Untrue Things People Believe
This is the twenty fifth article addressing those things most people believe that are not true introduced in the article, "Most Of What You Believe Is Not True." To see all the articles, or any other one, please see the Index.
Science is the objective study of physical existence. About one tenth of one percent of what is called science is actually science. (The figure is admittedly a guess and probably a little high.)
The problem with calling science, "something untrue that people believe." is that there is a tiny fraction of all that is called science that is real science, and the slightly larger amount of what is called science wich are legitimate fields of inquiry, though not actually science. It is everything else that is called science wich is untrue that most people are taken in by.
Real science, also called, "hard science," includes physics and most subdivisions of physics, chemistry, and all branches of chemistry, and biology including all aspects of botany, zoology, and medicine. What is studied in all the hard sciences are the directly observable facts of reality, as well as all that is indirectly observed by means of tools and instruments. The directly and indirectly observable is known as the physical world or universe, or the, "natural world."
The purpose of scientific investigation is to correctly describe and understand what physically exists, the nature of that which exists, and the relationships between all physical existents. It is because what exists and the nature of what exists is what it is, independent of anyone's knowledge, beliefs, or awareness of that existence or its nature, that science is called objective.
The overriding principle of the process of science is objectivity. There are four tests for the objectivity of all real scientific investigation. If these four criteria are not met, no matter what kind of study or investigation is being conducted, it is not science. The four tests or criteria are: hypotheses must be provable, theories must predict, theories must be available to anyone, theories must be non-contradictory. These will be described as the objectivity tests for science.
[NOTE: The primary purpose of science is not to prove things. The primary purpose of science is discovery—the discovery of what exists, the nature of what exists, the behavior of what exists, the relationships between existents and what can be done with what exists. When any of these things are discovered and correctly identified they become part of the body of established knowledge called science. The activity called science is the process of discovery and identification. Some scientific observation does not yield simple identification. It is in those cases that hypotheses are formed is possible explanations of what is being observed, and it is only in those cases that proof is required. No proof is required when what is observed is observed by everyone, only when there is a question of the nature of what is observed.]
Objectivity test 1. Hypotheses Must be Provable.
Since Carl Popper this principle has frequently been called, unfortunately, "falsifiability."
[NOTE: Carl Popper attempted to explain the growth of scientific knowledge on a, "non-justificationism," basis. It is mostly bad philosophy of science, but the falsifiability principle applied to hypotheses is correct. See below for a brief outline of a correct philosophy of science.]
Much of science involves the forming of hypotheses about what is observed, which are conjectures about the nature of things based on what is already known and one's best plausible explanation. Sometimes, more than one possible hypothesis is suggested, which are all legitimate hypotheses, so long as they are possible within the scope of current known science, and one other criteria. In order for a hypothesis to be a legitimate scientific hypothesis, it must be testable. It is that fact that leads to the notion of falsifiability in the correct sense.
Any hypothesis that purports to explain any physical phenomena for which there is no way to prove it is false, if it is false, cannot be a legitimate scientific hypothesis; because just anything could be proposed as a hypothesis, from mystical beings to magic, and since there would be no way to disprove such a conjecture, it cannot be a valid scientific hypothesis. Such a hypothesis is not actually an explanation at all, because they are all of the form, "x is the explanation of phenomenon b," where "x" can be just anything one wants to imagine or make up."
If a hypothesis is a legitimate hypothesis it can be proven. Here, the falsifiability principle actually explains why. For a hypothesis to be a legitimate hypothesis, there must be some method or test (experiment, observation, testable relationship) that will prove the hypothesis wrong, if it is wrong. If that test is performed and it fails to prove the hypothesis wrong, it has proved the hypothesis true; because, if the hypothesis were false, the test would have proved it. The test proved the hypothesis is not false, that is, that it is true.
[NOTE: Any other application of the notion of falsifiability in science is wrong.]
Once a hypothesis has been proven it is a scientific theory. The remaining tests for objectivity relate to what a correct hypothesis is when established as a theory.
Objectivity test 2. Theories Must Be Absolute.
This is sometimes expressed as "theories must predict." "Predict," in this case, does not mean predict the future, it means that whatever aspect of the nature of a physical phenomenon a theory describes, that aspect of that phenomenon's nature will always be the same. For example the theory that describes the chemical nature of water, "predicts," that every molecule of water will be comprised of one atom of oxygen and two atoms of hydrogen.
Another example is the theory of DC electric circuits expressed as E=IR, or Volts equals the current times the resistance. For any given resistance (R) any change E will always result in corresponding change in current (I)—always.
These kinds of absolute theories are actually principles, the so-called "laws" of science. The absolute nature of such theories is also sometimes called repeatability, which only means, any test or experiment that demonstrates the theoretical nature of a physical phenomenon will always have the same result when the same experiment is performed: that is, anyone can "repeat" the same experiment and get the same results.
[NOTE: This is not induction. It is not the repeatability that proves the theory correct. A true theory is repeatable because it is correct, but it is proved correct by demonstrating the identification of the phenomena's nature is correct.]
Objectivity test 3. Theories Must Be Available To Everyone.
This is not so much a matter of correct science, but of what can be accepted as science. It is possible that a scientist discovers some correct principle of science that is never published, or perhaps is published, but the details of the method used to discover the principle are not published. In that case, even if the principle is true, it cannot be accepted as science by anyone else, unless and until someone discovers the means of establishing the principle or the means is revealed so it can be determined if the method can be repeated. Historically a lot of bad science has been promulgated by scientists whose supposed discoveries were ultimately found baseless when their experiments could not be repeated. [An example are Blondlot's N-rays.]
[NOTE: this principle must not be confused with either of the false ideas of science such as "peer review" or "consensus."]
Objectivity test 4. Theories Must Be Non-contradictory.
If any two scientific theories contradict each other, either one or both of those theories is wrong. [Technically, so long as the contradiction remains they are hypotheses, not theories.] In simple language this means that no scientific theory can contradict anything that is known about reality. Reality is "all that is the way it is" and "truth is that which correctly describes reality or any aspect of it." Two contradictory descriptions of the same physical phenomena cannot both be true.
What Is Not Science
Consensus is not science. No scientific principle can be established on the basis of consensus. Science is not democracy. Most of the worst ideas of history were at one time or another the majority view. The consensus was that the world is flat, that phlogisten is the basis of combustion, and that the sun revolved around the earth.
Peer review is not science. The idea of peer review is that a proposed scientific hypothesis (or lesser scientific idea) must be reviewed by other scientists in the same field. The idea itself is a good one for discovering mistakes for example, but the idea that any scientific proposal becomes valid because it was peer reviewed is just consensus by an elite group. No scientific principle is established by peer review.
Induction is not science. Induction, which is falsely described as the opposite or complimentary method to deduction, that is, induction induces generalities from repeated observations and deduction is the application of generalities to specific cases are both false. Induction is usually justified by means of another false concept in science, cause and effect. It is supposed if one event or phenomena is always followed by or associated with another event of phenomena, that after a sufficient number of observations a "causal" relationship is established. No scientific principle can be established by this kind of observation. However, such observation are clues that some kind of relationship may exist, but establishing that relationship requires additional methods and deductive reason.
Statistics is not science. No scientific principle can be established by means of statistics. The very basic assumption of statistics is that whatever is being statistically analyzed is not universal or consistent, that there is some kind of variation. Statistics can be used to understand differences and variations, but can never be used to understand any actual individual member of the class being statistically analyzed.
Studies are not science. The most common variety of non-science being put over as science today is called, "studies." Studies are usually nothing more than surveys, statistical analysis, or collection of opinions and observations. None of them have anything to do with science at all, and any article that begins, "Studies show ...," or, "Latest studies reveal ....," are lies.
There are no "authorities" in science. Nothing is ever true because an expert or authority says it is true. No individual, and no number of individuals, no matter how large, decides what is true or not true in science or anything else. All scientific principles are determined by the nature of reality itself and must be discovered.
The oxymoronic nature of the title of this section is intended. A superstition is anything someone strongly believes that has no basis in reality, while science is based on nothing but reality. Almost everyone today has superstitious beliefs either about science itself or based on what they think science is.
The previous section on what is not science was necessary because there are so many people who believe some or all of those things are science. Here we'll look at some of the specific false beliefs related to science.
Science can violate nature.
Usually implicit, but sometimes explicit is the superstitious notion that science in some non-specific way is able to violate the laws of nature, or, at least the laws of morality. These superstitions are not usually ascribed to science directly, but indirectly at the product and hand maid of science, technology.4
For those whose knowledge of science is limited, which is almost everyone, there is something mysterious about the very appearance of things "scientific." The machines and instruments used in science have always fascinated those whose understanding of such things is limited, and this fascination is frequently attended with a degree of fear. Horror movies have always made use of this fact, the addition of strange machines, tubes with colored liquids, strange flashing lights, bizarre machinations are used effectively to intrigue and frighten.
It is not the "science" of these things that terrifies, but their strangeness and unfamiliarity, qualities that are equally frightening in anything we are not used to. Those who work with these things every day do not find them at all strange, or the least bit frightening, but often commonplace and even boring.
There is another kind of fear of science that does not arise from its strangeness, but from a superstitious belief that what science does is contrary to nature, or "unnatural." This fear is what lies behind the expression, "all natural," in the advertising for every kind of product from food to medicine. One cannot blame those whose business it is to sell products to direct their advertising to what people actually believe, even if those beliefs are nothing more than public paranoia.
The belief that it is possible to produce or add anything to any product that is not natural is nothing more than a gross superstition based on an irrational fear of science and technology. Everything is "all natural."
Francis Bacon said, "we cannot command nature except by obeying her." ("Her," is a metaphor for reality. It is a shame this has to be specified in this day and age, but it does.) We can do nothing but obey the laws that nature has allowed us to discover, and we can do nothing but what those laws enable us to do. Nature is all we have to work with. It is certain we cannot make nature violate her own laws, and we cannot do or make anything that is not according to her laws, and whatever is done or made according to her laws is natural.
Then where did this idea of the "unnatural" come from and what does it mean? It comes from an incorrect definition of "nature," and an irrational fear of knowledge. Nature is that aspect of reality we call material existence.5
Science is the study of nature. All science learns is about nature and all science, or technology, can do are what nature makes possible. The incorrect definition of nature means material existence before it is studied, or nature as it is, before we learn anything about her and how to do any of the things she makes possible.
Famines are natural. While farming is unnatural. So long as farming depended on the vagaries of nature left to herself, the growing of food depended on the rain or periodic floods. When they came, food was plenty, but when they frequently did not come, people starved. When men learned from nature how to irrigate the land, to use fertilizers, rotate crops, famines ceased.
Floods are natural, dams and control of river waters are unnatural. Disease is natural. Antibiotics and vaccination are unnatural. Ergot, E. coli, and botulism are natural. Food preservatives and sterilization processes are unnatural. Yellow fever, malaria, dengue, and west-Nile virus are natural. Pesticides are unnatural
Of course, all these things, irrigation, fertilizers, dams, antibiotics, vaccines, chemicals, and antiseptics are as natural as air, and the belief they are any less natural than rain water is a gross superstition, yet one that is embraced by many very well educated people in this modern age. But, lest these educated people suppose we are not sophisticated enough to understand what they really mean by unnatural, it is things like chemicals being added to food, let us examine this great threat to mankind.
We have asked in another place, "Some people want no chemicals in their food. What do they propose to eat? Poems?" Everything is a chemical. The fear-and-loathing-of-the-unnatural crowd snidely responds to these suggestions that they, "know perfectly well that everything is a chemical, and that everyone knows what they mean are the addition of chemicals that nature never created to things that nature never put them in." So what they really do not like, what they are really opposed to, is anything that requires intelligent processing, putting things together that are not already together before men figure out how to improve their food. What they really dislike is anything that requires a human mind to produce. What we want to know is, where one finds in "nature" apples that have been pealed and cored and cut up, and mixed up with cinnamon and sugar, wrapped in wheat that has been ground up and mixed with water and fat and heated till it turns brown. This absurd fear of chemicals and processing of food is not only superstition, it is very anti-Ameircan, at least it's anti-apple pie.
That Science Proves Things
"They've proved ...," is the final argument in most debates and is almost always untrue. "They," may be any authority or expert, but frequently means, "scientists," and always means scientist when the arguments are about such pseudo-scientific subjects as environment, diet, human behavior, drugs, nature, or safety. It is supposed if science has "proved" it, then there is no more place for argument. But science does not prove any of these kinds of things. Science does not even address them.
In science, proof pertains to those theories and principles that have met all the objective criteria of science, have been verified by repeated experiments, and about which no currently known phenomenon raises any question. These theories and principles are very remote from the mundane world in which "scientific proof" and "scientists have proven" are used as intellectual clubs to reduce all objection, to say nothing of the ubiquitous use of such expressions in advertising.
The universal trust in "scientific proof," is not a sign of an understanding of the virtues of science, but of blind superstitious faith in authority.
Superstitious Faith in Science
In spite of the fact science is one of the few purely objective endeavors of mankind, most people's faith in science is not based on their objective understanding of either the nature of science itself or the current state of scientific knowledge. Most people have faith in science because it is successful, not because they understand the reason for that success. To have confidence in something because it is successful is rational enough, but when that confidence turns into a blind trust in anything that is promoted in the name of that success, it is pure superstition.
This superstitious attitude toward science is the ground for an almost mystical faith in it. Anything called, "science," is accepted without question and with a confidence that puts the religiously devout to shame. If only something is based on "science" or is the result of "scientific studies" (whatever those are) people will believe it with no other evidence, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. If you attempt to point out the obvious absurdities of some of these "scientific" wonders, you will be silenced with, "well, they've proved...." This superstitious faith in science, is pseudo-science and is the basis for endless quackery including environmentalism, psychology, sociology, evolution, and the medical quackery called, "alternate medicine."
Choices based on superstition are always dangerous, and usually harmful, because those choices will only conform to reality when what is believed happens to be true (by accident) but are usually untrue and do not conform to reality. This is bad for individuals but worse when those choices determine laws and public policy.
Take for example those laws requiring bicycle riders, motorcycle riders, and equestrians to wear helmets. While the motive for such laws is purely political, the justification put forth is that "scientific evidence," proves that wearing helmets reduces the chances of death and serious injury from accidents. Such evidence is totally unscientific, and, in fact, questionable in any case. Far better evidence exists, with some truly scientific backing, that aspirin reduces the chances of fatalities from heart attacks. Since no one is absolutely safe from the threat of heart attack, if laws are required to insure people's safety, especially from death, there should be a universal law requiring everyone to take aspirin.
In the case of such laws, the political fallacy that it is the government's business to insure every individual's safety and well-being, (generally known as socialism), it is doubtful such laws could be put over if people did not believe there was "scientific" evidence for the need and efficacy of such laws.
We've already looked at most of the pseudo-sciences: psychology, ecology (environmentalism), evolution, sociology, and anthropology. Then there all those varieties of quackery called alternative medicine, followed by all those useless products sold to those who believe the efficacy has been "proven by scientific studies, such as dietary supplements, fitness products, and diet fads.
All of real science is good, but most of what is promoted as science today is not science at all. Real science does not have to be "promoted."