How Science Works

Casual discussion amongst spiritual friends.

How Science Works

Postby Kim OHara » Fri Mar 19, 2010 11:17 am

I do enjoy a good rant ...
...Science doesn’t work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven’t any of these guys ever heard of “peer review”?
There’s this myth in wide circulation: rational, emotionless Vulcans in white coats, plumbing the secrets of the universe, their Scientific Methods unsullied by bias or emotionalism. Most people know it’s a myth, of course; they subscribe to a more nuanced view in which scientists are as petty and vain and human as anyone (and as egotistical as any therapist or financier), people who use scientific methodology to tamp down their human imperfections and manage some approximation of objectivity.
But that’s a myth too. The fact is, we are all humans; and humans come with dogma as standard equipment. We can no more shake off our biases than Liz Cheney could pay a compliment to Barack Obama. The best we can do— the best science can do— is make sure that at least, we get to choose among competing biases.
That’s how science works. It’s not a hippie love-in; it’s rugby. Every time you put out a paper, the guy you pissed off at last year’s Houston conference is gonna be laying in wait. Every time you think you’ve made a breakthrough, that asshole supervisor who told you you needed more data will be standing ready to shoot it down. You want to know how the Human Genome Project finished so far ahead of schedule? Because it was the Human Genome projects, two competing teams locked in bitter rivalry, one led by J. Craig Venter, one by Francis Collins — and from what I hear, those guys did not like each other at all.
This is how it works: you put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the shit out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time.
...

This is approximately the middle third of the post at http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=886
:tongue:
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Re: How Science Works

Postby chownah » Fri Mar 19, 2010 2:04 pm

This person is talking about "organized science" as opposed to "science".....sort of like the difference between "organized religion" and "religion"....or "organized buddhism" and "buddhism".
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Re: How Science Works

Postby Moggalana » Fri Mar 19, 2010 7:08 pm

A Max Planck quote in three different versions:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Truth never triumphs -- its opponents just die out.
Science advances one funeral at a time.


There is another quote but I can't remember the author and the correct wording right now. It goes something like this: "The importance of each scientist is measured by the time he prevented scientific progress in his field of reasearch."
Let it come. Let it be. Let it go.
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Re: How Science Works

Postby mikenz66 » Fri Mar 19, 2010 7:51 pm

Hi Chownah,
chownah wrote:This person is talking about "organized science" as opposed to "science".....sort of like the difference between "organized religion" and "religion"....or "organized buddhism" and "buddhism".
chownah

What other sort is there? It's almost impossible to do cutting edge science anymore without being somewhat organised. 105 years ago Einstein published three revolutionary papers while working at his day job at the patent office. Those days are long gone...

I liked the comparison with rugby. Perhaps for the North Americans ice hockey would be a more suitable comparison - half cooperation, half brawling...

What surprises me is that people are surprised that this is how science works. It's always been like that as far as I can tell.

Newton wrote: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Two writers think that the above quote, written at a time when Newton and Hooke were in dispute over optical discoveries, was an oblique attack on Hooke (said to have been short and hunchbacked), rather than – or in addition to – a statement of modesty.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton

The brawling, competitive, aspect is why it works so well at what it does: building more-or-less useful models of the world that we can observe and manipulate (notice I left out fluffy stuff like "truth"). As in warfare, it's not the individuals that are important, it's the resources that can be brought to bear on the problem. If Newton or Einstein hadn't figured out what they did someone else would soon have...

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Re: How Science Works

Postby chownah » Mon Mar 22, 2010 2:19 pm

What other sort is there? Well, there is real "science" which is a way of looking at the world and discovering which of our preconceived notions of the world are wrong. It seems from most of the posts above that there is a widespread misconception of what science really is. Science can only be done by individuals (since it is a view of the world and organizations themselves don't have world views). Real science is in my experience in every way compatible with the Buddha's teachings. Seems like the posts above are mostly talking about administrative wonks and not scientists...although I suppose it is possible to be both I do think that these are two completely two different kinds of interaction and a person probably needs to be good at compartmentalizing their mind to be able to perform both...I guess. I think that to confuse these two activities confuses people about he nature of real science as evidenced by the posts above, many of which in my view show a lack of understanding of the difference.

Maybe think about my original comparison....think about "organized religion" and "religion" or "organized Buddhism" and "Buddhism"....if you understand these then the "organized science" vs. "science" thing should come clear.

As for specific examples.....if you studied soil biology you could collect samples of dirt from just about any region of the world and with not much more than a microscope and a few accessories do all the science needed to become a PhD....but remember that while I use a PhD as a level of achievement in "science" it only has any meaning in the realms of "organized science".

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Re: How Science Works

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Mar 22, 2010 8:47 pm

Hi Chownah,
chownah wrote: Seems like the posts above are mostly talking about administrative wonks and not scientists...

Hmm, I object to being an administrative wonk... :coffee:

Seriously, when people are engaged in doing science they are generally spending time solving various technical, organisational, and people problems. At least, that's the way it looks from here.

This stuff:
chownah wrote:...there is real "science" which is a way of looking at the world and discovering which of our preconceived notions of the world are wrong.

Isn't what most scientists are doing in their daily work. Nothing much would get done if it were. It's the long-term result of sorting out all those annoying little problems day-to-day. Why doesn't this laser scan properly? Where's the bug in this computer code? When is the liquid helium machine going to be fixed? How can we rewrite this paper so the referees will accept it? When you put together all that little stuff then the big stuff takes care of itself, and gets written into the history books...

I actually see a huge difference between doing science and practising Buddhism. The task in science is to get new data, construct new models, demolish models that are not working very well. Some people might approach Buddhism that way. I think they are misguided. To me the Buddhist Path is not a matter of creating new knowledge, it's one of following the instructions.

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Re: How Science Works

Postby BlackBird » Mon Mar 22, 2010 9:27 pm

Ajahn Brahm wrote:I used to be a scientist. I did Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, hanging out in the same building as the later-to-be-famous Professor Stephen Hawking. I became disillusioned with such science when, as an insider, I saw how dogmatic some scientists could be. A dogma, according to the dictionary, is an arrogant declaration of an opinion. This was a fitting description of the science that I saw in the labs of Cambridge. Science had lost its sense of humility. Egotistical opinion prevailed over the impartial search for Truth. My favourite aphorism from that time was:

"The eminence of a great scientist, is measured by the length of time that they OBSTRUCT PROGRESS in their field"!


- http://www.what-buddha-taught.net/Books ... cience.htm
"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." - MN. 70 Kitagiri Sutta
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Re: How Science Works

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Mar 22, 2010 11:36 pm

Hi Jack,

While of course there is some truth in what he says, remember that Ajahn Brahm does not have the experience of doing a research degree. Of course, he does have a bachelors degree from a leading University, so I wouldn't completely dismiss what he says, but he seems relatively uninterested in grappling with many of the interesting questions that science raises. Unlike, say, B. Alan Wallace, who has a bachelors degree in physics, and a PhD in Buddhist studies and has written some excellent books and articles on connections, or lack thereof, between science and Buddhist thought.

In fact, what Ajahn Brahm observed is what I mentioned in my posts. Scientists spend time solving technical problems, arguing about stuff, organising stuff, building careers, fighting for funding, and so on. Just normal human stuff. It's the overall process, not some mystical "seeker of truth" that is ultimately important in making technical progress.

To use AB's common phrase: "What did you expect?"

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Re: How Science Works

Postby BlackBird » Mon Mar 22, 2010 11:43 pm

I don't really have an opinion either way Mike, just thought the article was good and relevant to the thread :)

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"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." - MN. 70 Kitagiri Sutta
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Re: How Science Works

Postby chownah » Wed Mar 24, 2010 2:48 pm

Perhaps what "scientists" do is different from what "science" is.......seems like if one wants to be employed in the realm of corporate science (mostly universities and big businesses) then you will have to put up with the BS which comes along with those realms.....just because you think of yourself of as a "scientist" doesn't mean that those who run these enterprises will suddenly change their entire life paradigm and treat you with civility....although some of those people might.....I have held a still beating heart (removed seconds before from a tranplant patient) and pondered whether in a previous life I had been an Aztec priest and should take a big bite out of it but I decided not to.....and my big boss there was one of the greatest people and bosses I have ever met or worked for.....in corporate science you never know....my immediate supervisor was one of the worst to work for.....you just never know.....
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Re: How Science Works

Postby Dudenextdoor » Thu Mar 25, 2010 10:02 am

You can view it cynically or idealistically, but what makes science "science" is that every would-be belief must be tested and not accepted blindly. This is tested first with logic--does the view make sense in light of what is already known? Each scientist has to make that decision on their own, and of course, because humans tend to have a bias first and foremost to themselves and their own ideas, a bad idea may pass this test. But then there are the other two tests: experimentation and peer review. And the more experiments you do, and the more people who are out to prove you wrong, the better! This is the only way that truly bad ideas will be eliminated from the arena. Experimentation often has the final say: no matter what the idea is, no matter how simple and beautiful and elegant one's hypothesis, it can be utterly killed by one single, ugly fact. And when experiments and peer review differ, the challenge to the peers is to explain the experimental results. If further experimentation shows there is even so much as one lonely exception to the original scientist's hypothesis, the challenge falls on the scientist to explain that exception and see whether or not it can be understood within the framework of his or her original understanding.

In one respect, Buddhism and science are very compatible: when you find out experimentally that the world doesn't match your theories, you must change your theories (or you risk being one of the "funerals" Planck talked about in the quotation above). I seem to remember the Buddha saying something along these same lines: don't just believe because of authority, but rather, go out and test and see whether these teachings are true. (Forgive me if I've misquoted at all.)

In a different respect, though, one might argue that because some aspects of Buddhism are not testable in any conclusive way--reincarnation, any type of afterlife, etc. (and these aren't just Buddhism; most faiths apply here in one way or another)--they are therefore not scientific claims and fall outside of the scientific method. The choice becomes that of believing although there is not conclusive proof, or not believing because there is not conclusive proof. Most scientists may side with the latter, but I don't think most would begrudge anyone the former, just as long as they don't start claiming something is "science" when it's not. For example, the group Answers In Genesis claims to have "scientific" evidence that the world was made only 6,000 years ago. ...This is when scientists worldwide will start to become a bit collectively peeved at a religious view.
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