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Do Scientists Know It All?

Posted May 25, 2008 2:25 PM

The merits of various vaccines have been verified, the role of evolution in biodiversity has been clarified, and anthropogenically-induced global warming, well — is still being debated. But why is scientific authority challenged by skeptics in many corners? Sociologist Harry Collins of Cardiff University, Wales, contends that this trend lies in a misunderstanding of expertise itself. Why should the average person admit that scientists might know better than they do? Collins points to contributions made by those with interactional expertise and tacit knowledge as the pinnacle of scientific probity. Certainly debate is a major part of the scientific process, but is science being undermined by a large dose of skepticism — or is caution wise?

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#1

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/25/2008 11:01 PM

In the example you choose, vaccines, science can tell you pretty reliably that a vaccine is say 95% effective in protection and will harm one recipient in say 500.

It's an individual decision, (maybe with a local expert), to balance the risks of exposure to the drug risk.

The problem arrises when 'Pol.s` decide "everyone should......".

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#12
In reply to #1

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 9:20 AM

The problem arrises when 'Pol.s` decide "everyone should......".

Agreed. The government, whether local, state or federal, most often has the final say in where science companies can locate (prime example, Cambridge, MA), and what they can do research on. We hear the nice sounding talk of "no children left behind", of education of our children, of "feed the poor" here in the U. S. But what is the federal government doing? How many $ BILLIONS have been spent in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why is ~ half the Iraqi crude oil being diverted to the black market to make a few multi-millionaires? Can you even remotely imagine what the $ BILLIONS spent in Iraq and Afghanistan would do for medical research, for cancer research, for education, to raise the standard of living of the desperately poor here in the U. S.? How many millions of gallons of gasoline and diesel are used every day by the military, primarily in the Near East, and what do you think that usage has done to the price of crude oil in the market and the cost of fuel here and around the world? Think twice about who you are going to vote for! Remember, only the wealthy run for political office, and many of them have no clue what a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk costs, and why children go hungry or have no medical insurance.

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#2

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 12:01 AM

Part of the problem is that people who are ignorant and incurious often have no idea how little they really know.

I'm sure we've all had the experience of trying to explain a scientific concept to someone with lots of confidence, absolutely certainty, but no background or interest in the subject.

When you eventually give up in frustration they assume they've won.

Perhaps that could be a future topic "Ignorant idiots we've argued with".

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#10
In reply to #2

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 3:46 AM

"Ignorant idiots we've argued with".

Oh yes..do it man..just do it...yeh yeh yeh.

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#3

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 12:05 AM

"and anthropogenically-induced global warming, well — is still being debated". Only by people with short term vested interests. Political debate, I call it. The debate is just marketing (or sabotage depending on what type of life you want for your kids) to delay emmision caps a few more years.

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#4

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 12:06 AM

I think that a big part of the problem is the way science is presented, not by the scientists, but by some educators, and most of the news media. Science is about probability, measurement and uncertainty. Scientists would not say that a vaccine works. They would say that it is say about 95% effective. Scientists would not say that a full grown male elephant weighs 6,000 kg.. They would say that they weigh between 4,500 and 7,000 kg..

But many educators, and pretty much all of the folks in the news media don't like ranges, and don't have much use for uncertainty, at least not in their professional capacity as filler between the Viagra and Geico commercials. They want certainty, so they report science as facts. When new findings require a re-evaluation, scientists will see this as the normal way that science progresses, but the new media will report it (if at all) as a major controversy that is shaking science to its very foundations. Since this is where most people get their information, it is understandable that they will start to view scientists as 'flip-floppers', who can't be trusted. In fairness, it should also be pointed out that far too many scientists have contributed to the problem by over-stating their findings, sometimes to please their corporate sponsors, and sometimes out of hubris.

Combine this with a deep rooted disdain for 'intellectuals', 'elitists', and book learnin', and we are all set for a wide scale rejection of science. Skepticism is healthy, but to paraphrase Monty Python, 'skepticism is based on a series of demonstrable propositions arranged in a rational argument, not merely a reflexive exercise in nay-saying'.

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#6
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 12:32 AM

Johnfotl, I could not have said it better. Science is a realm where mistakes are made-they are a product of experimentation. Mistakes are the building blocks for the correct theory/solution to follow. I agree about making statements with range and probability-as that is the only way many things can be explained. Often the audience wants an "exact" guarantee, and cannot accept a range. The only true quantities are those than can be counted-not those that are measured. That is a hard thing for the average person to accept I think.

I must consider myself as an example. Later this year I plan to have cataract surgery on both eyes. I understand the ratio of probability that my vision will (a) improve, (b)not improve, (c) regress, or (d) be destroyed. I accept this risk assessment, and am willing to take the risk because I strongly feel that I will be in the successful group.

I do believe that the public has always been skeptical of scientists, because again, the public wants an "exact" answer-a type of guarantee. And the public is not willing to invest a bit a time to undertand more about the subject.

So do scientists "know it all?" Of course not. Do they make mistakes? Of course they do-that leads them towards other methods of extracting an answer. Do they disagree? Quite often, but again this makes them work very hard to prove their individual point is the correct one. Scientists are really no different from engineers in that the quest for the final and correct solution is often fraught with well-intentioned mistakes.

I think most at CR-4 can understand the uncertainties that are in science, because we know there is no perfect world of perfect solutions.

Best Regards,

Ing. Robert Forbus

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#7
In reply to #6

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 2:08 AM

But one problem is that the so-called scientists do not step forward to be accountable for their mistakes...and for the havoc that such mistakes can and do wreak upon society. Strange as it might seem, science today is behind much of what we perceive as the dumbing of America.

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 2:34 AM

Aha, I was wondering who put me down as "off topic"

I don't see any people from the (insert the groups you hate here eg Left, Right, Theist, Atheist, economic rationalist, unionist, European, American, gay/straight, capitalist, communist, Big/Little endians etc) coming forward to take responsibility either.

Science is after all a value free activity, it just reports the facts, it's up to others, including you, to decide what is to be done with the information.

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#11
In reply to #8

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 4:56 AM

Obviously you have not seen some of the discussions here else-wise you would not say "Science is after all a value free activity, it just reports the facts, it's up to others, including you, to decide what is to be done with the information."

To correct, science at its best, when it is not swayed by issues of commercial value, reports what it thinks are the facts.

But precisely because it is science, uncovering data and information about a universe most of which we still do not know a hell of a lot, the facts it may report may be wrong, but having been reported and tested and found wrong, made a positive contribution in narrowing the area of search or concept.

The question is not very bright. The fact of the matter is that compared to a mere thousand years ago we have an immensely greater knowledge of our universe. But know it all? That's a laugher.

The area where we do know an awful lot, but which we won't go into here because it is not considered science, and because most cannot see that if social existence is a phenomenon of a concrete world, then it is possible to have a social science not the garbage as masquerades as such, is just that, social science.

j.

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Anonymous Poster
#13
In reply to #8

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 11:21 AM

The veiled accusation is incorrect. And "science" far to often does not keep to the facts, especially where statistics interpretation serves its purpose better. It simply has power (yes it's due in large part to credulousness of the press) to make others believe what they are preconditioned to believe...and, just like the groups you mentioned, it, too, has a view of itself as an ordained repository of truth. And like those groups, certain "science" institutions (the worst offenders...the Harvard's, Berkeley's, Stanford's...) have their reputations (and agendas) to maintain. It's always amusing when "scientists say," when announcing "new" findings (as if everyone was born yesterday) which (to the few who were paying attention) refute what they had found previously; and which support what people had known all along, but had been swept aside when opposing the same science (institutions') earlier "findings." That society takes an increasingly circumspect view of what Science really knows--as is implied by this blog's title--is probably a step in the right direction. Scientists deserve no less than anyone else--perhaps more so--to have their feet held to the fire.

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#5

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 12:16 AM

The use of vaccines is an interesting example.

If just about everyone else is vaccinated, but I'm not, I'll still benefit from "herd immunity" (ie the disease cant spread through the population) so I'm safe.

But if everyone chooses not to get vaccinated we'll all be at risk.

So, sometimes governments (and their scientists) make decisions that override individual freedoms for the greater good. Yes, I know they're highly subjective.

You could also include taxation, water fluoridation, singing national anthems, compulsory education, speed limits, gun laws, payment of social security, having an official language, banning same sex marriages etc in the same type of argument

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#9

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 3:19 AM

Many great discoveries and innovations, like germ theory (actually, theories), the heliocentric theory, etc., were strongly resisted by the scientific establishment of the time. When any science loses the ability to question its own conclusions, it becomes just another belief system.

The distinction between an unreasonable resistance to authority and a healthy skepticism is not always obvious. Caveat emptor is a useful guideline. At the very least that will move us to seek a second opinion before any major medical procedure.

It is also useful to remember that not all of the questions of life have been answered by science or by anybody else. Even with the support of a trusted authority, it can be a terrifying world.

It is also wise not to forget that there are discoveries yet to be made, and that some of them may be quite wonderful.

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#14

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/26/2008 9:39 PM

The issue I find even as a AAAS(American Association for the Advancement of Science) member and a seeker of knowledge is the confusion of theory as fact and fact as theory depending on the agenda, bias, and or convictions of the communicator.

As stated earlier there is a wide range of the weight of an elephant. But does the educator state the average, the range or a high and/or low? And is this all elephants or is the Pygmy elephant excluded? Was the weight averaged by one of each species or total population of all species? And why as and educator do I set what limits I use.

Not only do many communicators of theory not quantify their data to their conclusions, they rarely give the means to test their conclusions for others to learn to discern for themselves how that conclusion was achieved or derived as correct. (yes I find myself doing this)

As for vaccines with the FDA stating that any drug they give the "OK" to then the manufacture is no long to be held accountable for any harm. So unless there is proven dire need for the risk I'll take the wait and see what happens to the "public" to verify the risk.

When one half of a system/partnership does not share the risk (the drug companies) and splits the rewards (monetary and health) It has a perverse incentive to ignore longterm harm to its other parts (people) for short term gains(money). What does it have to lose in the longterm? Even if the image is so tarnished that it is ostracized the parts of the corporation are salable because the corporation itself is only a paper entity. Create a new entity to possess the assets of the old one and try again.

Brad

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#15

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/27/2008 10:33 AM

i've spent six months of my life arguing by email with someone who believes most of the junk science on the net, yet is sceptical of some of the most fundamental truths any right brainer wouldn't bother arguing with. There is no hope, in the same approach you would use to BNP, creationism etc. don't give them air and they will suffocate. By condescending to debate you commit yourself to a battle. I personally have had enough. I asked for this before, I will ask again, a links page referenced by stupid argument so we can refer these people to the truth. P W Slack's museum of unworkable devices is a start. I came across one yesterday which I can post in the future. A problem is a humanities-educated media giving equal weight to unequal views.

The more you know the more you realize you don't know, these people know nothing and don't know how little they know.

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#16

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/27/2008 3:10 PM

Please! Remain skeptical!

Science is far too often distorted by politics, personal opinion, or greed. Human beings - including scientists - are opinionated beings by nature and it takes true discipline to keep personal agendas out of scientific investigation. This is made more difficult when incentives such as grant funding and peer pressure become involved, the incentive to follow popular trends and skew research findings to fit a storyline become intense and sometimes irresistable.

I worked as a research engineer at a national lab for a number of years, and I witnessed many instances of otherwise brilliant scientists publishing sketchy or even fabricated research findings to either fit with the agenda of those providing funding, to grab headlines or whetever. Cold fusion, high-temperature superconductivity, adverse health effects of radon and transmission line electromagnetic fields were a few areas where I personally witnessed research data being 'fudged' by hypercompetitive researchers who were trying to secure their piece of the funding pie.

The lesson of Eugenics should never be forgotten. Eugenics was a mixture of racism and pseudo-science where it was supposed that a superior race of human beings could and should be bred like throughbred racehorses. Eugenics was promoted as a universal consensus beyond debate among scientists and politicians. Research was skewed to infer that some human races were inherently superior, while others were closer to animals and should therefore not be allowed to continue to breed. Scientists who argued to the contrary often lost funding or even their tenured positions. It was only after Hitler and the holocaust that the world and the research community was forced to take a more unbiased look at this abonominal practice and it was thoroughly discredited.

Yes, the public should always remain skeptical of science. Just because someone is declared an 'expert' in nowise implies that their positions are any closer to the truth than anyone elses. It is only after the accumulated weight of many independent studies is supported and sorroborated by real world observations and experience should skepticism begin to fade.

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#17
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/27/2008 10:45 PM

What we really need are educated skeptics, i.e., everybody trained in scientific method but not necessarily in all the different specialties.

Then folks would be able to follow the data and logic of an assertion and determine its validity.

Unfortunately, it seems the school system here in the states can't even teach, all too often, basic reading, writing, and math.

Of course if we taught scientific method lots of politicians would be exposed for being unable to support with data whatever they are pushing at any one moment.

j.

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#18
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/28/2008 12:16 AM

'Unfortunately, it seems the school system here in the states can't even teach, all too often, basic reading, writing, and math.'

This is what happens when people steeped in English, Humanities, and Education dominate the education system. However well intentioned they are, they have only a limited understanding of science. The few actual science teachers alone can't do the job alone, at least not with enough of the students to make the difference you are talking about. Most of the science teachers I ran into through high school were uninspiring, and never really stressed the importance of honest and critical observation. They stressed learning science 'facts'. I was lucky to learn the scientific method early, from my dad over the dinner table.

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#19
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/28/2008 5:10 AM

The problem is even more basic.

They put all these teachers through school and give them an education on how to teach, not just the subject matter.

But their problem is they don't have a scientific understanding of what actually happens to the brains of the people they teach.

That is because they don't regard the human brain as an actual material organism that is physically changed when properly approached. One example I am fond of are the new, new, math idiots.

Those folks think they can just run through a particular math process on the board, check to make sure everybody understood it, and then go on to the next new math concept. Those folks advocate giving people calculators instead of drilling so that they don't waste time and instead of drills they can go on to the next concept.

What they don't understand is that it is the drills that cause new connections, synapses, in the brain adapted specifically for math.

Without those drills you never get adept at math.

They are fond of quoting Piaget but they don't quote or read the sections where he shows that education in particular areas gives rise to brain areas that are specialized.

Like I said, no science.

But you would think that even good empiricism would tell them something. Every skill, math, reading, basketball, etc., require persistent practice. You would think they would draw some conclusions from that.

Perhaps that is the result, as you point out, of their own limited education in the humanities where the dominant view is that of Kant; you can't know the thing in itself and hence a dualist view, separation of mind and body. They address the mind but never realize that the mind, being a material body, requires exercise in order to develop.

j.

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#20
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/28/2008 1:26 PM

GA Jack

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#21
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/28/2008 1:34 PM

GA

You are right about the need for endless practice in math, so that the techniques become ingrained. But I think a further problem is the lack of context in the learning. Memorizing the quadratic formula takes time - using it correctly without making simple math errors takes practice - but the other issue is why would you ever want to use it. Too often these techniques are taught in a vacuum.

They should be taught as part of an overall problem solving exercise. The way it is done in virtually every math book I've ever seen is to start with the technique, provide a number of exercises, and then at the end (if ever) provide some word problems that apply the technique. This is backwards.

To teach quadratics, the students could learn to calculate the path of a ray of light traveling through a series of lenses, or calculate the point along the wall of a circular building at which a rectangular wing would attach. Using real world examples as a learning method would make it clear why one of the answers in imaginary. Once the real world application of a technique is clearly established, the rote process could take place, with more generic examples provided for practice.

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#22
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/28/2008 9:35 PM

I have been saying essentially the same thing for a long time. For instance I have pointed out that it is possible, because the functions are so easily demonstrated, to begin to teach algebra at the same time you can begin to teach physics.

It is easy, and requires little equipment, to teach the electrical functions/relations in Ohm's Law.

If students can multiply and divide the algebra in solving for one or another value is simple and directly relates, not only math to Ohm's Law and functions of electrical theory, but math to all functions.

j.

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#24
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/29/2008 1:14 AM

yup

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#25
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/29/2008 3:38 AM

I made a device that I call the pulser pump 20 years ago. It is a combined airlift pump and trompe so not too complicated for people to understand? It does not even have moving parts. I had to call it something! Because years ago I had corespondence with an old english guy who had done british funded trompe research in south america (an expert) and he said that they had never done the combined trompe airlift thing. I bill it as the simplest pump in the world and have it on the internet as a 3rd world help project. Wikipedia will not list it (which is fair enough because I made up the name) but they will not define trompe either. People are noting that the "pulser pump" is similar to the ram pump (that has 2 moving parts). and totally ignoring my request to define trompe on wikipedia. In truth it operates on a totally different principal than the ram pump. One of my problems is people check out my website, see combined airlift pump and tromp as an explaination and then go to wikipedia and trompe is not there! Funded science has never touched the device either. Over the years perhaps 50,000 people or more have read about the pulser pump or seen videos about it but nobody has ever put pictures or video of another one on the net. I find that truely strange and proof of what Kaywak is saying.

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#26
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Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/29/2008 1:15 PM

Since I'm not a scientist or engineer it wont hurt my reputation in the least (and curiosity motivates me) to have a look at your machine. Where can I go (on line) to see it?

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#23

Re: Do Scientists Know It All?

05/28/2008 11:50 PM

They don't have to know it all but they know where to look to for what they don't know

Let the scientist figure out what cause the warming just be glad they took time to warn you. They are kind of busy you know.

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