April 25, 2024 | David F. Coppedge

The Science of Being Wrong

In a process of continual correction,
when does one arrive at certainty?


Believers in scientism flaunt the virtue of science as being a “self-correcting process.” They portray the scientific method as approaching an asymptotic limit, where each correction brings the scientist, while unable to claim absolute truth, at least closer and closer to the truth. But what if science in practice is more like Brownian motion? And to what extent do human frailties factor into the view of self-correction? Let’s look at some recent science news to flesh out these questions.

Rethinking Prior Scientific Truths

Eggs May Not Be Bad for Your Heart After All (American College of Cardiology, 28 March 2024). Not many years ago, the science was settled. Eggs are bad. Cholesterol. Fat. The wrong fatty acids. Stay away! No; eggs are good. No, they’re bad. They’re good, we say! Are scientists inching closer to the truth?

Whether you like your eggs sunny-side up, hard boiled or scrambled, many hesitate to eat them amid concerns that eggs may raise cholesterol levels and be bad for heart health. However, results from a prospective, controlled trial presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session show that over a four-month period cholesterol levels were similar among people who ate fortified eggs most days of the week compared with those who didn’t eat eggs.

Bonobos are more aggressive than previously thought, study shows (Cell Press via Science Daily, 12 April 2024). How long has the public been told the myth that chimpanzees are aggressive, but bonobos (another species within the same genus) are gentle, living peaceably in groups? Some evolutionists have even suggested that we humans can learn from bonobos how to harness our own evolution to follow the path of bonobos, learning to get along in peace. Now look:

Chimpanzees and bonobos are often thought to reflect two different sides of human nature — the conflict-ready chimpanzee versus the peaceful bonobo — but a new study shows that, within their own communities, male bonobos are more frequently aggressive than male chimpanzees. For both species, more aggressive males had more mating opportunities.

Researchers this time used the same method on both species, and found some surprises.

To their surprise, the researchers found that male bonobos were more frequently aggressive than chimpanzees. Overall, bonobos engaged in 2.8 times more aggressive interactions and 3 times as many physical aggressions.

How did earlier studies get the story so backwards? This is serious, given that some evolutionary advice was built on the myth of the gentle bonobo:

“Male bonobos that are more aggressive obtain more copulations with females, which is something that we would not expect,” said Mouginot. “It means that females do not necessarily go for nicer males.”

These findings partially contradict a prevailing hypothesis in primate and anthropological behavior — the self-domesticating hypothesis — which posits that aggression has been selected against in bonobos and humans but not chimpanzees.

One could read any number of unsavory conclusions from this flip-flop, the worst of which would be that evolution selects for aggression in humans. But before reasoning that way, remember that a healthy breakfast does not consist of waffles. Before this waffle, scientists were teaching falsehood. So even if the science is self-correcting in some sense, years of lies were told with the authority of science. How long will it take to correct the textbooks, popular books and nature documentaries that have perpetuated the myth of the peaceful bonobo? How many teachers will remain uninformed about the flip-flop? And what will evolutionary sociologists make of the new study when they interpret how humans should behave?

Proof of biased behavior of Normalized Mutual Information (Mahmoudi and Jemielniak, Nature Scientific Reports, 19 April 2024). For those willing to wade through pages of abstruse derivations, this paper claims to have proved that a widely-used method for assessing community networks is inherently biased and misleading. This is not a small matter:

Community detection (CD) within social networks has emerged as a pivotal area of research, given its potential to unravel intricate patterns of interaction and group dynamics. It is used in many disciplines, including biology, criminology, economics, and urban planning, to mention just a few examples. In particular, this topic has also emerged as a critical field in the battle against disinformation. Social networks are often the primary conduits for the spread of disinformation, with communities within these networks playing a significant role in the dissemination and amplification of misleading content. By identifying and understanding these communities, we can gain valuable insights into the dynamics of disinformation spread, enabling more effective interventions. It is essential, as the rapid spread of medical, political, social, as well as scientific misinformation and disinformation are among the greatest civilization challenges of our times.

This means that one of the primary sources of scientific data leading to policies of censorship in social media has come from a flawed method of detecting mis/disinformation! Consider the irony: NMI (normalized mutual information) has been used to evaluate the source and spread of disinformation – but the method itself produces disinformation! Have scientists been inadvertently lying about who is lying?

Getting the Past Wrong

The above examples deal with observable, testable phenomena. If scientists can be so wrong about those, how much more can they be wrong about prehistoric or one-time phenomena not available for replication, observation, or testing?

We’ve had bird evolution all wrong (University of Florida, 1 April 2024). This is not an April Fool joke. Well, maybe it is in one sense. The joke is on the scientists who thought they understood bird evolution. But have they just replaced one wrong idea with another?

If you wish, you can read about bird genes and chromosomes and alternate phylogenetic trees in this article that led them to admit that they’ve had bird evolution all wrong. But it’s hard to be convinced that they are any closer to the truth now.

“What’s surprising is that this period of suppressed recombination could mislead the analysis,” Braun said. “And because it could mislead the analysis, it was actually detectable more than 60 million years in the future. That’s the cool part.

Such a mystery could be lurking in the genomes of other organisms as well.

Like a stone cast into a lake, the ripple effects of this error could reverberate throughout evolutionary biology.

Left-handed monkeys prompt rethink about evolution of right-handedness (New Scientist, 5 April 2024). Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes, “A popular idea links primates living on the ground with a tendency for right-handedness, but findings from urban langurs in India cast doubt on the idea.” She means “popular idea” in the sense that it was assumed by many evolutionists. How do we know? Because she links the phrase to a paper published in a scientific journal: Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in 1987, about how handedness evolved. If the new findings are correct, that’s at least 37 years of error promulgated by evolutionists.

The Wrong Philosophy of Wrong Science

Dr Bergman’s book will quickly sober up those drunk on the myth of scientism.

Teach philosophy of science (H. Holden Thorp, editorial, Science Magazine, 11 April 2024). Good news: the editor of America’s leading science journal, Science, agrees that philosophy of science should be taught to students! Bad news: Thorp’s philosophy of science is narrowly tailored to support the materialistic, Darwinistic philosophy promulgated by the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science).

Much is being made about the erosion of public trust in science. Surveys show a modest decline in the United States from a very high level of trust, but that is seen for other institutions as well. What is apparent from the surveys is that a better explanation of the nature of science—that it is revised as new data surface—would have a strong positive effect on public trust.

If students only knew that science is expected to get things wrong from time to time, Thorp says, they might be more forgiving. Righteous scientists in white lab coats are glad to be wrong, in his portrayal, because it spurs them onward toward the asymptotic limit of truth. Here, Thorp embraces the myth of self-correction in science.

Science is, after all, a work in progress that changes as new findings cause revision and refinement of held interpretations. The history of science is a powerful narrative of this culture of self-correction, and it is the essence of science to attempt to make discoveries that change the way scientists think. But whenever science becomes important in the public eye, as with climate change and the pandemic, the continuous revision can become a target for those who wish to undermine scientific knowledge.

But it’s not knowledge at all if it is under continuous revision! It is only approaching knowledge if one assumes self-correction, but that begs the question of scientific knowledge.

Thorp’s description of philosophy of science seems woefully uninformed about the history of logical positivism, Kuhnian paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions, radical challenges to scientific authority by Feyerabend, C.S. Lewis, Gödel, Quine, Foucault, van Fraassen, Polanyi, Lakatos, Berlinski and others who (for disparate reasons) would take issue with this myth of self-correction. Many times the scientific establishment has fought against the pioneers of breakthroughs and continues to censor unpopular views of those who think outside the box. Thorp also ignores the intellectual ferment going on in Big Science these days about policies and practices that promote wrongness, such as flawed peer review, publish-or-perish pressure, biased grad advisors, groupthink in consensus, funding biases, “going along to get along,” perverse incentives for fraud and misconduct, and censorship against non-consensus positions. He also ignores the current political bias that has infected the halls of academia. Many honest researchers do good work the best they can, but the Pollyanna view of Big Science expired a century ago.

Why we need to invoke philosophy to judge bizarre concepts in science (New Scientist, 20 March 2024). Here’s another call to bring philosophy back into science. After discussions of “bizarre” concepts like supersymmetry and dark matter, this article comments, “alternative approaches must be welcomed and judged on their relative merits, no matter how outlandish they may seem.” Like intelligent design? Imagine the screams.

For more on whether science is self-correcting, see our previous articles:

  • Objectivity of Science Undermined (24 Oct 2011)
  • Science Reporter Says Scientists Are Like Cattle (9 Dec 2013)
  • Science Replication: An Ideal in Crisis (16 Nov 2014)
  • You Should Trust Scientists (To Be Fallible) (6 June 2015)
  • If You Can’t Trust Scientists, You Can’t Trust Science (8 Feb 2016)
  • Scientists Are Not Always Trained to Be Critical Thinkers (19 Feb 2018)
  • Big Science Trying to Wipe Egg Off Its Face (18 March 2018)
  • Fallen, Fallen Is Big Science the Great (29 Aug 2020)
  • Retracted Papers Never Die (6 Jan 2021)
  • Who Decides What Is Misinformation About Science? (16 April 2021)

What’s the missing ingredient in all these news articles? It’s that word integrity again. In any field of inquiry, scientific or not, nothing good can be achieved without integrity. Scientists, historians, economists, politicians, industry leaders, teachers, judges, car salesmen and every other human being earns ZERO trust without integrity. Otherwise, they might be lying to you. They might be trying to trick you out of your money. They might be motivated entirely by self-interest. They might be pawns of their selfish genes that are trying to replicate themselves.

Honest scientists can still be wrong if they lack data, or can be wrong by the limitations of human knowledge. When found wrong, they will retract their publications and apologize. But we deceive ourselves if we think that scientists live in a special space where they escape the need for integrity because of some scientific “method” they use.

Here’s a point to ponder: How much integrity do you expect from someone who teaches that integrity is a social construct derived from our evolution from bonobos who prospered due to hitting upon sexual strategies that happened to produce more offspring?

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