Archive for September 23, 2013

Science, Religion and Henry Gee

Posted in Bad Statistics, Books, Talks and Reviews, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2013 by telescoper

Last week a piece appeared on the Grauniad website by Henry Gee who is a Senior Editor at the magazine Nature.  I was prepared to get a bit snarky about the article when I saw the title, as it reminded me of an old  rant about science being just a kind of religion by Simon Jenkins that got me quite annoyed a few years ago. Henry Gee’s article, however, is actually rather more coherent than that and  not really deserving of some of the invective being flung at it.

For example, here’s an excerpt that I almost agree with:

One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the “significance” of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one’s grasp.

I’ve made the point on this blog many times that, although statistical reasoning lies at the heart of the scientific method, we don’t do anywhere near enough  to teach students how to use probability properly; nor do scientists do enough to explain the uncertainties in their results to decision makers and the general public.  I also agree with the concluding thought, that science isn’t about absolute truths. Unfortunately, Gee undermines his credibility by equating statistical reasoning with p-values which, in my opinion, are a frequentist aberration that contributes greatly to the public misunderstanding of science. Worse, he even gets the wrong statistics wrong…

But the main thing that bothers me about Gee’s article is that he blames scientists for promulgating the myth of “science-as-religion”. I don’t think that’s fair at all. Most scientists I know are perfectly well aware of the limitations of what they do. It’s really the media that want to portray everything in simple black and white terms. Some scientists play along, of course, as I comment upon below, but most of us are not priests but pragmatatists.

Anyway, this episode gives me the excuse to point out  that I ended a book I wrote in 1998 with a discussion of the image of science as a kind of priesthood which it seems apt to repeat here. The book was about the famous eclipse expedition of 1919 that provided some degree of experimental confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and which I blogged about at some length last year, on its 90th anniversary.

I decided to post the last few paragraphs here to show that I do think there is a valuable point to be made out of the scientist-as-priest idea. It’s to do with the responsibility scientists have to be honest about the limitations of their research and the uncertainties that surround any new discovery. Science has done great things for humanity, but it is fallible. Too many scientists are too certain about things that are far from proven. This can be damaging to science itself, as well as to the public perception of it. Bandwagons proliferate, stifling original ideas and leading to the construction of self-serving cartels. This is a fertile environment for conspiracy theories to flourish.

To my mind the thing  that really separates science from religion is that science is an investigative process, not a collection of truths. Each answer simply opens up more questions.  The public tends to see science as a collection of “facts” rather than a process of investigation. The scientific method has taught us a great deal about the way our Universe works, not through the exercise of blind faith but through the painstaking interplay of theory, experiment and observation.

This is what I wrote in 1998:

Science does not deal with ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. It deals instead with descriptions of reality that are either ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’. Newton’s theory of gravity was not shown to be ‘wrong’ by the eclipse expedition. It was merely shown that there were some phenomena it could not describe, and for which a more sophisticated theory was required. But Newton’s theory still yields perfectly reliable predictions in many situations, including, for example, the timing of total solar eclipses. When a theory is shown to be useful in a wide range of situations, it becomes part of our standard model of the world. But this doesn’t make it true, because we will never know whether future experiments may supersede it. It may well be the case that physical situations will be found where general relativity is supplanted by another theory of gravity. Indeed, physicists already know that Einstein’s theory breaks down when matter is so dense that quantum effects become important. Einstein himself realised that this would probably happen to his theory.

Putting together the material for this book, I was struck by the many parallels between the events of 1919 and coverage of similar topics in the newspapers of 1999. One of the hot topics for the media in January 1999, for example, has been the discovery by an international team of astronomers that distant exploding stars called supernovae are much fainter than had been predicted. To cut a long story short, this means that these objects are thought to be much further away than expected. The inference then is that not only is the Universe expanding, but it is doing so at a faster and faster rate as time passes. In other words, the Universe is accelerating. The only way that modern theories can account for this acceleration is to suggest that there is an additional source of energy pervading the very vacuum of space. These observations therefore hold profound implications for fundamental physics.

As always seems to be the case, the press present these observations as bald facts. As an astrophysicist, I know very well that they are far from unchallenged by the astronomical community. Lively debates about these results occur regularly at scientific meetings, and their status is far from established. In fact, only a year or two ago, precisely the same team was arguing for exactly the opposite conclusion based on their earlier data. But the media don’t seem to like representing science the way it actually is, as an arena in which ideas are vigorously debated and each result is presented with caveats and careful analysis of possible error. They prefer instead to portray scientists as priests, laying down the law without equivocation. The more esoteric the theory, the further it is beyond the grasp of the non-specialist, the more exalted is the priest. It is not that the public want to know – they want not to know but to believe.

Things seem to have been the same in 1919. Although the results from Sobral and Principe had then not received independent confirmation from other experiments, just as the new supernova experiments have not, they were still presented to the public at large as being definitive proof of something very profound. That the eclipse measurements later received confirmation is not the point. This kind of reporting can elevate scientists, at least temporarily, to the priesthood, but does nothing to bridge the ever-widening gap between what scientists do and what the public think they do.

As we enter a new Millennium, science continues to expand into areas still further beyond the comprehension of the general public. Particle physicists want to understand the structure of matter on tinier and tinier scales of length and time. Astronomers want to know how stars, galaxies  and life itself came into being. But not only is the theoretical ambition of science getting bigger. Experimental tests of modern particle theories require methods capable of probing objects a tiny fraction of the size of the nucleus of an atom. With devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers can gather light that comes from sources so distant that it has taken most of the age of the Universe to reach us from them. But extending these experimental methods still further will require yet more money to be spent. At the same time that science reaches further and further beyond the general public, the more it relies on their taxes.

Many modern scientists themselves play a dangerous game with the truth, pushing their results one-sidedly into the media as part of the cut-throat battle for a share of scarce research funding. There may be short-term rewards, in grants and TV appearances, but in the long run the impact on the relationship between science and society can only be bad. The public responded to Einstein with unqualified admiration, but Big Science later gave the world nuclear weapons. The distorted image of scientist-as-priest is likely to lead only to alienation and further loss of public respect. Science is not a religion, and should not pretend to be one.

PS. You will note that I was voicing doubts about the interpretation of the early results from supernovae  in 1998 that suggested the universe might be accelerating and that dark energy might be the reason for its behaviour. Although more evidence supporting this interpretation has since emerged from WMAP and other sources, I remain sceptical that we cosmologists are on the right track about this. Don’t get me wrong – I think the standard cosmological model is the best working hypothesis we have _ I just think we’re probably missing some important pieces of the puzzle. I don’t apologise for that. I think sceptical is what a scientist should be.

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