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Reality Check

by Donald Prothero, Apr 20 2011

The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

—Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on “Real Time With Bill Maher”, Feb. 4, 2011

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

—Philip K. Dick, author

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

—Carl Sagan

In recent years, both philosophers and science deniers (such as creationists) have repeatedly attacked the objectivity of science and scientists. Creationists claim that scientists are big frauds, deceived by a mass delusion about evolution. They argue that the stratigraphic sequence of fossils in the rock record is faked by evolutionists who shuffle the fossils and the strata in the order they need to prove evolution, then allegedly point to the same sequence as proof of evolution. (Never mind the fact that the objective, empirical sequence of fossils through geologic time was worked out by devoutly religious naturalists like William Smith and Georges Cuvier before 1800, at least 50 years before evolution was published by Charles Darwin). The Creation “Museum” in Kentucky is built upon the basic premise that “evolution scientists” and “creation scientists” start with the same data, but view them with different assumptions about the world–the fossils cannot speak for themselves, nor can the evidence falsify one position or the other.

On the other hand, philosophers and cultural critics have attacked science as well. Some philosophers have argued that outside reality is an illusion, and we can only know what we personally experience. If we do not perceive it, reality does not exist. More recently, the fad for deconstructionism in the non-scientific realms of academia argues that all our ideas are so culturally based and biased by our human prejudices that we cannot decide what is “real” or “objective.” This argumentation has gone in circles within philosophy for centuries. Philosophers of science, in particular, are fond of telling scientists what they should do, often without finding out what scientists actually do.

For the most part, scientists themselves have largely ignored these debates swirling around their activities. Rather than agonize over what method they should be using, or whether they are being truly objective, most scientists just get to work and produce results. Although some working scientists are familiar with the debates among philosophers of science, most are not, and it doesn’t seem to reduce their scientific productivity a bit. This raises a larger question: How do we know what scientists do, and what science tells us, is real or not? Is it all an illusion? Is it just the product of cultural expectations? There are many good arguments against the idealist/solipsist position or the deconstructionist ideas as well, but the simplest ones are these:

  1. BECAUSE IT WORKS. Science produces tangible results upon which other science and technology can be built–and our entire modern civilization is a product of this. If scientific ideas were merely based on a cultural or philosophical illusions, we would not have the huge advances in technology or medicine or computers or transportation or any of many other modern benefits that science provides us. In particular, we would all still be living short, brutish and nasty lives and dying of diseases or infections that have largely been conquered by modern medicine. As Carl Sagan put it, “If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate.”
  2. BECAUSE SCIENCE IS SELF-POLICING. Individual scientists can be biased or deluded, or fudge their data, or cherry-pick what they want to believe. As the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” But in a true scientific community, the process of peer-review largely screens out the garbage from the good stuff. Peer-review is not perfect, and there are exceptions to this rule, such as papers which are not as carefully scrutinized as they should be. But unlike almost any other field of human endeavor, good science has a strict procedure of subjecting one’s ideas to the critiques of others with expertise in the topic. This prevents widespread publication of ideas or data until they have passed through this strict gantlet. By and large it works very well. Even if questionable ideas make it through the process of publication, the scientific community will continue to test and re-examine and try to replicate important ideas, often for years afterward, so once an idea has stood the test of time it is very likely to be a real observation about the world.
  3. BECAUSE SCIENCE TELLS US “INCONVENIENT TRUTHS.” If the process of science were all a delusion based on our biases and preconceptions and wishes, it would not give us answers that we don’t like or agree with. Yet scientists often discover things that go against our belief systems, but they must put aside their favorite ideas and face this reality. When Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated that the earth (and us) are not in the center of the universe, the idea wasn’t accepted by the Church or the world in general—but it was true. Everyone except a handful of religious nuts and the uneducated now look at the sun “rising” and “setting” and accept the counterintuitive notion that it is the earth turning instead. When Darwin showed that life had evolved and that we are all closely related to other living things, not specially created, it offended many people (and still does)—but its truth was soon acknowledged by the entire scientific community and nearly all educated Westerners who weren’t religiously biased, even before Darwin died. As the web cartoon puts it: “Science: if you ain’t pissing people off, you ain’t doin’ it right”.

Science tells us what we don’t want to hear, and doesn’t necessarily confirm our biases. The first panel portrays the Greek scientist and mathematician Archimedes, killed by a Roman soldier who didn’t realize he was beheading the smartest man in the ancient world. The LHC is in the penultimate panel refers to the “Large Hadron Collider” and the silly idea that somehow it would cause an atomic catastrophe—which it didn’t. (Cartoon courtesy

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38 Responses to “Reality Check”

  1. Michael Gauntlett says:

    What is a gantlet? I think you meant to say a gauntlet. (You’ll see why this stood out for me from my surname.). To say scientific ideas are put through a gauntlet menas they are put to a strong test. (Derives from medieval times where to throw down the gauntlet mean to put ones actions to the test.)

    Michael Gauntlett

    P.S. The extra ‘t’ in my surname was I’m told meant ‘son of’, meaning gauntlett was the ‘son of glovemaker’. Meaning Knights would throw down their glove (aka, their gauntlet) to challenge their competitor.

  2. Great write up. Although, if you are going to put in a comic, another one that seems appropriate with the one you posted (as a companion) would be this classic:

  3. quentin says:

    The good thing about science is that astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson believes in it, whether or not you believe in it.

    (just pointing out a flaw in the first quote, i’m ok with the rest of the article…)

  4. Shane says:

    Philosophers? You could be a little more precise than that. Philosophy was the birthplace of the scientific method and lots of philosophers currently support or make use of science.

    That some are relativists or subjective idealists doesn’t warrant labeling all philosophers as unwelcome and ignorant meddlers.

    • Yeah, I know most philosophers are not idealists, but in my experience (and I took courses in philosophy of science, and read widely in it), too many “philosophers of science” have no direct experience with how science is actually DONE, and make pronouncements from the Ivory Tower without actually getting their hands dirty at the lab bench. It’s one thing to philosophize about the abstract, but when there is a real field about which you are philosophizing, it helps to actually know what goes on…

      • Philosophers of science have been VERY necessary in recent years to tell scientists just what they have wrong on preconceptions, etc.

        Exhibit A: Philosopher of science David Buller exposing Tooby, Cosmides and other Pop Ev Psychers.

        Exhibit B: Stephen Toulmin.

        Those are just two obvious ones.

        Dan Dennett partially counts, but he needs correcting often enough himself for his philosophical errors (as in he’s halfway towards being the philosophical version of a Pop Ev Psycher at times.)

        Don, you painted with WAYYYY too broad a brush on this one.

      • AND, as I now see below, you made Bob Carroll mad, too!

      • Mike McRae says:

        Interestingly, it cuts both ways. Social studies on how science is done (such as with the work of Kevin Dunbar) show that the way science is performed is often not like we’d like to think in an ideal sense. Too few scientists really stop to consider the philosophical boundaries of how far their results can go in terms of describing reality and operate in an echo chamber of ideas.

        Perhaps there are a few ivory tower philosophers, but there are also a few scientists who engage in a behaviour based on role modeling and imitation, with little regard for the philosophical boundaries. When communicating their work with the public or even amongst themselves, this becomes painfully clear.

        We can find examples of all manner of people who express their views on the nature of reality – either informed or ad hoc – in questionable ways. I don’t see much benefit in making sweeping generalisations. Maybe it would be better to stick to highlighting specific examples of good and bad practices for others to compare and learn from.

  5. Teresa says:

    Science may also work in our reality even if our reality is ultimately an “illusion”.

  6. Nick says:

    I think the strongest statement for “science” put forth in this piece is the incremental, “because it works” argument. Provided you’re not engaging in Pyrrhonian skepticism, almost everyone can agree that the time we live in is better than any other – thanks to science. However, I think Mr. Prothero goes too far when he indicts philosophers and philosophers of science. Philosophers of science are often (as Shane said) the inspiration for the scientific breakthroughs and in many other cases they create essential thought experiments that scientists investigate empirically. I don’t think it would be preposterous to suggest that Einstein was a philosopher of science when he developed the theory of relativity through his famous thought experiments. In addition, though the quotes by Tyson, Dick and Sagan are entertaining and represent an important refutation of the nonsense-style thinking that far too many people engage in, they are unscientifically arrogant. No real scientist thinks their science is true, instead they probably subscribe to G.E.P. Box’s view: “All models are false, but some models are useful.” This thinking lies at the heart of scientific inquiry.

  7. Robo Sapien says:

    Will science make my iPhone faster? If so, I’m in that camp.

  8. aaron says:

    I agree with Shane that the vague use of ‘philosophy’ without specific citation leaves a little to be desired… where as creationist is a fairly specific term in comparison…

  9. J Paul says:

    This article is just the tip of a gigantic iceberg. As a student involved in both laboratory science and in philosophy, I will offer a few comments from the deconstructionist position.

    “BECAUSE IT WORKS. Science produces tangible results upon which other science and technology can be built–and our entire modern civilization is a product of this.”

    This idea represents a thoroughly modernist view that humankind is well aware of its own history and is inevitably progressing in its knowledge of the world. From this perspective, we could imagine that each little laboratory experiment or published paper is a brick, and bricks are continually being stacked one on another to build a great structure that works towards our goals. But this is erroneous. The history and structure of scientific revolutions (as popularized by Thomas Kuhn) and case studies on major discoveries (see Kuhn’s predecessor, Ludwig Fleck) show that many major scientific discoveries are often made accidentally whilst doing unrelated work and, rather than being adaptable to the current stack of bricks, actually serve to knock down the structure and reformulate an entire way of thinking in a discipline. These “discoveries” are actually not an uncovering of something that way already there, but a reformulation of a previously unheard of event into practice. History has a way of making the past appear linear an inevitable, when in fact it is much more complex.

    For complexity’s sake, let us critique the idea of “work” – for whom does the science actually work? Laboratory science is expensive, and often the work being done is for products that are profitable for someone, be it a biotech company who needs a new medicine to sell, an electronics developer who needs a faster computer, or a government that needs a huge bomb to destroy an enemy. Yes, these results of science will “work” in a materialistic way, but they do not “work” for everyone. Simply put, the sheer cost of science guarantees that research is never done for the sake of “pure” knowledge, but for power and profit; there are always social, cultural, and economic motivations that impart human values into the material action. It is not that science is intrinsically good and bad people use it; bad people pay for science with the intention of using it for their bad-person schemes.

    “BECAUSE SCIENCE IS SELF-POLICING. …in a true scientific community, the process of peer-review largely screens out the garbage from the good stuff.”

    This is true, but only in so far as we consider who decides what is garbage and what is good stuff. Just think of a peer review of the work of Copernicus in his time. Many people in his field would have considered his stuff to be garbage, and those that didn’t would have kept quiet if only to keep their own positions. As a result, he had to wait until his deathbed to show the bulk of his work. In any discipline, there are members of the “old guard” and there are radicals. But there are also tons of people in between who are highly trained to do their job at the laboratory bench, and have never questioned the assumptions of their discipline. These basic assumptions include the criteria for determining whether or not an connection between phenomena is possible, whether or not an experimental design is effectively controlled, and whether a person is capable of performing the task. These assumptions vary between disciplines and are handed down during training, effectively limiting the scope of questions that are ask-able and answers that are legitimate. The process of peer review might actually decrease the chances of promising but unconventional research getting published if they rely heavily on their trained assumptions. Older conceptions of what constitutes a valid investigation may actually be a hindrance to highly valuable scientific work. If we consider scientists as being part of a certain kind of social community, then their training (or indoctrination) into the field basically insures that they narrow their perspective considerably so that they are able to become highly specialized. Research attempting to link data from two usually unconnected fields will be discarded, especially if one of those fields is a “social” science and one is a “natural” science. You will rarely see interdisciplinary research in scientific journal articles, though the researchable world is without a doubt an interdisciplinary place. As a result, science can police itself to death sometimes, and scientific knowledge does not follow any subject it wishes but conforms to rigorous standards that reveal its socially-directed nature. After all, research scientists need to publish to keep their jobs. The point here is to show that laboratory scientists are highly trained to look for specific things in Petri plates, on computer screens, or in glass jars. Very often they do not see connections that have been there the whole time because they were simply not trained to look for them. Or, the questions they ask are so narrow in scope that they fail to grasp the “big picture”.

    So as you can surmise, I do not think scientific knowledge is “a delusion based on our biases and preconceptions and wishes,” but day-to-day scientific work definitely bows to biases in research areas and the agendas of one’s boss, the preconceptions of what is available for study and by whom, and the wishes of the scientist to keep their position. All of this adds up to the idea of science being a very social and cultural phenomenon producing specific kinds of knowledge for specific groups, rather than a noble quest for “pure” understanding of the universe.

    • Dr Greengage says:

      Your description of Kuhn’s views gels with my understanding (just reread “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”). I would note, though, that Kuhn believed in scientific progress (see the postscript in that book) – he just didn’t accept a correspondence theory of scientific truth.

      I don’t think that the use or motives of science is particularly relevant here. Granted, Donald took this line in his post, but power is power, however it is used. Scientific and technological power have the unique advantage that they continue to work outside of a community that accepts them (contrast, say, religious authority).

      Your point about interdisciplinarity is well made – but it may be a price worth paying for the power that science provides. There may not be any other way.

  10. Bob Carroll says:

    “Philosophers of science, in particular, are fond of telling scientists what they should do, often without finding out what scientists actually do.” I’d like to see the evidence for this claim. Anyway, it makes me wonder: why the gratuitous swipe at philosophers of science in an otherwise sensible and informative post?

  11. Mario says:

    Well this article resumes why the only philosophers I read and listen to are George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and Maynard James Keenan.

  12. DeLong says:

    One idea that I’ve contemplated is changing the words I use to embrace science. Rather than saying “I believe in evolution” I would say “I ACCEPT evolution.” Science is not a belief, but rather a factual basis for the understanding of the world and universe in which we live. The facts may change, but accepting changes that are based on well-documented science is, to me, a sign of intelligence.

    Most religious writings are the source of ignorance and denial in our species.

  13. Shecky R. says:

    Science is no monolith (economics, biology, psychology, physics, engineering, mathematics etc. are hugely different/variable)… I love GOOD science, but much science is weak, prescriptive, tautological, over-generalized, spurious,… and even hubris-driven, which is why the self-policing aspect is so important, yet often very delayed. And many underpinnings of science/knowledge remain open to question. I have tremendous faith in science… but I also recognize in the end that’s all it is, faith, based on my judgment of evidence as I perceive it.

    • Dr Greengage says:

      Rather than “faith”, perhaps we should say “commitment”. Like many others here, I live my life by a scientific materialist worldview. I accept the consensus of mainstream science, and am strongly influence by bleeding-edge science in areas where I have actual decisions to make.

      I recognize, however, that this is gambling in the face of unquantifiable uncertainty. I don’t “accept” scientific results – I bet my ass on them.

  14. Sheri Kimbrough says:

    Interesting discussion. I am reading up on research associated with global warming theory. I am constantly asking myself how much is science and how much is a guess. Plus, when you look back in time, there can never be “proof”–just a theory with best fit. Yet people just jump in and go with the “science” even when it can never be tested or proven. Generally, I get rather scathing responses for questioning the certainty of AGW and the origins of the theories, so please skip that angle here. A better understanding of what constitutes a theory versus a “fact” is what I seek. When do the words “the models suggest” mean this is science and when do they mean this is wishful thinking?

    • Max says:

      Try this substitution
      guess -> hypothesis
      model -> theory
      fact -> evidence or observation
      100% conclusive proofs are only in math, not science.

      This is true for all sciences, so why single out climatology?

    • tmac57 says:

      Sheri,if you are serious,and not just a concern troll,then I would direct you to watch all of the YouTube series of videos called “Climate Denial Crock of The Week”.The title may put you off,but they are grounded in pretty good science as far as I can tell,and make an extremely sound case with lots of data.You can start here if you are interested:

  15. Sheri Kimbrough says:

    Max–I am not singling out climatology. It’s what I happen to be researching at the moment. There are many other areas of science with the same problems. Your substitutions make some sense, though I am not really looking for 100% proof. I’m looking for more than chance, but less than certain. Much higher than chance if the science will have a significant impact on our existance. Kind of like the P-value used when analysing studies. There is a whole area of a science based on meta data analysis. Data analysis is necessary, but the meta analysis are problematic in what data is chosen to be used and how randomized the samples actually are. It bothers me that these mega data studies are so easily accepted, especially since many are contradictory. One study shows, for example, that compound A causes cancer and another shows it does not. More studies help, but I seek a more rigorous science, I guess, with more controls, more openness, and many more studies before we start rearranging our lives.
    tmac57–While I did ask that you please refrain from including more attempts to change my mind on climate change (which my mind is obviously not totally made up or I wouldn’ be researching it, would I?), I will try watching some of the video. I am not good with watching video–YouTube is pretty much useless to me–but I will try. I prefer studies and reading physics forums and articles to find the information.
    Thanks for the ideas.

    • Somite says:

      All you need to know about climate change is that 99+ of the published peer reviewed work is consistent and supports climate change caused by humans. Any uncertainty is created after either by sincerely or malicious erroneous interpretations.

    • tmac57 says:

      Sheri,to be fair,what you said was that you usually get scathing criticism for questioning the certainty of AGW,and for us to skip that.I did not offer any scathing criticism,just a suggestion for further investigation.If data is your bag,here is an index that will choke a horse:

      Good luck!

  16. Sheri Kimbrough says:

    Here is an example from Astrobiology Magazine by Henry Bortman, identified as a science writer:
    The first great transition in the history of Venus was the loss of the oceans. We don’t know that Venus had oceans, but there’s every reason to believe it did. All the mechanisms that supplied Earth with its initial water supply also should have worked on Venus, whether it came in with the original rocks that formed the planet, or whether it came later with comets. Venus should not have escaped whatever it was that gave Earth its water.

    Does this constitute science–I mean, it is an hypothesis, but how much stock should go into it? “There’s every reason to believe it did”? Is that science?

    • Somite says:

      Your problem is recognizing the source. A popular magazine is not a place to expect rigorous science writing. A magazine is a good place to gather current thoughts and start to understand an issue. Only in peer reviewed journals is where you find any certainty or at least a clear delineation of what is certain and what is not. Since most of us are not scientists or do not own subscriptions to journals the next best thing is to read reviews by the authors. Definitely beware of articles that are not written or do not directly quote the primary scientists.

      • Sheri Kimbrough says:

        Excellent point, though as you have stated, many people get their information from the magazines and not from journals. I do use them as a starting point. I’m still wading through the physics and looking for further scholarly journal articles (which do have to be paid for sometimes, though the internet makes them easier and cheaper to access in the past). Thanks.

  17. Dr Kam Okpa says:

    I don’t like your opening statement. Science is an approach towards the acquisition of knowledge about the world. It’s a method of organising behaviour through enquiry. A way of behaving may be more ‘enlightening’, ‘useful’ or ‘appropriate’ but not in and of itself ‘true’.

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