Scientific Correctness

“Mad Science” by AureliusCat at DeviantArt


Jul 18, 2017

Think of the scientific method as the methodical application of human cognitive abilities.

Everyone uses cognition to some extent; scientists use it methodically. It works through the interplay of three activities: observing or experiencing or paying close attention to some particularly interesting thing or event; thinking of or imagining some idea that might explain the thing or event, giving it meaning; and testing the idea, verifying whether it stands up to further observation and experience and thinking, judging its truthfulness. (Although described here as three separate activities, they occur together and recurrently.)

One characteristic of the scientific method – and of any knowledge based on cognition – is that it seldom provides absolute certainty. Risk is an essential part of it. This is what makes it dynamic, adaptable, and, hence, useful. We are small people in a big and changing universe. There are always more things and events to experience, more viewpoints from which to observe them, and more ideas to make sense of them. This means the particular theories of science at any particular time are apt to change. In biological terms, they are “selected” by the intellectual environment of their times. Usually, they change in small ways. The big theories (such as evolution, atomic theory, and gravitation) are adaptable and can be modified to accommodate many new observations.

But occasionally new observations are so different and so many that a consensus arises to abandon a big theory and to develop an altogether different one. This is what happened when Copernicus’ idea of a heliocentric arrangement of the planets “succeeded” Ptolemy’s geocentric idea. The intellectual establishment of the time resisted the change, but the leap in progress of knowledge that accompanied the new theory abundantly repaid the “transaction costs”.

The multitude of discoveries in the last few decades has opened modern science to the opportunities of adopting new big theories. The competition of proposals is itself a process of discovery: Which proposed theory not only explains the new observations better but holds the greatest promise of aiding further discoveries.

I’ll use the term ‘paradigm’ for only these big theories. Some of their properties are: They provide guidelines for “where to look” and “what to look for”. They set standards for what constitutes a problem worthy of research and what qualifies as a solution. One of a paradigm’s greatest benefits is also one of its greatest liabilities: It provides guidelines (or excuses) for what to ignore. This saves time (that can be devoted to details of research) not having to consider “crackpot” ideas, meaning other paradigms that are substantially different. The history of science provides many examples of a new discipline making little progress, squabbling over fundamentals, until a paradigm is adopted. But at the other end, when a paradigm is becoming obsolete, the ignoring of alternatives results in “paradigm paralysis” that wastes time and resources trying to force-fit big anomalies into the undersized clothes of the established paradigm.

A paradigm does more than just make sense of existing observations. It leads to new observations, new data, new places to look and new ways to look, and to new technologies. This tension constitutes a creative dynamic. Paradigms enable discoveries that go beyond the limits of the paradigm, observations that can’t be explained by the paradigm, thus motivating a search for a more inclusive paradigm. This continues the process of articulation and succession.

But there are things that obstruct this process. One I’ll call “scientific correctness”: The (proper) concern that a theory is “correct” or “right” or “true”, that it “fits” or explains the relevant data, becomes confused with a pseudo-religious “Right” or True” that exceeds the cognitive domain of the paradigm. All other ideas come to be judged by the standards of the one. “Crackpot” becomes a term of dismissal rather than one of mere differentiation. The process of discovery gets lost in defensiveness.

A recent example of this is the behavior of the astronomical establishment toward Halton Arp. His observations of connections between quasars and galaxies put the brakes on the expanding universe and exploded the Big Bang hypothesis. But instead of saying, “Here’s an interesting observation; we don’t have time for it, but let’s see what he can make of it,” the reaction was, “Deny him telescope time and refuse to publish his findings and crop out quasars on photos of galaxies.”

Contrast “scientific correctness” with the concept of “domain of validity”. The former assumes that its paradigm is “right” and that all further observations can be explained, requiring at most tinkering with the details. This assumption of continuous cumulation of knowledge becomes absolute and straitjackets further discovery. It leads to stasis and intellectual death.

With the latter, science is seen not as the establishment of a catechism but as a process of discovering the borders. It assumes the continuous cumulation of knowledge within a paradigm will reach a limit. The cup of the paradigm will fill up, will reach a limit of explanatory power, and observations will spill over, that is, will be ill explained or unexplained. A new, bigger cup will be needed, a paradigm with a larger domain. In deference to Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge, this could be called “punctuated cumulation”.

Thus, one mark of a good paradigm is that it leads to its own replacement. This is the effect of Popper’s criterion of falsification. It means “true” knowledge is, in this larger sense, ultimately “false”. That doesn’t mean the knowledge isn’t useful for its time. It merely means we need to maintain a sense of humility in the face of our, and our theories’, mortality.

Scientific correctness rejects old paradigms as “wrong” and their proponents as stupid or evil. There can be only one “right” paradigm. With domains of validity, many paradigms can be accepted as true within their limits. Their intelligibility and the intelligence of their innovators can be appreciated. Science becomes a tool box with many tools (paradigms) that can be chosen according to their appropriateness for solving particular problems: geocentrism for siting a house, heliocentrism for sending a robot to Mars, something yet to be worked out for explaining quasars.

Scientific correctness masquerades in the dress of science, but it’s only a mannequin without the vitality of science. In contrast with the three aspects of cognition, scientific correctness refuses to look at new observations, refrains from considering new ideas, and disdains to verify new insights. It’s essentially anti-intelligent. It confuses verification with conformity; it replaces the innovations of intelligence with the parroting of dogma; it lacks the provisionality that keeps science always on the move. It’s a tyrant of stasis.

Mel Acheson

Print Friendly, PDF & Email