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What science isn't.
Everyone knows what science is, don't they? I would hope that readers of this magazine might have a clue, but almost every time I pick up a newspaper or watch one of those entertaining current affairs programs on television I see things that have a scientific look about them but behind the instruments, the books, the colleges and the white coats there is nothing. Like a stage set, things look real until you get up close and then you see the plywood flats and the two-dimensional paintings.
Let's examine some of the topics and places where participants look like they are doing something scientific but really are not.
Astrology and augury
I know a professional astrologer who is quite savage in his criticism of the people who write those predictions you see in the newspapers and weekly magazines. He says that this is just mindless entertainment and nobody should take it seriously. He has a collection of books, equations, calculators and computer programs which, when seeded with certain information, result in the production of complex charts and tabulations predicting the future. He is quite expert at this and the method has high reliability – if the same values are submitted multiple times at the start of the process the end results are consistent and vary very little. It has what scientists call reproducibility. But it's not science.
Similarly, I knew a highly skilled professional tarot reader who would take some information over the telephone, put the phone down, shuffle and deal the cards, and then pick up the phone and give a reading. All done without any cold reading, just an exhaustive knowledge of what certain cards in certain positions and orientations mean. Reproducibility and reliability again, but doubtful validity.
It has "science" in its name, but that's as close as it gets. A scientific theory has three characteristics – it must be falsifiable (there must be some possible experiment or finding which could prove that it is not true), it must be testable and it must be correctable (it must allow change in the face of new evidence). Creation science is none of these. It is a form of minority Christian apologetics that attempts to demonstrate that the world as we see it today can be fully explained by a literal reading of the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis.
There is even a Creation Research Society, funded since 1963 by the late Jay van Andel, one of the founders of Amway. On the Society's web site there are images of people in white coats working at laboratory benches equipped with computers and other scientific-looking apparatus. There is even an electron microscope, and CRS has published a journal since 1964.
Creationism looks a bit like science, but as it makes no predictions (so can't be tested) and allows no possibility of falsification or correction it isn't science.
One of Australia's leading packagers of homeopathic nostrums has several pictures on its web site showing people in white coats working away in laboratories. There are pictures of scientific equipment (much like the stock footage of automated pipettes that seems mandatory in any television show about science). The problem is that homeopathy challenges reality, possibly even more than creationism does. The most hard-line creationist and the most skeptical evolutionary biologist have to agree that organisms exist. They just argue about how we got to where everything is today. Homeopathy challenges the very fundamentals of all knowledge. If creationism were to be proved correct tomorrow then what we see about us would not change. If homeopathy were shown to be true then everything would be an illusion and we would know nothing.
Homeopathy can be tested (independent tests always fail), falsification seems to require proving a negative and the fact that it still exists despite the inventor, Samuel Hahnemann, admitting in later life that one of its fundamental principles, infinite dilution, is wrong shows that correction is unlikely. But they have white coats, laboratory benches and magic pills on sale in pharmacies.
Whether it be the link between HIV and AIDS (or even the very existence of HIV), the immunology and epidemiology related to vaccination, the possibility of climate change, the history of Nazi persecution of Jews, the engineering challenges to a building struck by a passenger plane, the dangers of smoking or asbestos or the myriad of other matters where there seems to almost be a consensus among scientists and researchers, there always seems to be a small group of dissidents who know better than all the other people in their fields. They love to point to Galileo as an example of someone who spoke against the dominant paradigm but was right. Sometimes, however, the majority is right, even if the minority look like they are doing the real thing.
I'll end with that famous quote from Carl Sagan. "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown".
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the January/February 2013 edition of Australasian Science
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