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Thursday
Sep032009

A Self-correcting System

The ability of science as a method to understand reality is demonstrated by the countless successes science has had in developing technology. Antibiotics, vaccination, flight, agriculture, all of these advances clearly work. Why is this? People came up with many ideas to prevent smallpox in the past, but they consistently failed. The development of a smallpox vaccine which actually worked does not demonstrate that scientists have any unique intelligence, but rather it is testimony to the power of a self-correcting system.

Hypotheses are worthless if they are not tested and then discarded if they fail testing. The process of science is not just coming up with an idea of how to cure smallpox, many people clung to their ideas of what would cure smallpox even as they died. Rather, science is testing this idea by looking at the evidence. Uniquely, science discards ideas that just don't work. The simple process of keeping ideas that work and discarding ideas that don't work has built an amazing edifice of knowledge.

The real beauty of the scientific method is that it does not depend on any single person being right or wrong, being ethical or unethical. There will always be scientists who lie or cheat, falsify data or hide experiments that disprove their pet theory. But the hypotheses that these people put forward will always be discarded, because they will fail tests by other scientists.

Best of all, scientists have a vested interest in knocking down incorrect theories. Often you will hear from anti-science campaigners that scientists are hiding data that the theory of [evolution] / [global warming] / [insert hated theory here] is incorrect. They believe in a vast conspiracy of scientists each trying to hold up a false theory for some unexplained nefarious purpose, assuming that scientists don't want to prove a theory incorrect. They fundamentally do not understand the system of science.  Personal glory does not come to the scientists who prove yet again that the theory of gravity works, personal glory comes to the scientist who finds an exception, who proves a theory incomplete, who can unravel the fatal flaw in a centuries old dogma! Einstein, Newton, Copernicus, Darwin, these are all scientists who destroyed the prevailing theories of their age. Every scientist today would love to join their glorious ranks.

A scientist who could prove today that the theory of relativity, evolution or global warming was wrong would publish in the highest journals, win the Nobel Prize, earn household recognition and become rich. There are only two ways a theory such as evolution could still stand today:

1) Every scientist working in the field is deliberately concealing data that disproves evolution, despite knowing that breaking the nefarious conspiracy would earn them recognition as a leader of science, a place in the history books and a lot of personal glory;
or
2) There are no experiments that reveal a fatal flaw.

That is the beauty of science, individuals have huge power to make advances but very little ability to make delays, since theories are judged by experimental results. To reject science you have to reject human nature and believe in an alternative reality where everyone acts uniformly against their personal interests. Trust in science is not trust is individual scientists, it is trust in a system that for thousands of years has produced results, a system that is self-correcting, a system that acts as an 'invisible hand' to select only the models of reality that actually work, regardless of whether the individuals involved were motivated by a selfless search for truth or a greedy struggle for personal glory. The scientific method is an emergent phenomenon which self-corrects the activities of individual scientists to develop only the most robust theories that have so far resisted every attempt to knock them down.

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