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The Lesser Evil

The first Google search result for ‘scientific method’ (via a website called science buddies – admittedly not a very sciency name) returns, “The scientific method is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments. The steps of the scientific method are to: Ask a Question. Do Background Research.” It also has a more detailed explanation here.

And from Wikipedia, we have, “The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.”

I like the first example because it implies the iterative approach of Observe -> Test. I like the Wikipedia entry specifically for the wording, “correcting and integrating previous knowledge”. Putting the ideas together into a personal definition for this blog post: Scientific Method = Observe -> Postulate -> Test -> Document & Improve -> Repeat.

In other words, the scientific method is a methodology whereby, based on observations of a system, one proposes an explanation for ones observations, then devises and executes tests to confirm said explanations. Finally, the results of the tests are documented and our understanding of the topic grows. Importantly, as our body of knowledge grows, we refine, replace or adjust our existing knowledge.

Science works like this

Fundamentalists often argue that evolutionary theory is just a theory, and not proven (I suppose implying that it’s therefore somehow not ‘real’). Rational types then argue that science doesn’t work that way, and pretty much most observations of natural phenomena are incomplete (but nevertheless practical) theories that we improve upon every day. We don’t need ‘proof’ (which is only really available at the mathematical level) to act, merely sufficient evidence. We don’t understand why we need to sleep – we can’t ‘prove’ that we need it, but since not sleeping generally leads to death (really!), we do so anyway.

I am not concerned about addressing the fundamentalist views here, though. Rather, I want to address the scientific types (or their outspoken representatives) who forget that the thing about a theory is that it’s almost always incomplete and therefore open to improvement (and criticism). Perhaps they are too accustomed to having to defend themselves from the fundamentalist types and their illegitimate arguments that they close their minds to valid (potentially) criticism.

If you claim membership with the scientific types (as a mental process if not as a career), you may at this point be tempted (instinctively) to invoke the No-True-Scotsman fallacy – good scientists always consider the evidence, and no good scientist would close their minds to valid criticism. Might I remind you then that history is peppered with tales of scientific mavericks who were ridiculed (or burnt at the stake) for challenging the scientific status quo. Quite obviously, if there were those scientists who had to fight to have their valid theories recognised, then there were a lot of other scientists who were failing to consider the evidence.

Not that it is easy to separate the good new science from the mad science.

But the reasonable thought is that even a pretty solid theory is still open to improvement, and even in very rare cases, to being thrown out completely. Or at least annotated with a huge ‘BUT’. (I like big ‘buts’…)

One example – Newton’s Laws of Motion, which we still learn in physics classes today, are kind of wrong. They’re not too bad, provided you are not moving very fast, but only apply in certain cases that you’d best understand when designing, say, rockets or particle accelerators. So consider Newton’s Laws of Motion annotated with a ‘but’. (Disclaimer, I’m not a physicist).

Anti anti anti vac

Here is a more controversial and topical example. The following “anti-vaccination” article made its way to my Facebook timeline recently: http://www.organiclifestylemagazine.com/doctors-against-vaccines-hear-from-those-who-have-done-the-research/ (Warning – the second time I tried to read the article, the page kept updating itself with unrelated topics, which does nothing for it’s legitimacy, but fortunately doesn’t affect the principle under discussion).

The subject of vaccination is heavily polarised these days, and I rarely see anything published (I don’t read scientific journals, admittedly) that doesn’t place itself firmly in one camp or the other. I almost ALWAYS browse anti-vac articles because the polarisation of opinions on the matter suggest to me that there’s a middle ground that popular opinion is failing to grasp. Maybe not RIGHT in the middle, but not quite in either corner, either.

In the red corner, there is a LOT of evidence (not proof) to suggest that stopping all vaccination altogether (even reducing critical ones) would be a Bad Idea. Herd immunity, protection of individuals who are vulnerable and can’t be vaccinated, the sheer grossness of some of the diseases we vaccinate against, and others.

In the blue corner, let us not assume that vaccination is Always a Good Thing. There ARE risks to vaccination, and they are known and documented (some of them, anyway – many are contested). Even the ardent pro-vacs I know don’t all rush out to be vaccinated against the flu every year.  And the article I quote raises some valid questions (admittedly amongst many questionable ones) which might not be a sweeping counter to the current vaccination strategy but could certainly benefit from being better understood. Let’s just not assume that we can’t improve what we know about vaccination (or anything else).

As our knowledge stands, vaccination is the lesser evil – a superior alternative to some fairly terrible diseases for which we don’t yet have better alternatives. But vaccination is not a Yes / No answer. Vaccination Theory, like Newton’s Laws, can be annotated with a BUT.

Jurrasic Park 17

Maybe one day when we have a technique to translate DNA into an actual organism (how cool would that be?), and methods for inferring DNA shift between points in the fossil record, we can shelve Evolution Theory as Proven. Pretty sure we’ll have moved beyond the need for vaccination by then, too.

But until then, scientific knowledge should not be sacrosanct. No idea, principle or philosophy should be immune to criticism. The scientific method, almost by definition, invites questions which lead to improving our knowledge, and protectionism which rejects criticism is not productive.

I will admit that it can get tiring rebutting the same stupid arguments all the time. Even more so when people commit themselves to wilful ignorance and attempt to force their “bad science” on others, say, through legislation. If theories must be open to criticism, then critics must learn to phrase the questions according to the rules. Well, no, actually. It can be difficult to examine fundamentalist ideas for grains of truth, but dogmatism is not a valid counter for dogmatism. Not that scientific types should have to actively defend their views, either. The moral of the story would merely be that there is something to be gained from a cursory examining of an opposing argument. Take it out of the time you would otherwise have spend on a time-consuming rebuttal of the opposing argument.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Octavo 25 June 2015, 11:33 am

    Perhaps I’m being dense, but I’m not sure I’ve caught the main thrust of your article. In other words, if you had a point, I think I missed it.

    In reference to the vaccination section I’m especially confused as to your point. I certainly haven’t seen pro-vaccination articles that hide, underplay or otherwise distort the known issues with vaccination. It’s just that the risks of vaccination are so infinitesimally small compared to the risks of not vaccinating, it hardly bears acknowledging. Similar to circumcision actually.

  • Chris 26 June 2015, 8:16 am

    My point is a reminder to be willing to consider new evidence and to avoid assuming there is no more progress to be made simply because your view is evidence based. But thank you for pointing out that it might not have been clear.

  • Octavo 26 June 2015, 10:55 am

    If I read you right you’re advocating against taking a dogmatic position. I would wholeheartedly agree in that case. One should always be open to new evidence and be willing to change your position based on such. The problem lies in weighing new evidence against the old and evaluating the quality of that evidence. A single study showing that drinking molten lead is an extremely effective cure for depression would not cause me to immediately drink a beaker of boiling lead.

  • Chris 26 June 2015, 11:11 am

    Nor is it practical to meticulously refute every irrational argument, and challenges to existing ideas should be accompanied by evidence if they expect to be taken seriously. But that is a thought for another day.

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