Scientific Skepticism

You’ve probably had some physics or chemistry at some point. If so, you probably remember the being shown experiments.If not, or if you can’t remember, click here. In my memory, these were deadly boring but at least you needn’t pay so much attention.
Have you ever wondered why that has such an important part in the science curriculum?

Doing experiments yourself teaches you some skills and, hopefully, is more engaging than just reading in a book. But what’s the point of having the teacher perform experiments? Surely it would be much cheaper and easier to just have the pupils read about them.

In my experience, the answer is never spelled out in class. That answer is that you’re not supposed to believe things just because it says so in a book. You’re supposed to know, for yourself, that what you’re taught is right, that it works.

The Battle Cry of the Revolution

Nullius in verba is latin for ‘take nobody’s word for it’. In the 17th century it became the motto of the Royal Society and a battle cry of the scientific revolution. The men of the Royal Society resolved not to believe things merely because they were written in some ancient book or said by some respected personage. They would experiment.
Think about how radical this was in a time of absolute monarchy when the bible was regarded as the word of god.
If these man had realized that the same attitude would eventually challenge even monarchy and church, most of them would probably have been horrified and abandoned their quest.

Of course, especially in our modern times, one cannot personally repeat every single experiment. And when one gets a different answer on one experiment, well, maybe it is not everyone else that has made a mistake. Skepticism is one thing, solipsism another.

Science is Social

Science is a social enterprise. Just like society as a whole, science relies on people doing their jobs and follow certain rules. Both have fail-safes, to deal with instances where individuals either make mistakes or cheat. In science this fail-safe is largely the skepticism of the peers, who are relied on to find and weed out erroneous results. Unfortunately, science has little ability to deal with actual frauds. Only occasionally, when someone has gone completely over-board in making stuff up, frauds are identified as malicious rather than simple mistakes.
Scientific skepticism ensures that fraudulent results are weeded out just like innocent errors. Scientific fraud can still harm society by causing bad decisions to be made. It also harms science by causing people to waste time and money trying to confirm the unconfirmable, or trying to build on a rotten foundation.
The only way a false result can escape correction is if it so unimportant as to be completely ignored. That’s, ironically enough, the best case.

I hope I made clear why skepticism (in this particular version) is so fundamental to science. It should also be clear why fabricating or altering data is such a heinous crime against science. What if everyone did it?
Science would become a meaningless sham.

There’s two more things I want to say. Not so much about scientific skepticism but it fits here.

In science, you’re supposed to judge a claim on its merits, not on the merits of the person making that claim. Still, reputation plays an important part when judging a claim.
The reason is because whenever someone publishes scientific results they are not just offering the fruits of their labor. They are also asking others to do work. The result must be vetted, it must be replicated before it can be used.
This request doesn’t go out to some faceless, abstract entity called science. It goes out to individuals. And each of these individuals will ask themselves: If I take this seriously, am I wasting my time?
That’s where reputation (and a whole number of other soft factors) comes into play. It’s not logically valid to judge the claim by the reputation of the person making. But judging the likelihood of wasting your time on these soft factors certainly works.

The Bem Exploration Method
Yes, this again. This is where it gets a bit ranty, so feel free to stop reading here.
Maybe you’ve read my previous article and wondered why this seemed so serious to me. Perhaps this article gave an answer.
Part of the BEM is data dredging and similar abuses of statistics produce false results. The more widespread this technique becomes, the more waste there is in science. It takes away resources that could be used gainfully.
Even worse is the omission of negative results. This is something that turns replication itself into a sham. It is much more work intensive and easier to detect than fabricating data but the effect on the scientific enterprise is the same. It turns it into a sham.
Seeing how Bem’s advice is used to teach students makes me seriously wonder about the integrity of (social) psychological science.

This blog post was the most shocking on Feeling the Future that I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot.
Lots of stupid and credulous things were written about it but he had the good sense to see the signs of questionable research practices in Bem’s article. His post is very good in that department.
And still he calls it a good paper. He also calls the publishing standards too lax, so the only thing I can really blame him for is not being sufficiently outraged.


1 Comment

  1. May 2, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    […] is based on the constraints imposed by the scientific method. Science can only study the testable. It is an essential characteristic of science that claims are judged by experiment. If mediumship (or other psychic powers) are shown to be active in the past, then science will […]

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