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On Corrections In Science

Max PlanckSomebody attributed to Max Planck, a constant1 source of wisdom, the saying that science advances funeral by funeral. This is a pithy condensation of his more famous quotation:

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.

Every scientist laughs along with Planck, thinking to himself how silly were those people of yore who refused to believe what was now so obvious. When scientists gather they often tell each other cautionary tales about the simpleminded stubbornness of their forefathers. Things were different then, always then. Not for a moment does it cross their minds that Planck’s wisdom could possibly apply to them.

Yet Planck was wrong: at least, if he meant that nobody ever changes his mind. Some do. But only very, very few. Einstein famously did not change his. And it is no refutation to say that perhaps Einstein will be right after all, because that would imply that Einstein’s intellectual enemies were wrong not to have changed their minds.

It is also clear that Planck had in mind foundational questions. The more a new idea conforms to whatever the current consensus in science is, the more likely it will be accepted. The new idea says, “What you believe is indeed so”, which is comforting. But the stronger a novel philosophy thumps the base of the Old Way, the more vociferous the opposition. It is saying, “You are wrong,” words few can stomach. The Wegeners and Semmelweises who arise occasionally must expect their thrashings.

Once more we have Planck:

The man who cannot occasionally imagine events and conditions of existence that are contrary to the causal principle as he knows it will never enrich his science by the addition of a new idea.

It is true that new foundational ideas are radical departures, as Planck suggests, but then so are the flood of crank theories that wash over science. An idea’s novelty is thus not an argument in its favor. To think it is is to employ what Philosopher David Stove called the Columbus argument. They did all laugh at old Christopher, and laugh wrongly, but they were right to dismiss the vast majority of novel thought.

We often hear—it is part of the standard propaganda folder—that science is self-correcting. Is it? Well, this statement is either always true, or it is always false, or somewhere in between. If we claim it is always true, we claim too much, because it is to claim all wrong ideas will always be corrected, and where is the proof for that? If you believe this, you do so on faith and in opposition to history. After all, science has at times not progressed but actively regressed. So how do we know that some of our beliefs will never be challenged successfully? It is logically possible that we hold certain ideas that are false but we can never prove false.

Then it cannot always be false that science is self-correcting, because, as is obvious, science has often progressed. So it must be somewhere in between: science often but not always and not in all places self corrects. And this says nothing about the rate at which science self corrects. For trivial, small facts, the correction is quick, as any working scientist will tell you. Yet as Planck told us, self correction is painfully, even fatally, slow for foundational ideas.

The test for regression, the opposite of self-correction, appears to be how closely aligned a science is to politics. Trofim Lysenko leaps to mind as the man who halted biology and ordered it to about face, and then marched it along the path dictated by his socialist masters. On a smaller scale, there was that infamous bill proposed (but not passed) in Indiana which would make it the law of the land that the circle could be squared (and thus the value of pi should be changed). In recent years, we have had a spate of frauds which otherwise would have been caught had the results the frauds put forth not been what their audience wanted to hear.

Science is like the branch of a tree that twists and grows in the direction of the strongest sunlight and nutrients, i.e. money. But not only that. Scientists are just people and they like to get along with others, especially colleagues. They will thus often hold an idea more strongly just because others hold it, too. Which brings us right back to Planck.

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1There’s got to be a better way to put these in.

32 thoughts on “On Corrections In Science Leave a comment

  1. We all know that Max Planck was institutionalized as was Carnegie (pronounced Ker-neg-ie where I’m from) et al.

    that science is self-correcting … where is the proof for that?

    Only the observation that current thought is always more correct than previous.

  2. DAV,

    I’d correct your last sentence to read, “Only the assumption that current thought is always more correct than previous.”

    We are not just thinking about physics, of course.

  3. You say, regarding the belief that science is always self-correcting: “If you believe this, you do so on faith and in opposition to history.”

    Part A of that proposition is undoubtedly true. Part B?

    Forgive my admittedly shallow thinking on this, but how is it possible for history to show that science is not self-correcting? Any wrong ideas are now either known to be wrong, or not known to be wrong. If they are known to be wrong, then obviously science has self-corrected. If they are not known to be wrong, then how can you know what should have been corrected?

    On the other hand, if you somehow *do* know which particular scientific theories are wrong but have not yet been shown to be wrong by “science”, then you should probably allow for the possibility that “science” may *eventually* come to know the truth — just as you have.

    Nit-picking I know, but I’m that kind of guy. This is not to say that I find fault with the article in general!

  4. Briggs,

    Current thought is ALWAYS more correct than previous just as the previous was. If it was incorrect it wouldn’t be the current thought. Just ask Phil. [/wry]

    Not so wryly, that the current thought changes at all is proof of self-correction. Correction is not always a positive thing.

  5. We are tossed and driv’n on the restless sea of time;
    Somber skies and howling tempests oft succeed a bright sunshine;
    In that land of perfect day, when the mists have rolled away,
    We will understand it better by and by.

  6. Big Mike,

    Not nit picking at all. All good points. Let’s just say that a proof of science always self-correcting is lacking.

    If anybody out there has a proof that it is, let’s hear it!

    DAV,

    Amen.

  7. Yes. Paradoxically, the only evidence possible is that science does self-correct — it’s not possible to *prove* that it always does without infinite time. Conversely, there is no evidence whatsoever that science does not eventually self-correct. Even a single instance of science not self-correcting would require infinite time to detect.

  8. A thought provoking post but it assumes that it is possible to know Truth. However, when you get right down to it, Truth can be demonstrated in philosophy and mathematics. Neither of them should be confused with reality. Everybody else has to muddle along with approximation and hope someone doesn’t game the system for advantage.

  9. @DAV: Which is why arrogance in scientists is particularly disturbing. Surely they should be humbled by the fact that all they can ever “know” is partial and transient.

    When you think about it, mathematics really is the study of the mind. It probes the limits of what we can and can’t “know” (in the sense of “being able to prove”). What we can prove, as you point out, is mostly abstract (which isn’t to say that it’s not useful in a practical sense).

  10. Phil,

    There aren’t many (any?) ideas that you can be completely sure are right or wrong. Therefore, it’s quite easy to see that people can give up a correct idea that they’re not entirely convinced of, in favor of a wrong idea that’s easier for them to believe. People like to rely on big theories about how the world works, and will accept or reject particular ideas based on how well they fit into that worldview, as much as on objective evidence about the correctness of those ideas. We’re talking about science, which ought to be objective, but the farther you move from physics, the less definitively you can draw conclusions, and the more likely it is that wrong ideas can push correct ones aside.

  11. How to change minds? The scientific tradition of waiting for the old guard to die off is at least kinder and gentler than actively killing off the non-believers, as religion and politics are won’t to do. But all seem to agree that it is practically impossible to change minds. If the basis for a made up mind is faith, that is indeed hard to change. For those of us who claim to have rational beliefs, it is harder to explain — except that we are only superficially rational.

    “science is self-correcting. Is it?” Wikipedia wars gives a clue on the answer to that question.
    BTW, don’t forget your Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    Advancement/progress depends on the right people coming along at the right place and the right time, and that is largely chance/luck/probability.

  12. If you hold that you cannot know the truth about the world, how can you know that you can’t? Your proposition destroys itself.

    I suspect the problem is based upon the assumption that if you don’t know everything, you can’t know anything. Since it is clear that you don’t know everything, by that assumption, you can’t even know you can’t know anything. Another proposition that destroys itself.

    I think it clear that we do in fact know something that is somewhere between everything and nothing. Our buildings stand, our crops grow, our airplanes fly, our trucks, cars, and trains move. We had to know something to turn the raw materials into such things and make them work as we desire. It is neither all mystery nor all brilliant understanding. It is something in between. We have progressed from being naked and starving savages to living well housed, clothed, and fed in a high technology civilization based upon the growth and application of actual knowledge. It was NOT an accident. Continuing that state is dependent upon our answer to the critical question: what do we know and how do we know it?

  13. Lionell,

    That’s the major difference between philosophy and science. There’s a big difference between knowing the truth and believing you do. If you can’t conclusively prove what you believe to be true then you can’t claim to know it’s true. Science can’t prove anything conclusively. That’s why it’s possible for what is believed to be true to change over time. Inductive vs. deductive reasoning. With deductive, it’s possible for a truth to exist given basic assumptions. That’s fine for philosophy and math but nobody should assume they necessarily represent reality mostly because no philosophy can prove its basic premises. Note that you slid from deductive reasoning in your first paragraph to inductive reasoning in the second.

    Big Mike,

    A lot of misery has been passed out through the ages because of that arrogance and it’s not confined to scientists. If it were, it probably wouldn’t matter as much.

  14. Actually, abductive reasoning or whatever term you like to mean the most likely explanation is probably a more apt term in regard to science.

    I read an interesting novel once where one of the major characters operated and explained just about everything by assuming things were the result of magical powers — and his explanations yielded fabulous results. There’s really nothing wrong with believing that airplanes fly because of goblins which are attracted to pleasing aerodynamic shapes. That is until the explanation takes a serious hit when planes continue to fly during a universal goblin walkout. Even then, it only really matters if you want a “True Explanation”. If you ask me, pragmatism should be the operational rule.

    Was Wegener right? It’s currently believed so but what if we just fell for propaganda from them Middle Earth people who are trying to remain below our radar?

    The real problem comes when the Explanation gets in the way of a better (i.e, more useful) one. Max was right. Sometimes we have to wait for the older and (presumably less useful) view to die before we can bury it. Sometimes not even then. I know someone who steadfastly maintains the existence of electromagnetic aether.

  15. IMO “Science” is an abstraction that only models reality, and is frequently confused with reality itself. Yes, there are many successful models of reality (e.g. Newtonian physics) but they are still only models. An idea is never really “correct”–only consistent with a set of observations. And observation is imperfect and subject to interpretation. But this is just my opinion based on imperfect observation.

  16. Actually they laughed at Columbus bucause his math was wrong. He calculated the size of the earth to be small enough that he could sail west to Asia. The other sailing authorities knew the correct size of the earth and that there was no possibility of sailing west to Asia. Columbus got lucky. There was an entire new world in the way. No educated person though the earth was flat. That is a myth.

  17. Actually they laughed at Columbus bucause his math was wrong. He calculated the size of the earth to be small enough that he could sail west to Asia. The other sailing authorities knew the correct size of the earth and that there was no possibility of sailing west to Asia. Columbus got lucky. There was an entire new world in the way. No educated person thought the earth was flat. That is a myth.

  18. Richard,

    Saying it twice won’t make you twice as right. Shouting works much better.

    Seriously though, sometimes posts here seem to go down a black hole. I’ve found it best to wait a bit and even then open the page up in another tab.

    I’ve heard Columbus deliberately fudged his math to get funding.

  19. Lionell Griffith said @ 4 February 2012 at 3:59 pm

    It is neither all mystery nor all brilliant understanding. It is something in between. We have progressed from being naked and starving savages to living well housed, clothed, and fed in a high technology civilization based upon the growth and application of actual knowledge. It was NOT an accident. Continuing that state is dependent upon our answer to the critical question: what do we know and how do we know it?

    Lionel, that’s two questions, not one. And there’s a third question, “How do we live our lives?”, that the Greeks thought of equal importance.

  20. Richard Brimage said @ 4 February 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Actually they laughed at Columbus bucause his math was wrong. He calculated the size of the earth to be small enough that he could sail west to Asia. The other sailing authorities knew the correct size of the earth and that there was no possibility of sailing west to Asia. Columbus got lucky. There was an entire new world in the way. No educated person though the earth was flat. That is a myth.

    There is a truly hilarious outcome of the 19thC conceit promulgated by Washington Iriving that the medievals believed in a flat earth. There are now far more people who believe in a flat earth than there would have been had he not concocted the myth. Zacharia Lilio, a canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome wrote about the Earth being flat in 1496 and was widely ridiculed at the time. The treatise only began to sell after Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was published in 1828.

  21. IMHO, the central point is as Mack said: “Science is an abstraction that only models reality, and is frequently confused with reality itself.”

    Or in other words the model of science should not be confused with the reality of science. One can prove that the model of science is self-correcting (the cycle of deduction-experiment-abduction), whereas in reality, science is not always observed as such.

  22. “Science is self-correcting” is a theory. And theories are not proven to be true, but proven to be false.

  23. Hi Sander,

    Science is a method — it’s called the scientific method. True, science is a process that deals with the falsification of natural theories very effectively. But science itself is not a theory or a meta-theory. It is a method for the proper handling of theories. Defining the scientific method will result in an abstract model of how science is to be performed. One can derive all sorts of logical implications about the abstract model.

    Briggs uses the term “corrections”, which is fine. But I would have used “error management”. The scientific method is all about controlling all the different kinds and levels of errors that can infest theory. It is even self-correcting for dealing with errors in implementing the method itself.

    How? The scientific method assumes 1) Theories must be logically consistent, 2) Theories must be parsimonious, 3) The sole test of theory is experiment, and 4) All theories and experiments must be independently verified and validated. This is as self-correcting as it can possibly be.

  24. George Crews said @ 6 February 2012 at 9:21 pm

    The scientific method assumes 1) Theories must be logically consistent, 2) Theories must be parsimonious, 3) The sole test of theory is experiment, and 4) All theories and experiments must be independently verified and validated. This is as self-correcting as it can possibly be.

    If the sole test of a [scientific] theory is experiment and untestable theories are not scientific, then astronomical theories are not scientific. Palaeontology would seem to suffer from a similar problem.

  25. How can an experimentally untestable theory be of any consequence? Why can’t I dismiss such theories since they cannot have any predictable physical consequences? Such theories cannot be falsified. Non-falsifiability is how I dismiss both astrology and creationism. Let’s not broaden the definition of science to include those theories.

  26. George Crews said @ 8 February 2012 at 3:19 am

    How can an experimentally untestable theory be of any consequence? Why can’t I dismiss such theories since they cannot have any predictable physical consequences? Such theories cannot be falsified. Non-falsifiability is how I dismiss both astrology and creationism. Let’s not broaden the definition of science to include those theories.

    So, in order to save science from astrology and creationism, you would dismiss astronomy, most of biology, psychology, and a significant portion of physics as being science. A little drastic don’t you think?

  27. Hi Pompous Git,

    Could you give us actual examples of physical theories that have no testable consequences? For which there can be no experiments performed? You state they are numerous. However, I don’t think we will find that your position — science without experiments — is defensible.

  28. In physics: string & M theories. In biology most of botany & zoology are descriptive. How do you experimentally determine whether wings started off as “stabilisers for faster running” for example. Experiments to determine the viability of origin of life theories have been a dismal failure. This is likely because we cannot know what the conditions on Earth 4 billion years ago were. Maybe we can imitate little white mice and have an Earth-like planet built for us so we can run the experiment, but I doubt it. In evolutionary theory, lenses for eyes developed after retinas. There’s a jelly fish with lenses, but lacking a retina for light to focus upon. How do we experimentally determine the correct sequence of events? And so on…

  29. Nearly forgot: Big Bang Cosmology. The universe is theorised to consist of mostly Dark Matter and Dark Energy, neither of which are in principle detectable. How do you go about experimentally detecting something that is in principle undetectable?

  30. Hi Pompous Git,

    According to the Wikipedia string theory has evolved so that it is both testable and makes predictions that can be tested. M-theory is an extension of string theory. No one can yet say what its evolution will be regards to testability.

    And in response to your comment about experimentally detecting something that is in principle undetectable, recall Feynman’s Lectures on Physics where he compares energy with a collection of toy blocks, and the punchline: there are no blocks! Energy, in and of itself, is undetectable. Only its effects are.

  31. I’d be a bit careful relying on Wikibloodypedia as a source. I was relying on Stephen Hawking though I cannot recall the particular lecture. I’d be a little happier about revisiting that area of physics if it became testable.

    Gravity’s a bit like energy in that respect: undetectable apart from its effects. However, what are the experiments that have been conducted to determine the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy? In what sense was Charles Darwin’s investigation of the physiology of the barnacle experimental?

    You also got me thinking “what do we mean by experiment?”. If it’s an action or operation undertaken in order to test a hypothesis, its usual sense in science, where does Faraday’s motor fit in?

    http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/practical-physics/faradays-motor

    The theoretical explanation accepted today is different to that proffered by either Ampere or Faraday at the time. All three explanations came after Faraday devised his motor.

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