A basic of science

I often find myself reminded of a post I made on just the third day in the life of FTSOS. It was about a media report on a recent study that said a certain pesticide found in anti-bacterial soaps may actually contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria. It was a fine study, but it was far from conclusive. (The news article wasn’t so cautious in its assertions.) Perhaps it would be best if people only used regular old soap, what with that not really qualifying as a real sacrifice, but as for the science, I was far from ready to say that that pesticide was a contributor to antibiotic resistance among bacteria in any significant way in the given environment.

And the reason is quite simple: science does not rely upon individual studies. Of course, we may be able to point back to the results from one lab or one group of researchers as published in a single study as the linchpin that opened up a whole new branch of study. But that doesn’t mean we believe that paper as being conclusive on its own. It only works when we have a body of evidence. In most cases that means a number of studies looking at the same or a similar problem and coming to the same or very similar conclusions. For a single paper that proves itself a linchpin, that means we need a number of other studies which use its findings as their basis. For instance, green fluorescent protein, or GFP, was shown to work as a marker of gene expression in a pretty definitive study. It has about a bajillion (rough estimate) other studies on it, but no one needed to reproduce the study which won one research team the Nobel Prize in chemistry. But people did use that study as a basis for about a gagillion (rough estimate again) studies. If the original study was wrong or faked or otherwise limited, we would be well aware of that by now because of all those subsequent studies. That is one way to compose a body of evidence.

To put this another way, take the studies on intercessory prayer and its efficacy. We have some that show positive results. Look, God is here to help! But then we have others that show negative results. Oh, no! God must be angry! And then we have a whole bunch which shows a null result. Uh…God must be indifferent. So how do we interpret these results?

Remember, we need to be looking at the evidence as a body. As one of those intolerant, bigoted, hate-filled evilutionist atheists, I would find it humorous if prayer gave negative health results. But I don’t get to have that laugh. Instead, I have to conclude that prayer has no detectable effect on health. None of the studies are conclusive; they suffer from bias, or are statistically insignificant in either direction, or just show a blatant null result. The most likely conclusion is that prayer does nothing. No study has convinced me otherwise, and most of the studies have shown prayer to be inconsequential to the well being of people anyway.

What I hope this post enables readers to do is recognize a fundamental aspect of how science works so that next time they see a study which concludes a link between this or that, they know what to think. That doesn’t mean it is okay to just dismiss a non-bias confirming study (i.e., a study that doesn’t give a result one likes). It just means that it is always necessary to look at the entire body of evidence before drawing a conclusion.

The limits of science

Jerry Coyne has a post about the NCSE enabling woo, but there’s one part near his introduction that really stood out to me.

This accommodationism is most annoying when the NCSE assumes its science-has-its-limits stance, a stance designed to show that beyond those borders lies the proper and goodly realm of religion. Yes, of course science has some limits—it can’t (yet) explain why I love the paintings of Kandinsky and others find them abstract and boring. But how on earth do these “limits” somehow justify belief in the palpable nonsense of faith?

Going by his use of the word “yet”, it sounds like he doesn’t see science as being limited in theory. His post doesn’t focus on this point, so it isn’t entirely clear if that’s his position. However, it is my position.

Science is not limited in and of itself. It can tell us absolutely everything about the Universe. That includes telling us why we think something is beautiful or moral or why we love someone. Science is not theoretically limited in any way from being able to tell us all these things. The problem, however, that arises here is the whole “yet” thing. It causes confusion. Let me explain.

Science is limited in telling us a vast majority of things we might want to know. Right now it cannot tell us why we make all the choices we do or why some of us might find the ocean beautiful. But that is not a matter of science being limited in and of itself. In actuality, the limit comes from human ability, a lack of technology, a lack of necessity, the short span of time in which one person will live, the short time the entirety of the human race has and will exist, etc. We limit science; science does not limit us.

Happy Carl Sagan Day

I just made it. With 5 Eastern Standard Time minutes to spare, I have learned that it is Carl Sagan Day today. In honor of the great man right now, I can really only offer the small gesture of a clip post here. But as a greater honor, we can all do everything we can to come to a greater appreciation of science; we can reject intelligent design as the bullshit that it is (and let’s emphasize the “b” in “bullshit”). We can fight against the quacks out there. We can promote and love and have a passion about science. It is our greatest tool.

To form a canyon

That science has had many, many great achievements hardly needs to be said. It has done so by leaving religion in the dust, ignoring all the (predominantly) Christian calls to believe in malarkey, to believe on faith alone. It is its method of examining evidence, of not merely trusting our intuitions and wants, that has propelled mankind in recent centuries. Until science took firm hold of the human mind, the world was stagnated under the pressure of religion.

I keep that in mind whenever I see a fantastic piece of the world. Whether it be a glacier-carved valley in Maine or a volcanic mountain in Africa, I cannot help but recognize a higher beauty in what I’m seeing thanks to science.

Darwin and Lyell

On Charles Lyell, that most eminent of 19th century scientists…

I never forget that almost everything which I have done in science I owe to the study of his great works. Well, he has had a grand and happy career, and no one ever worked with a truer zeal in a noble cause.

~Charles Darwin

Because it’s worth repeating

A creationist in one of the comment sections recently repeated this old canard.

the dictionary says (among other things) that a theory is:
1. contemplation or speculation.
2. guess or conjecture.

there i go? again?
you just seem pretty intent on disparaging arguments but not refuting them.

This is yet another point where atheists and other non-deluded people are willing to be honest, all the while watching creationists do just the opposite. It’s like it’s just so damn inconvenient to come to a straight-forward, truthful understanding of basic concepts for the religious that lying has become okay for them; the ends justify the means.

So it is worthwhile to repeat, for the nth time, just what a theory is and is not.

Insofar as my theory that ice cream is great can be considered a theory, yes, creationism is a theory. But it is not in any way a scientific theory. The requirements to reach this high level are rigorous. For starters, what predictions does creationism make? What experiments can be carried out to falsify the hypothesis? Can others repeat these experiments? Are there other plausible explanations? Are there better explanations?

The word “theory”, as any educated, honest person knows, carries far more weight in science than it does for the lay public. In truth, the word gets mixed up in casual talk within science, even sometimes becoming conflated with “hypothesis”, but no one really blinks because the context allows for the use of shorthand. Think to Richard Dawkins’ style of writing. He uses personification all the time, especially when discussing natural selection. He will start out with qualifiers and scare quotes – “Natural selection ‘wants’ to weed out the bad genes” – but as he goes on, the reader comes to an understanding of the fact that the good doctor is bringing evolutionary biology to life via a particular way of writing. It becomes obvious that it is inappropriate to apply anthropomorphic qualities to what Dawkins is describing – and it is context that allows for this.

But in public forums or political circles, there can be no assumed knowledge of science and what its terms mean; it is a danger to allow for the use of loose language without qualification. That is why it is so important to distinguish between the lay definition of “theory” versus its scientific definition. In science it references something which has evidence, has been tested, has journal papers all about it, and usually there is a high degree of consensus. The Big Bang, evolution, global warming, plate tectonics – these are all theories. Creationists have no theories. They have no evidence, no reason, no logic, no testing, no raw data, no way to interpret any sort of observation in a way that holds any scientific significance.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

I am currently in my fourth and a half listening of the audio version of Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything“. It’s about 6 years old, but I’ve only recently been introduced to it. I’ve been severely missing out.

This is an overwhelmingly encompassing account of, well, nearly everything. Bryson goes through, with engrossing detail, the history of science. He begins with, naturally, the Big Bang and much of physics. From there he jumps to just about every topic (in an order I cannot recall), from chemistry to biology to geology to mathematics to astronomy. He gives a set of Britannica Encyclopedias’ account of so many scientists, what they were thinking, why they were thinking it, and why they were right or wrong or on the right track or distracted or petty or prideful or anything of which I would never think to ask or consider. This is the best science book I have ever heard or read, and it isn’t even specific like, say, The Selfish Gene (which was also excellent).

One of the best things about this audio book is Bryson’s voice. It’s soothing. It’s also not boring. As much as I love The Science Channel and all the science shows I can find, I have come to the conclusion that I can only watch these if I’m wide awake. It isn’t that the topics are boring. The presentation is usually just very monotone. (One notable exception is the Discovery Channel’s Walking With Cavemen narrated by Alec Baldwin.) Bryson’s book suffers from no such calamity.

Get this book, preferably the audio version (though I’m sure the text version is equally fantastic).