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Samizdata quote of the day

What an exciting time it is to be alive: ours still is the golden age of scientific discovery, creationists and other ignoramuses notwithstanding.

Abiola Lapite, commenting on yet more advances in genetics.

14 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • dearieme

    Nah, the Golden Age was Darwin/Pasteur/Mendel in bio, Clerk Maxwell/Planck/Einstein in Physics and Dalton/Priestley/Lavoisier in Chemistry. Unless you think that the golden age was Newton.

  • TJ Williams

    Sorry this is so long. I guess I had a lot to say.

    Funny quote, but, no matter what this guy’s qualifications are, he apparently has a fundamental misunderstanding of science. Which isn’t too shocking since a lot of good scientists misunderstand science. You don’t need to know the philosophical side to use it and use it well.

    Oh, and I might not be as qualified, but I have had a lot of schooling. I am an engineer, meaning I’ve taken just about as much chemistry, physics, and math as most physicists, chemists, and mathmaticians. Plus, I like to think about the philosophical side a lot.

    Science is about being, as Popper said, critically rational. It is about believing what you see, and then explaining it. In more detail, a scientist makes observations of the world around him – whether with his own eyes or with multi-billion dollar instruments. These measurements are – to some degree depending on the accuracy of the measuring instrument – what is considered reality. But that’s not sufficient, we want to understand the “why.”

    So, we make models. Usually these models are mathematical statements that we call “theories” or “laws.” They are how we explain the reality we’ve seen. But – and here’s the key point – our models are not reality, and should not be considered as such because we know from the beginning that our models are wrong. The universe is too big and complex for the human mind to absorb, and is way to big to deal with in order to do every simple calculation, so we make assumptions. We reduce the real universe to a far, far more simple model. As one of my co-workers put it, “Your model always lies to you. The key is knowing when, how, and how much.” That’s the hard part because we usually do not know this. But we do know that, in some way, they are wrong.

    So, a few centuries ago Issac Newton made some observations about how forces acting on bodies effect their acceleration. He made a model that said the acceleration produced is proportional to the sum of the forces acting on the body and inversely proportional to the body’s mass. That is a model. Newton knew it was an approximation, and so should everyone else. Einstein came along a few hundred years later and showed in better detail where Newton’s laws of motion are and are not appropriate – when they lie. Which doesn’t dismiss the law, because it was always known to be wrong to whatever extent it’s approximations were wrong.

    So, models are not reality. Which is OK, because they are not intended to be. The value in a model is not it’s reality, it is in it’s ability to predict reality. It is based on present measurements and is used to predict future measurements. How good a model it is is not determined by how “real” it is, but by how well it predicts.

    Some models are as simple as Newton’s laws. Others are more complicated, describing a process, that attempts to describe the state of an object based on its assumed past state. So, for example, we observe the stars and other astronomical bodies. We look at the data we see. And then we make a model to explain it. The model – star formation in this example – says that the data we observe today can be explained by a model saying that swirling dust clouds formed together to make them. That DOES NOT in any way say that the stars actually did form this way – that is a statement about the past which is something we have not and cannot measure. It is simply a statement that says the stars we observe today behave as if they formed this way.

    Science is based on measurments made in the present, models made in the present, and used to predict measurements in the future. The only part of it that touches on the past at all is where models must explain the states observed today by assuming past behavior. A good scientist – keeping an open mind, and staying based on observed reality and rational thought – would not then state that this assumed past behavior was absolutely, positivetly, without a doubt what happened. That isn’t science. It isn’t based on observed reality (we can’t observe how our sun formed because nobody saw it and we can’t go back and measure it). It isn’t staying critically rational. It is, instead, a statement of faith.

    It isn’t science, it is philosophying about science. And when a scientist starts philosophying about his models you learn two things real, real fast: A) he isn’t a very good philosopher, and B) he isn’t a very good scientist. He’s lost his objectivity.

    Taking Popper’s theory about falsibility says the same thing. We can never prove universal statements. We can only falsify them. So, the statement that the sun rises in the East every day cannot be proved because, to do so, we would have to make an infinate number of measurements. But we can falsify it. If we make measurments of the sunrise and it ever failed to rise in the East then our theory would be falsified. Because the theory leads to a set of scientific measurements that could possibly give results that would falsify the theory, it is a scientific theory. We will use it until such time as this model is proven false. Proving it false usually doens’t mean throwing the theory out – we knew it was wrong in some way to begin with, we just didn’t know when or where – instead we modify it to make it better. A theory that cannot be falsified is therefore not scientific.

    A statement that billions of years ago the sun formed from a swirling cloud of gas is therefore not a scientific theory because it cannot be falsified. It does not lead to a set of scientific procedures that can measure reality and come up with results that might prove the theory false. The statement that millions of years man evolved from more primative primates is also not a scientific theory. We can’t go back and make meauresurements of this and falsify the theory.

    A statement that the sun and other stars, as observed today, behave as if they formed from clouds of swirling gas IS a scientific theory. We CAN make measurements of this. We could possibly falsify this if the measurements were inconsitent with the theory. Same thing with biology and evolution.

    Therefore, to a true scientist — keeping an open mind, being based in observed reality, and keeping in mind that all models are wrong to some extent – there is no conflict between creationism and science. Science does not and cannot make conclusive statements about the past. Such statements are not scientific. It only makes statements about the present and future. Creationism, by making statements about the past, is not science. It is philosophy. But believing that the scientific models made to explain the present give a “true” picture of the past is also not science. It is also philosophy. Accepting either one as your philosophy does not have much to do with your acceptance (or not) of the models that explain the present through assumptions of past behavior. I can believe in God and also believe that astrophysics has good models that explain present behavior. I can also not believe in God and believe the models are crap. The two are really independent.

    Well, when you really understand science that is.

  • mike

    TJ Williams: it took you thirteen paragraphs to object that creationism has nothing to do with scientific method. Why not just say so in one sentance? Or even better – you could’ve just noted Einstein’s belief in God.

    As to the topic – I think the quote is still bang on the money – yes we are still living in the ‘golden age’ of science IMO.

  • TJ Williams

    Guess I was just in an…expansive mood. It happens. Especially when you’ve got an issue that people keep posturing about in news making absolutely stupid statements about it all.

  • Luniversal

    Some of the most exciting discoveries in science today will get you banned from Samizdata if you attempt to publicise them. No marxoid pinhead was ever keener on slapping down Evil Racists than Comrade Perry de Havilland. Transhumanists of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but 100,000 years of encoded genomes! Keep scribbling on your own blank slate!

    So I won’t tell you that you can read more about the science that floats Lapite’s boat at http://www.gnxp.com– not that he always agrees with its moderators, but that’s where he hangs out.

  • Johnathan

    Luniversal, the sort of people Perry has banned from this site had no more interest in honest scientific enquiry than Pat Robertson or Michael Moore, so spare us the sarcasm.

  • veryretired

    The truly interesting thing is that we are just beginning to unleash the creative energies of an enormous segment of the human population. The women’s movement, for all its excesses, has opened the doors to many fields that were previously closed, such as medical research or basic science.

    Equally important, the continuing movement toward more open social and economic systems in parts of the world that were smothering under severely collectivist regimes, such as China and India, means an enormous outpouring of creative energy that had been stifled is now starting to percolate.

    It is one of the startling aspects of human ingenuity and creative drive that, even in very imperfect systems still hampered by continual interference from party cadres and byzantine regulations, ordinary people trying to improve their lives and pursue their dreams can create powerful engines of productive effort. Some of these, invariably, will develop new products and ideas that will boost everyone right along with them.

    I can hardly wait for the complaining about the wealth and undue influence of the next “Bill Gates” to start, as it surely will, as soon as another super rich entrepeneur emerges on the world scene.

    I think my children and grandchildren will live in a very interesting, and very different, world. Good.

  • Bernie

    Whether or not it is a great age for science is debatable but if it were, then why is it such a dismal age for humanity?

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Huh? History has shown that the past few thousand years had ALWAYS been dismal for humanity.

    Instead of saying things are better, I’d say they’re less worse.

    An improvement in any case.


  • Else

    TJ, correct me if I’m wrong but I thought that creationism is not philosophy but theology, because it starts from the premise that god exists (in some physical form?). Philosophy would not involve this assumption.

  • Chris Harper

    “then why is it such a dismal age for humanity?”


    It isn’t.

    The problem is that there are high profile commentators who just can’t stop moaning, and these guys and gals get their rocks off by creating the impression that things are not the best they have ever been in all the history of humanity.

  • I think you’re all off base, and Abiola is onto something.

    Any society that figures out how to put not-quite-yet-born babies into a machine that’s basically a super-duper food processor, has something going for it. As we move forward into arguing for euthenasia for old folks with low quality of life, and infanticide for sub-par babies… well, you could say we’re about to discover a final solution for some of our problems. Indeed, we’re entering a brave new world in many respects.

    So Abiola is spot on. I’m sure that with the notion of the inherent value of human life destroyed, he’ll be able to comfort himself on cold dark nights with his genetic permit that allows him to reproduce. Well, in theory, if he could find somebody to reproduce with. Either that, or we turn him into a box of Soylent Green crackers, preferably the garlic flavored ones.

  • John Rippengal

    For those who really wish to know what Karl Popper thought, they would do far better to read “Conjectures and Refutations” by him rather than rely on the mish mash of misunderstanding peddled by TJ Williams. His little bit about Newton’s theories was also laughably wrong. And incidentally it is not true that nobody thought that Newton’s physics were perfect. Emmanuel Kant thought so and his philosophy was flawed because of that belief.
    To cite Karl Popper for the belief that current scientific theories are no better than Creationism is the ultimate lunacy.
    Apart from the discovery of the double DNA helix which was probably the most fundamental scientific discovery of the past century, there have been the most magnificent advances in experimental/observational science made possible by adoption of science into technology – the unravelling of genomes especially the human one, the hubble telescope, probes into the solar system etc etc.
    which have opened brilliant windows of wonder.
    We need the theory connecting ultimate physics relativity and quantum for the next giant step.

  • James

    TJ williams,

    You could have saved yourself all that effort in posting this drivel by simply stating “I am an apologist for Creationism”.

    That was my first impression when I read the first few lines, and was confirmed by reading further and seeing the general sloppiness in it.

    It’s a clear indicator of Creationisms failure that most of its proponents usually end up publishing their claims in Comments sections rather than peer reviewed journals.

    It’s likely things will remain that way for a long time, as long as rubbish like this is the best that can be produced.