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What Makes Good Science?

Over at the Volokh conspiracy, Jim Lindgren writes:

Crichton then describes scientific consensuses that turned out to be wrong. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with talking about the consensus of scientists or social scientists (and I certainly do so myself), but one must remember that it is the quality of the evidence that makes the work persuasive, not the consensus.

Now, this is in the course of a long post on ‘excommunicating’ academics, but what makes evidence persuasive is not the quantity of quality evidence. What makes a theory persuasive is that it has been subjected to real tests that ‘ought’ to disprove it. Einstein’s theory of light being subject to gravity was subject to a famous test by Eddington. Newton’s mechanics predicted that the light would not be moved by the sun. Einstein’s theory predicted that it would. All the great evidence of hundreds of years that Newton’s theory was good was made unpersuasive by one experiment that showed the limits of mechanics.

And yes, I’ve been reading Popper lately, in prep for my Shmoocon talk.

5 comments on "What Makes Good Science?"

  • Iang says:

    Ah … scientific method! A worthy endeavour. I’d also love to hear why you are reading Popper.

  • Cypherpunk says:

    I suggest that the meta message of Popper is exactly the opposite of what you say. It’s not the quality of the evidence or the falsifiability of the thesis that matters. The scientific consensus is what counts.
    However science works, with all its flaws and all of its departures from both textbook and Popperian descriptions, the bottom line is that it does work. Science is the most successful institution for uncovering the truth ever invented by humanity. Just look around and you can see this. The very notion of “progress” depends utterly on advances in scientific understanding.
    Because of this obvious fact, there is no need to understand in detail how science works. Instead, simply rely on the observed and verified fact that the scientific consensus is the best guide we have at any time to the truth about questions of fact. Is global warming (largely) human-caused? The scientific consensus is that it is. You don’t have to go any further than that.
    Crichton’s nit-picking demonstrates the risk involved in trying to analyze the scientific process in order to understand when and why scientists are getting it wrong. He thinks his mental processes are stronger than those of an entire community of scientists who are using a process that has been proven successful over hundreds of years. The truth is that Crichton is full of personal biases. He probably has a strong emotional attachment to the idea of a world where global warming either doesn’t exist or is not exacerbated by human activities. This causes him to pick and choose the evidence that supports his case, and he ends up deluding himself.
    Yes, the scientific consensus has been wrong from time to time, but that doesn’t change the fact that no other human institution has been so successful in terms of finding the truth. Bet on science, not on its critics. That’s the winning strategy.

  • adam says:

    Ian, I’m reading Popper at the suggestion of a friend who shall remain anonymous.
    C, I think that Popper states that here’s how consensus emerges. What Tufte would call beautiful evidence convinces people. I have no opinion on Crichton.

  • sama says:

    I agree with cypherpunk with regards to what Popper would say. It’s precisely why I always detested him.

  • Iang says:

    I have started a paper on our Security thread … from the pov of “what is.” Today’s working title is “The Market for Silver Bullets.”
    Anyway what arises from some Lemon-flavoured analysis is that the security decision is made in an environment similar to scientific discovery! Hence, how this consensus arises sounds like an important direction.
    IOW, I’m listening for anything you discover there!

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