A Rule of Thumb About Science

A good rule of thumb about any scientific issue is that you’re not allowed to disagree with mainstream scientific opinion, unless you’ve studied the field in sufficient depth to have a serious, intelligent conversation with an expert. In case there are several competing views instead of one mainstream, you’re not allowed to strongly swing one way or another.

Of course, “not allowed” means “not allowed if you want to be rational.” You’re not allowed to believe in fringe scientific theories, however attractive they might be to your political ideology, just like you’re not allowed to believe in fairies or 9/11 conspiracy theories.

In particular:

1. No matter what your views on fat acceptance or body image are, you must accept that obesity is a major medical problem.

2. No matter what your views on smoking laws are, you must accept that first- and second-hand smoking both cause lung cancer.

3. No matter what your views on race and class are, you must accept that IQ is heritable and measures intelligence fairly decently. At the same time, you must accept that the authors of The Bell Curve have no idea what they’re talking about.

4. No matter what your views on gender roles are, you must accept that there’s a genetic or hormonal component, as well as a huge environmental one.

5. No matter what your views on physics are, you must accept that string theory is a sound scientific theory.

6. No matter what your views on the Kyoto Protocol are, you must accept that global warming is real and anthropogenic and will cause widespread ecological disruption if left unabated.

7. No matter what your views on environmental regulations are, you must accept that DDT is harmful to the environment and encourages resistance to spraying among mosquitos.

Many of the above propositions are the subject of some controversy, but there’s a clear dominant view. I don’t fault Peter Woit for concluding that string theory is unscientific; he’s an expert who knows enough about the theory to make an informed judgment. But to be rational, I shouldn’t side with him just by reading his book, unless I’m prepared to read heaps of mainstream material on string theory.

46 Responses to A Rule of Thumb About Science

  1. Pseudonym says:

    I haven’t studied that much string theory, but I know this: Regardless of how good a model of nature it turns out to be, it’s a wonderful piece of world-class mathematics. And that makes it science, even if it’s not physics.

  2. Trevor says:

    From all that I’ve read about string theory, as fascinating as it is, string theorists themselves admit that for every question they answer, 10 more rush in to take it’s place. Scientific, yes. But for right now at least, it seems to be more of a theory of a theory.

  3. Simen says:

    One doesn’t have to be a string theorist to see that if the expert string theorist themselves admit that they can’t make any falsifiable predictions, their theory can’t really be called a scientific theory of physics. Whether it’s worth spending time, money and effort on is something else. You don’t need to know much about intelligent design to judge that it is unscientific if it can’t make any predictions, either, though string theory is certainly more useful than ID.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    They say they can’t make falsifiable predictions yet, but are working toward finding sufficiently macro-scale observations that would enable them to test the theory without resorting to the galaxy-sized particle accelerator required to see strings.

  5. whig says:

    Alon, suppose I took your text and replaced the word “scientific” with “religious,”

    A good rule of thumb about any religious issue is that you’re not allowed to disagree with mainstream religious opinion, unless you’ve studied the field in sufficient depth to have a serious, intelligent conversation with an expert. In case there are several competing views instead of one mainstream, you’re not allowed to strongly swing one way or another.

    Kinda makes it sound a bit fundamentalist, doesn’t it?

  6. Alon Levy says:

    The difference is that science is a true issue of expertise, unlike religion. Science began as strictly empirical and easily accessible. It only became hierarchical after a large mass of facts made it necessary to compartmentalize and bureaucratize, and even so it’s more open to change provided that one has the necessary evidence than religion’s ever been.

  7. whig says:

    Religion is also a true issue of experience, unlike some kinds of science. Religion began as strictly experiential and easily accessible. It only became hierarchical after a large mass of doctrine made it necessary to compartmentalize and bureaucratize, but you are correct it is less open to change due to its primary purpose of maintaining traditional knowledge.

  8. whig says:

    This closedness to change infects science as well, unfortunately. It is still possible to overcome, but not really easier in many cases than to overturn traditional religious misunderstandings.

  9. whig says:

    Consider as well scientists who take money to deliver politically desired opinions, while other good science is suppressed by government prohibition of research, as with prospective cannabis studies.

  10. whig says:

    Incidentally, I can make falsifiable predictions that if you use cannabis you will be able to perceive divinity if you wish, and perhaps whether you wish or not.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    Religion was never empirical or testable. Christianity was hierarchical almost from day one; if the bishops hadn’t prevailed over the gnostics, it would’ve been a fringe religion.

    And there are good cannabis studies. They’re just not published in American journals. It’s usually a trivial matter to weed out, pun intended, studies produced by people with conflicts of interests, such as industry-funded tobacco research.

  12. whig says:

    You cannot know what would have happened or what will happen in the future, but for some change. You are closed and denialist.

  13. whig says:

    Nor is Christianity the only religion, nor even the largest in the world.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Sarah Silverman apparently doesn’t perceive God. Erdős did amphetamines rather than pot, but was still a committed atheist.

  15. whig says:

    And should I point out someone who does not perceive evolution? What the hell do amphetamines have anything to do with what I said, except that they are terrible for you while cannabis is beneficial.

  16. Alon Levy says:

    Christianity isn’t the largest religion in the world?

    Anyway, Hinduism has promoted a caste system since day one, Islam was more likely developed when an expanding Arab empire encountered monotheism, and even Buddhism has been used to promote warmongering and oppression, e.g. in Sri Lanka.

  17. whig says:

    Did you not undertake experiments to convince yourself of science? Do you take Sarah Silverman’s word for scientific truth, too?

  18. whig says:

    It appears I may have been wrong about Christianity not being the largest professed religion, but even so it is apparently on the order of one-third, meaning two-thirds of religious adherents do not describe themselves as Christian.

    If you want to argue from ill effects, then we need to consider new ways to talk about religion, just as we need to consider new ways to talk about science when it produces ill effects. Again, your primary argument is religion’s resistance to change, and I’ve already agreed with that.

  19. whig says:

    The point of all this dialogue is that religious liberals exist everywhere, but the conservatives (political, religious, scientific, financial, etc.) have been keeping us out of the media just as with you.

  20. whig says:

    Jesus was unquestionably a religious liberal, who broke the Sabbath laws for good reasons sufficient to himself, and to anyone who uses the brains God gave them.

  21. Bushbaptist says:

    If you wish to find out more about the inception of Christianity I suggest that you read ‘The Jewish Wars’ by Josephus. He was a contempory and was commissioned by the Romans to record the events taking place in Judea at biblical times.
    He mentions Jesus twice in the whole book.
    His chronicle written 2000 yrs ago, describes the issues of that area at that time without all the religious dogma. It is a fascinating look into the life of all people there.
    Do a Google for it as it is available on the Net.

  22. Trevor says:

    This is interesting, I reposted this on my blog, and I got this response….below that is my response to it….

    Anonymous said…

    Ah, children…

    Just because you throw a tantrum and scream “obesity is a health problem” don’t make it so, kiddo. Looks like you’re not prepared to read anything except your owned typed out preconceptions. Do some research. Fatness is a normal, human characteristic. Active fat people live longer than “normal” size people, and non-dieters have superior health to anyone who attempts weight loss (you know that 98% of dieters wind up at the same or a higher weight level than before the weight loss attempt, right?)

    You’re too stupid to have a blog. And too lazy. Stop talking about things you know nothing about and go play with your blocks.

    7:25 AM
    Delete
    Trevor said…

    Apparently you missed the point of the post being about disagreeing with mainstream scientific opinion. The mainstream scientific opinion right now is that obesity causes health problems across the board.

    Verbatum from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health…

    Overweight and obesity are known risk factors for:

    * diabetes
    * coronary heart disease
    * high blood cholesterol
    * stroke
    * hypertension
    * gallbladder disease
    * osteoarthritis (degeneration of cartilage and bone of joints)
    * sleep apnea and other breathing problems
    * some forms of cancer (uterine, breast, colorectal, kidney, and gallbladder)

    Obesity is also associated with:

    * complications of pregnancy
    * menstrual irregularities
    * hirsutism (presence of excess body and facial hair)
    * stress incontinence (urine leakage caused by weak pelvic floor muscles)
    * psychological disorders, such as depression
    * increased surgical risk
    * increased mortality

    For the notion that fatness is a normal human condition for everyone, consider the following from the CDC…

    During the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. In 1985 only a few states were participating in the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and providing obesity data. In 1991, four states had obesity prevalence rates of 15–19 percent and no states had rates at or above 20 percent.

    In 1995, obesity prevalence in each of the 50 states was less than 20 percent. In 2000, 28 states had obesity prevalence rates less than 20 percent.

    In 2005, only 4 states had obesity prevalence rates less than 20 percent, while 17 states had prevalence rates equal to or greater than 25 percent, with 3 of those having prevalences equal to or greater than 30 percent (Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia).

    From Colorado State University:

    Obesity is a growing problem among U.S. children. In 1994, one in five children between the ages of 6 and 17 was overweight. This is double the rate of 30 years ago.1 This adverse trend has potentially profound effects on children’s health, including their long-term health.

    I’ll agree that some heavy people are heavy because it’s in there genes, but if this is the norm, why has obesity surged in recent decades; the age of processed food and take-out/fast-food.

    My research is done long before making opinions about anything.

    Good day.

  23. SLC says:

    Re IQ

    The Bell Curve isn’t the only example of nuttiness. Some 35 years ago, I had the unpleasure of reading a number of papers on the subject of the alleged intellectual inferiority of black Americans authored by Nobel Prize winner William Shockley which he sent me. It was quite a revelation reading such unmitigated crap from so distinguished a scientist. As an example of this, he based some calculations on the premise that there were 2 million Jews in North America. I sent him a letter pointing out that, according to the World Almanac, ther were actually some 6 million Jews in North America (this was 1969). Of course, I never received a reply.

  24. SLC says:

    Re String Theory

    As an aside, I should point out that I know absolutely nothing about string theory. However, there is no need to actually observe strings, any more then there is a need to observe black holes or the quantum vacuum (which I do know something about). It suffices to observe the consequences of the existance of such entities. It would seem, to this ignorant observer, that at this point in time, string theory is not really a theory at all but a hypothesis, if the NAS definition of a theory is to be followed. Apparently, string theory doesn’t yet make any predictions and therefore cannot be falsified. This should be contrasted with the special theory of relativity which made predictions starting with the first paper published by Einstein in 1905 (e.g. time dialation).

  25. Alon Levy says:

    However, there is no need to actually observe strings, any more then there is a need to observe black holes or the quantum vacuum (which I do know something about).

    Oh, of course not. Woit’s main argument is that string theorists are trying to back away from any macro-level predictions that could be tested using current equipment, if I’m not mistaken.

  26. Kristian Z. says:

    Whig, just because you are able to replace one word with another in a sentence, and make a new grammatically correct sentence out of it, does not make it TRUE. You have no point, basically.

  27. whig says:

    Kristian, saying that someone has no point does not demonstrate it. You are playing language games while accusing me of doing so.

  28. whig says:

    Let me try to be more communicative with you, Kristian. I don’t believe that what I said is true, I am not a fundamentalist. My point, which you apparently missed, is that Alon is a scientific fundamentalist, and a religious denialist. He won’t even investigate, because he believes in fairy tales about cannabis.

  29. Alon Levy says:

    A good rule of thumb if you want to be taken seriously is not to accuse me of holding positions I’ve never subscribed to (in this case, about marijuana).

  30. whig says:

    Alon, apologies if I misconstrue your position. I take it that you do not endorse Tyler’s arguments.

    Do you decline cannabis, and yet deny God? Or do you prefer not to answer?

  31. Do you decline cannabis, and yet deny God? Or do you prefer not to answer?

    Whig, it’s difficult to argue against needlessly cryptic statements like this.

  32. Kristian Z. says:

    Whig: Take the sentence “I am certain that I exist” and replace the last “I” with “God”. Makes me look like a religious guy, doesn’t it? Should I stop being certain that I exist, since replacing arbirtary words in my sentence makes a new sentence with a completely different meaning which I don’t subsribe to? Surely the original sentence can be true, while the second can be untrue, yet being quite similar in grammatical stucture?

  33. whig says:

    Tyler, there is nothing cryptic in what I said. You refuse cannabis, as is your sovereign right. But do not deny what I say regarding the ability of cannabis to facilitate perception of the divine if you decline to check and see for yourself.

    Kristian, if you believe in your own existence as a consciousness having free will, then you believe in some part of God.

  34. Tyler, there is nothing cryptic in what I said. You refuse cannabis, as is your sovereign right. But do not deny what I say regarding the ability of cannabis to facilitate perception of the divine if you decline to check and see for yourself.

    Whig, I deny (I prefer to say that I strongly doubt) those things for the same reason I deny the reality of the hallucinations of shizophrenics. I’m sure that people do have such hallucinations, but I’m also pretty sure that they’re seeing that aren’t there.

  35. whig says:

    Tyler, you can strongly doubt, and then you will be an agnostic. If you deny, without looking at the evidence that I have told you how to find, then you are just a denialist.

  36. Tyler, you can strongly doubt, and then you will be an agnostic. If you deny, without looking at the evidence that I have told you how to find, then you are just a denialist.

    Not really, unless you broadly define a term like “agnostic”. I do not believe the evidence warrants beliefs like the ones you speak of, so I reject them. You can never be absolutely certainly about anything.

  37. whig says:

    What color is the sun? How do you know?

  38. whig says:

    And incidentally Tyler, the dismissal of cannabis-enhanced perception is the dismissal of music like the Beatles and all that came after them. Schizophrenics may have altered perceptions which they cannot comprehend and disbelieve, and which may be unpleasant and undesired. Cannabis-enhanced perception is something that people seek out, and go on to live productive, healthy, happy lives while incorporating it as part of their regular day, as one might a cup of tea or pot of coffee in the morning.

  39. Alon Levy says:

    Whig, you still haven’t told me why I should take seriously your “Cannabis makes you see God” line when most people who do pot don’t find religion.

  40. whig says:

    Alon, I wouldn’t expect someone to see what they aren’t looking for. I thought I had already answered to that effect. Cannabis isn’t pushy, it lets you relax and do what you want. You set the pace, for the most part, though circumstances in your environment may not be under your control.

    Many people find cannabis part of their spiritual practice. You are invited to investigate for yourself, to see if there is something to this or not. You should understand by now that cannabis is not physically addictive but may become a perfectly benign habit. I have nothing to sell you and nothing to gain but your own better understanding.

    Some people have looked out the window during a rain shower and seen a rainbow. If you refuse to look out the window, you won’t see it for certain.

  41. whig says:

    Also, I should give you fair warning because you seem to not know much about it, cannabis might not have any effect at all on you the first time you try it. That’s very common.

  42. Lynet says:

    5. No matter what your views on physics are, you must accept that string theory is a sound scientific theory.

    What do you mean by ‘sound’?

    String theory is definitely controversial. Roger Penrose is a nice example of a very respectable doubter, and he’s certainly not the only one; the physics department at my old university had several more.

    I don’t think anyone’s being deliberately unscientific, but I do suspect that social factors are affecting what might appear to be the ‘majority opinion among experts’ here. There are very few good (sound?) theories out there that are definitely going somewhere. That doesn’t make the ones we have any better, but it does mean that those who disagree with the current theories are more likely to choose a different field than to set themselves up in opposition.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think it well within the bounds of possibility that all of string theory will turn out to be a red herring – a red herring that is currently taking a lot of effort. This may not make it an unsound scientific theory per se, because I’m not sure how you are defining that.

    (Dis)claimer: I used to study mathematical physics, and I don’t any more, precisely because I don’t feel like spending my life on string theory – it would be too depressing not to believe you were going anywhere. This decision probably affects my comments above. I could not afford to sit delicately on the fence, however rational that might have been in the abstract situation you refer to above; I made a decision about my own life based on probabilities as I saw them, and I made that decision without a detailed knowledge of string theory, because, let’s face it, a detailed knowledge of string theory takes forever to acquire. I’m perfectly happy with that decision as made, but it may mean that I’ve come to a decision on something which I am not abstractly qualified to comment on.

    On another note, though, how much of a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of string theory is necessary to be able to comment on its plausibility? I’m not sure to what extent one can simply look at the claims made by string theorists in favour of their theory and make one’s own judgement on those.

    • If I’m not qualified to assess whether or not an expert is wrong, what qualifies me to trust that an expert is right? My basis for believing anything a scientist tells me has to come from the technicians whose productions have proven, from my own experience (and this is an area where I am competent to make a judgment), to do what they are supposed to do. I trust the pronouncements of science so far as I have been given me a pragmatic basis for doing so, and for the rest suspend judgment.

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