, say, religious faith, science is factual, repeatable, and knowable - certifiably correct. But it's hard to think of a field of science that isn't regularly revolutionized; so, what was "correct" today will almost certainly appear wrong, tomorrow. And isn't the upshot of this that, in fact, almost all science is almost certainly wrong?

Thanks for an always fascinating show.

- Peter




   
What do you think?
« Last Edit: 11/10/2016 18:23:01 by _system »


 

Offline Semaphore

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Most science is correct and has been for decades. That's why we can discuss this topic here, and the lights stay on, and aircraft don't fall out of the sky very often. It works.

There are things we don't know yet, and we're working on it, so science is doing what it does and working to find out the solution. We'll get there.
 

Offline chiralSPO

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Science doesn't necessarily provide a "correct answer," it just can only provide the "best answer" given what we know.
 

Offline alancalverd

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Science is a process, not a set of statements.

Scientific knowledge is the sum of disprovable hypotheses that have stood the test of experiment.

Scientific data is anything that engineers and navigators consider good enough to trust with the lives of their loved ones (or test pilots, at least).

Sometimes  bridges do collapse, planes fall out of the sky, and even the occasional planet does something unexpected.  You can either run about screaming drivel about the work of the Devil, or sit down and work out what was wrong with your previous hypothesis. Unfortunately there is more money in superstition, but overall life has become longer, safer and more comfortable for those who use the products of science.
 

Offline evan_au

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Quote from: peter monaghan
it's hard to think of a field of science that isn't regularly revolutionized
I think that for the general public, science is seen through the lens filter of journalism. To gain any public awareness, science must be spectacular, revolutionary, make everyone live to age 100 and rewrite the textbooks; otherwise it is drowned out by the usual humdrum of wars, bank robberies, shootings, car accidents, presidential elections and the birth of a baby tiger at the zoo.

Strong competition for research grants also leads researchers to describe their proposed project (and their results in the last project) in the most glowing terms. It also helps if you managed to get it on national TV (beating out the cute furry animal story).

The reality is that most science is incremental, filling in a little bit of the puzzle here, helping locate another piece of the puzzle a bit more precisely there, clarifying a piece that did not have sufficient context down here.

That is why the Nobel committee take on average 20 years to award a Nobel Prize. It takes that long to see which discoveries have made a fundamental change in the sciences, opening up productive new areas of research and application - and which were just journalism. (They can't take much longer than that, because the recipient must still be alive to receive the prize...)

Quote
isn't the upshot of this that, in fact, almost all science is almost certainly wrong?
All science is an approximation in some form.
- In fact the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle proves that all life must be an approximation - there is no such thing as "perfect knowledge".
- And Gödel's theorem proves mathematically that you cannot prove everything mathematically
- So scientists must come to an understanding of their limitations

So there are areas where we can make measurements that come out extremely accurately, as far as the experimental techniques allow.
- In nuclear physics, they don't officially announce something until it reaches "5 sigma": This is not absolute certainty, but is extremely confident

There are other areas where results are not so solid:
- In psychology, findings are published in they are 95% confident (ie there is a 1 in 20 chance that their results could be down to chance)
- There has been a recent focus on reproducibility in psychology - they found that, even with the cooperation of the original authors, about half of the results could not be reproduced

So uncertainty, external influences and measurement error are an inherent part of science, and we try to deal with that by measuring and reporting on the uncertainty.
- There are better mathematical ways of measuring these uncertainties which should be taught and applied more widely.
- But politicians have no success measures applied by a reputable agency (I am excluding other politicians, here). And yet they spend far more than a typical science research project, and they are always on TV, claiming how revolutionary their latest policy will be (or has been).
 
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Offline evan_au

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Quote from: peter monaghan
almost all science is almost certainly wrong
Usually, when you can measure something with 10x more precision or 10x more energy or 10x more frequency or 10x more sensitively than you could before, you see something you couldn't see before.

The ability to measure the strength of Earth's surface gravity to 6 decimal places can tell us about mineral deposits under the ground, or movement of magma below a volcano.

But humans can only really sense Earth's surface gravity to about 10% accuracy (about 10 m/s2).
- Does this mean that all humans are wrong, all the time?
- Or does it just mean that this is good enough for humans?
- Knowing that it is 9.766 m/s2 in Singapore does not really help humans in Singapore walk more safely
- But it's still not good enough to find oil underground

So, to a large extent, science is about measuring things more accurately, and developing more precision than it had before. This allows science to discover more and more subtle phenomena which nevertheless have had significant impacts on our daily lives, like vaccines, personal electronics, MRI scans and (in future) universal DNA sequencing.
 

Offline ProjectSailor

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Most science is correct and has been for decades. That's why we can discuss this topic here, and the lights stay on, and aircraft don't fall out of the sky very often. It works.

There are things we don't know yet, and we're working on it, so science is doing what it does and working to find out the solution. We'll get there.

I completely disagree, science works, but that doesn't mean it is correct. Since right and wrong remain subjective and will until we understand everything. We work on best guesses with the available information.

This is one reason I believe current scientific Laws, may accurately describe an interaction or system, but the understanding and caveats thereof are sometimes too easily dismissed. If these were not questioned we would never expand our scientific knowledge. Years ago, we did not know that light was energy, or that energy and mass were interlinked.. So laws of science had to be amended or re specified taking into account interactions and systems that were unknown of prior to these new discoveries. Think gravity for a very good example. 
 

Offline puppypower

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One classic modern example of where bad theory lingers, and does not change with mounting evidence, is the statistical theory of life.

The experimental evidence has to do wth the observation of protein folding. Proteins are observed to fold with unique folds with probability of 1.0. The continued problem arises from statistical theory predicting an average, but not a unique fold. That this theoretical and experimental ambiguity remains today, after 50 years of intense research effort, highlights a two-fold failing of statistical methods: firstly, it did not predict the existence of a stable folded state, and secondly, once given as an experimental fact, the theory still cannot explain it.

The problem appears to be connected to the needs of industry. Statistics, although not correct for explaining life, nevertheless allows a mass production method for industry; blind man's prophesy. Even with better and better tools, that continue to show how proteins fold with probability of 1.0, proteins are still treated like they are governed by statistics. 

Because the statistic theory for life is allowed to linger, for industry, this impacts other areas of life sciences. For example, evolution is assumed to be governed by random changes on the DNA. Or the theory of other life in the universe, includes other solvents, because life is assumed to be governed by randomness, meaning anything can work. The fundamental premise need to be overhauled, but this is always resisted because of mass production science.
« Last Edit: 28/10/2016 12:04:38 by puppypower »
 

Offline Fruityloop

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Science is self-correcting except in the case of evolution.  The theory continues to be believed despite the falsity of it.  Why such is the case I don't know.
 

Offline SquarishTriangle

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The beauty of science is its intrinsic ability to continuously question ideas and to allow several plausible ideas to exist at the same time. Good scientists are open to challenging and reassessing their previous ideas, and are open to accepting new ideas, should the evidence (demonstrated through sound, repeatable study methodologies) demonstrate those new ideas to be more 'correct' than the previous. And those new ideas, in turn, can be challenged again in light of additional information.

We are never really 'correct' but we should continuously seek evidence to minimise the degree to which we are 'wrong'. Nothing in science is ever 'proven'.

This is different to choosing one idea, declaring it 'correct', and continuing to accept it as 'correct' for the rest of eternity.

However, the general public sees this as: "Scientists keep changing their minds. Scientists are not sure if they are correct. They must not know anything." (Which, in my opinion, is a failure of effective science communication in the general news media. But that's a whole other story...)
 
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Offline Watermelon

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Re: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?
« Reply #10 on: 12/11/2016 06:55:37 »
Science is more pragmatic than principled. So it's good as long as it works. Not scientific law has been absolutely proven to be correct, but as long as nothing refutes it, it's "correct".
 

Offline puppypower

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Re: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?
« Reply #11 on: 12/11/2016 13:12:10 »
Observer effect (physics). In physics, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner.

What comes to my mind, is the basic similarity between magic trick and science experiments. Both science experiments and magic tricks need a very firm grasp of reality, to engineer the tools needed to support a claim to an audience.

For example, in a magic trick, such as levitation, the magician will set up his experimental apparatus, on stage, so he can appear to generate the data needed to substantiate his claim that levitation is possible. The audience sees his experiment, with their own eyes. Based on the apparent results of the experiment, they will have to assume levitation is possible. But not everyone is convinced by what they appear to see. However, very few can put their finger on it. Yet they still sense this can't be real, since it violates other things they know to be real.

In my previous post, I discussed how proteins are composed of thousands of atoms, folded into perfect folds, with probability =1.0. These are held together with the equivalent binding energy of a few hydrogen bonds. Folding should be vulnerable to thermal vibrations due to the weak binding energy, yet they are not. There is no statistical explanation for this; 1.0. There is a major flaw in the statical assumption since protein are the main organic material of cells.

Yet the sciences of life still assume life is governed by randomness and probability without any addendum to explain this large body of evidence to the contrary. The protein folding observation is the hidden wire, that if left hidden and unseen, makes the statistical levitation possible. This hidden wire has been known for over 50 years, but you will not hear about it, since it spoils the trick.

The observer affect, can also occur when hidden wires are added to experimental apparatus in a semi-conscious and/or even unconscious way. Science tries to be honest and truthful, but scientists are also human, who also have personal ambitions and needs. The result can be unknowingly adding hidden wires, to impact the needed result; alter reality via experiment.

A good example of this affect might be connected to someone working for a cigarette company, who needs to show how cigarettes are good for you, to get a promotion and avoid layoffs. They need to set up a magic trick experiment to help the regulatory audience see this claim. Conjuring, using statistical oracles, is one of the favorite tools for scientific magic. On a good day levitation is possible. For example, up to the day of the US elections, scientific based magic polls levitated Hillary. The Democratic base so believed that levitation was possible, they are now stunned into irrationality when the hidden wire was exposed by hard data.   
« Last Edit: 12/11/2016 13:16:42 by puppypower »
 

Offline chrisdsn

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Re: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?
« Reply #12 on: 13/11/2016 05:59:47 »
Can you give examples?

As an (ex) physicist, I don't see that in my field. There is often disagreement on what is important to look at next which might be confused as to disagreement on what is known to be a good theory. Progress in Physics certainly sometimes happens because you prove a previous theory wrong; It mostly happens because you *refine* an existing theory.
 

Offline Wicked96

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Re: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?
« Reply #13 on: 19/11/2016 14:44:24 »
Like the other guy said above it is providing the best answer. Newton had the best answer and the einstein built on top of it making it better.
 

Offline zx16

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Re: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?
« Reply #14 on: 19/11/2016 20:48:23 »
Could this question "can Science be correct" be simply an artefact of language.

I mean, we've invented (in the English language) a special abstract noun "Science".  Now we're trying to ascribe noun-like properties to it, so that it can be pinned down to a precise "correct" definition.

But suppose we replaced "Science" by "Knowledge" - which is what it literally means, from its Latin root.  Then asked -  "Can Knowledge be correct".  Would that be a meaningful question?


 

Offline Novaflipps

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Re: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?
« Reply #15 on: 19/11/2016 22:10:19 »
Is research correct? Just turning the table:p
 

Offline alancalverd

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Re: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?
« Reply #16 on: 19/11/2016 23:58:35 »
Quote
But suppose we replaced "Science" by "Knowledge" - which is what it literally means, from its Latin root.  Then asked -  "Can Knowledge be correct".  Would that be a meaningful question?


No. We have come a long way from the supposed root of many words. "Jungle", for instance, derives from the Sanskrit word  jangala - "desert".

Science is what scientists do, so can only be usefully recognised as a process, not an entity. Scientific knowledge is the residue of disprovable hypotheses that have not been disproved, plus a heap of data that is considered valid and reliable. "Correct" therefore describes a combination of hypotheses and data that is considered sufficiently accurate and reliable for engineering purposes.
 

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Re: How can science be correct if theories are always changing?
« Reply #16 on: 19/11/2016 23:58:35 »

 

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