December 3, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Science Done by Humans Is Mushy

Discoveries in science must be mediated by flawed agents: human beings.  Though the most hardened scientific realists maintain strong beliefs in external reality, the perceived reality is mediated by senses, then interpreted by minds that are not omniscient.  Those are some of the reasons that science keeps changing, as illustrated by some recent examples:

  1. Endangered what?  Scientists can have profound economic impacts on people when they help government agencies decide that certain species are endangered and need protection.  PhysOrg told about species of coral that might be designated for protection.  Then it asked, “But are all the ‘species’ on this list really species?”  It turns out that classifying corals, and deciding which kinds interbreed, is not always so clear.  “Surprisingly, researchers found that colony shape, color, and growth form can vary wildly, and may be misleading as to their species identity.”
  2. Nova novelty:  Some novae (exploding stars) can be witnessed by the naked eye.  Astronomers thought they had them pretty well figured out, but now a new instrument on a satellite is revealing flickers, pauses and flares not predicted by theory, reported PhysOrg.  One phenomenon called a pre-maximum halt was confirmed by the new observations.  “The reality of this halt as found in all three of the fast-declining novae observed is a challenge to detailed models of the nova outburst,” an astronomer said.
  3. Perfuming the myth:  For over a half century, we’ve been told that, like insects, humans give off faint odors called pheromones that induce responses like sexual attraction.  Problem is, it’s a myth, says Richard Doty (Penn State School of Medicine).  PhysOrg told about his research that culminated in a book, The Great Pheromone Myth.  Mammals don’t have them, he claims – which has “reignited the debate over the science of these supposed smells.”  But that’s not the only problem: “Even the definition of the word is controversial.”
  4. Climate science clashes with politics:  Reporters have descended upon Cancun, Mexico, at the intersection of cloudy science and nationalism.  Live Science said that the climate talks hit snags early on.  The tenor of the talks seems far less confident about the science than before the Climategate scandal hit last year.  Nature News agreed that it is a climate of confusion.  This may be one of the best examples in recent times of a clash between scientists and politicians over how much confidence can be put in human-mediated conclusions about external reality, when the economic stakes are potentially crippling either way – whether the scientific consensus is right and nothing is done, or the consensus is wrong and too much is done.  The world awaits the outcome of decisions by fallible people.

When blogger Richard Thaler at The Edge invited fellow scientists to respond to his latest edgy question, “The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods.  Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?” he got quite a reaction.  According to Live Science, he got some fascinating responses.  65 notable names in science responded with their favorite examples.
    Our headline reads, “Science done by humans is mushy.”  Who else is going to do science?  What does that imply?

Isn’t it pretentious that several of the evolutionists in the responses picked on creation and intelligent design as examples of debunked science?  What they should have done is recognize that their own faith in evolution could be tomorrow’s debris in the dustbin.  Thaler, co-author of leftist utopian Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge, which tries to program human beings according to leftist ideology, is even more pretentious, presuming that he, a mere mortal, has the insight and understanding to look down on members of his own species as sheep that can be manipulated.  There is no more scary prospect to a civilization than an oligarchy of the self-appointed wise.  For the survival of humanity, teach humility to your local scientist!
    See also last month’s related entry on 11/02/2010, “People Doing Science, Sometimes Badly.”

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