The Difference Between Science and Scientists

Recently, I’ve posted a few blogs dealing with various aspects of personal opinion and confirmation bias and how the combination can, to an outsider, make any individual, in certain circumstances, look like a complete idiot.  That even includes scientists, sorry to say, yet “science” as a whole has an unprecedented record of accuracy over time, regardless of what climate change deniers and creationists say.  If scientists can be as personally biased and opinionated as all the rest of us, how does “science” end up with such a long-term record of accuracy?

There’s one basic reason, and that is that the modern structure of science, if you will, requires proof, and all the proof that is submitted is subject to scrutiny and attack from all quarters.  What emerges from this often withering barrage almost always turns out – in time – to be more correct and more accurate than that which preceded it.  That’s not to say that, upon occasion, it hasn’t taken the scientific establishment time to get things right, but eventually better techniques and better thought proved that plate tectonics was correct, just as, regardless of the creationists, there’s an overwhelming body of evidence in favor of evolution, and that relativity provides a more accurate picture of the universe than did Newton, or the Ptolemaic theorists.

But there are several “problems” with the scientific method.  First, establishing more accurate knowledge, information, or theories takes time, and often large amounts of resources, as well as winnowing through and considering a fair amount of uncertainty at times. Second, it requires reliance on data and proof; mere opinion is not sufficient.  Third, it’s not as set in stone as human beings would like.  The early Greek scientists had a fair idea about the earth and the moon, but their measurements and calculations were off.  As methods, equipment, and techniques improved, so did the measurements, and Newton did far better, and his methods and theories result in a high degree of accuracy for most earth-bound measurements and systems, but Einstein and his successors have provided an even more accurate explanation and more accurate measurements. And fourth, at present, the scientific method isn’t absolutely precise in predicting specific future results of massive interacting inputs.

That lack of absolute precision in dealing with future events often causes people to doubt science as a whole, even though its record is far better than any other predictor or prediction system.  Part of its accuracy comes from the fact that science as a structure adapts as more information becomes available, but some people regard this adoption of new data and systems as unsettling, almost as if they were saying, “If science is so good, why can’t you get it right the first time?”  An associated problem is that science is far more accurate as a descriptor than a predictor, and most people subconsciously assume that the two are the same.

Even so, one could easily adapt Churchill’s statement about democracy to science, in saying that it’s the poorest way of describing the universe and predicting how things will happen – except for any other way that’s ever been tried.  And that’s because the structure of modern science is greater than any individual scientist.




16 thoughts on “The Difference Between Science and Scientists”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    The greatest problems with creationism (which satisfies neither the constraints of science nor faith) are I think that by compromising both faith and science, it’s dishonest; that in some cases it insists on each species being a separate creation (which is silly, not necessarily required by the first two chapters of Genesis, and contradicted by the evidence), and that some still insist on 24-hour days in earth’s reference frame.

    The latter was refuted by an Orthodox Jewish physicist, who pointed out that (a) oral tradition distinguishes between the point-of-view (reference frame) before Adam and that after, and (b) that relativity makes absolute time scales meaningless anyway, where different perspectives are concerned. I think that even William Jennings Bryan, in the Scopes trial, made a similar concession – that the “days” of creation in Genesis may not be 24-hour days as we know them at all. (However, it may well be that folks like Gerard Schroeder do not do well to try to achieve an entirely detailed reconciliation between Genesis and science, since as I’ve said, they’re really about two entirely different things: who and why vs observation-based theories about _how_.)

    So I see no particular problem in regarding the first two chapters of Genesis as capable of being entirely accurate within their reasonable purposes and objectives, while not engaging in the foolishness of telling scientists what theories are or aren’t acceptable.

    Similarly, a global-warming _advocate_ is every bit as non-scientific as a global-warming “denier” (I use quotes because denier strikes me as a gratuitously pejorative label at least for those who simply say “case not proven”). Let the data lead (and stop hiding the raw unadjusted data, please). I’ve personally heard a physicist with no profit to make or axe to grind dissect global warming and point out more than a few weaknesses in the notion…and I have a strong suspicion that before it becomes necessary to engage in personally and economically disruptive alterations of behavior, the issue will become much clearer, one way or the other…_provided_ those interested in having the actions taken or not taken merely serve their own ends are not allowed to win. AFAIK, the most dire predictions have _not_ come true – we have some time yet to understand this better. (Nevertheless, even if the anthropogenic component of climate change is ultimately shown to be minor, and provided we don’t overreact, there is some good coming out of efforts to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, namely that they will run out eventually if we keep using them as fuels, and that there are other uses for them in much smaller volumes that would be even more difficult to replace than their use as fuel – such as feedstocks for many many necessary industrial chemicals). Also – peer review is a part of science, but I really don’t think a mere majority or supermajority means much. Competent dissent shouldn’t be ignored, and there certainly seems to be no lack of it – even among those whose first inclination was not dissent at all.

    Finally, even the most honest scientist is both fallibly human and working on top of a far from complete base of knowledge and theory. With perfect knowledge, perfect predictions _might_ be possible (within such limits as set by Heisenberg and Goedel, for example)…but anyone asserting that perfect knowledge is near is following a historically repeated and repeatedly discredited tradition of arrogance.

    So scientists (and science writers, not the same thing necessarily) would do well to maintain a reasonable attitude of humility. At best, they’re doing their best honestly with what’s available, and extending the total of knowledge; but there’s always more they don’t know that will likely alter or at least extend their theories and predictions.

    If there’s a problem, it’s that both media and those who desire to manipulate for the sake of power have reduced expectations of information to mere sound bites, in which there’s simply no space to reasonably qualify a statement, nor to provide evidence to distinguish agenda from credible theory. A bit of that is laziness: it’s no doubt very difficult to put in plain language what takes a bunch of PhD’s with the aid of supercomputers to come up with. But more of it is I think about manipulation…or about leaving more time for paying advertisers.

    1. Joe says:

      Say you have an aquatic weed that doubles its area every day. By the 48th day, the entire lake is covered. Say you fish in the lake, and the weed kills fish by depleting oxygen. When would you start worrying about removing the weed to preserve your fishing grounds?

      You advocate waiting. How long would you wait until you felt it was worth acting. Would waiting until a 10th of the lake was covered by the weed seem reasonable? How many days do you think you have to spare?

      The answer is that the lake is 12.5% covered on the 45th day, and if you wait 3 more days, the lake will be completely covered by the weed (2 * 2 * 2 * 12.5% = 100%). This is an example of an exponential process.

      Climate change is similar: it’s non-linear. The reason people are not waiting for things to become “much clearer” and are not advocating avoiding “personally and economically disruptive alterations of behavior” is precisely because the climate is non-linear, and not because they’re making a “profit” as you seem to think.

      Finally, the fact you “heard a physicist with no profit to make or axe to grind” confirms L.E. Modesitt’s point: individual scientists can be complete idiots. What matters more is what the scientific method says, not what a scientist says or thinks, which are often quite different. Thus, for instance, you’ll have geneticists claiming their new GMO genes are quite safe for the environment, when there is absolutely no way for them to know that scientifically since they have not tested them in all situations, and genetic interactions are far more complex than the climate.

      There’s an interesting book about human psychology called “thinking fast and thinking slow” about confirmation bias, and other ways our brains approximate reality. Because it takes energy to double check our thoughts for correctness, few people do it consistently. Yet that’s what the scientific method requires. I recommend it.

      While I do agree with you that a mark of good scientists is often that they realize there is so much they do not know, this does not work in the real world where people claim to know all sorts of things just to make a buck. Good scientists who find a problem have to state their case as strongly as they can just to be heard over the din of people who claim all sorts of rubbish they could never prove.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        Since you have already decided what you believe, to the point that anyone who disagrees must be “complete idiots”, there’s simply no way to have a conversation.

        As for me, I don’t claim to understand. But the simple fact that even if a large majority has one view, a competent minority view still exists, tells me that the facts as we know them are complicated enough that we don’t have good enough models to exclude the minority interpretation. That in turn tells me that only “complete idiots” would trust anyone with the power to enforce some emergency plan of action of the entire planet.

        I don’t trust anyone who proposes to compel me to do anything other than don’t kill, steal, lie, or cheat – because for sure, they’ve got an angle.

        That doesn’t preclude the possibility that they might not be right in some portion of their alarmist statements. But “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”, and I’m not going to be easily satisfied that anyone that wants to change my life for the worse is really saving us all.

        If that means waiting until it’s too late, well, I’d rather have a planet full of free corpses than a planet full of live slaves.

        1. Joe says:

          “well, I’d rather have a planet full of free corpses than a planet full of live slaves.”

          It is quite clear that it is you who has already decided what to believe. Having the same living standards as your ancestors is not “slavery”, but if they had thought it was you wouldn’t be around. We should also thank you for deciding that the rest of us should be corpses, to preserve your standards of living.

          The way to have a conversation is to bring more knowledge to the table about how the climate works. If you could prove the climate is linear, then you would have a point. However making claims without proof such as “alarmist”, “they’ve got an angle”, “competent minority” does indeed preclude any rational conversation.

          I do believe in the scientific method for the simple reason that it works, and other belief systems don’t. (Work being defined as accurately predicting the future).

          1. Steve says:

            FWIW you don’t seem open to conversation despite my sympathy for your apparent bias.

      2. Mayhem says:

        Oh, and Joe, with regards your doubling puzzle, I think I would prefer to spend the first 24 days determining the scope of the problem and finding a solution that will work on the 46th day, or 25% cover. You then have 22 days to successfully implement your solution. Possibly by hiring someone to go out in a boat once a month and pull out all the weeds?
        It is a popular but flawed analogy and is overly simplistic. For example, what percentage of fish would survive assuming total cover? After all, after 48 days, the weed cannot grow any further, so the fish population would decline to a new equilibrium point.

        As an aside, a friend of mine recently moved into a new flat, and spent two days clearing thick weeds and scrub in the back garden. Near the end of the second day he put his foot through a three inch layer of moss and wood and found a 3ft goldfish pond, with half a dozen small goldfish happily living inside. After checking with the neighbors, they now have the novel experience of seeing the sun for the first time in three years.

        1. Joe says:

          The point was that zero fish would survive at 48 days. Yes, that’s an equilibrium point, but not a useful one for a fishing grounds. I have no idea why you call it a popular flawed analogy since it was simply an example I came up with when writing my post to illustrate exponential processes. It wasn’t meant as a puzzle.

          I doubt you would even notice the problem on the 24th day since 2^-24 is
          5.9604644775390625e-08. On the 24th day, you’d see the weed covering 0.0125 sq km of the entire surface of the great lakes (209000 sq km).

          1. Mayhem says:

            Hehe. You illustrate exponential processes fine, but my point was that the analogy is overly simplistic and you might end up with unexpected results.

            The fundamental idea is up until the last few days, the problem isn’t big enough to recognise and you only have a very short time to act. Assuming you recognise the nature of the problem soon enough.

            My issue with the Climate Change ‘debate’ is that the solutions being put forward at present are (a) highly likely to be ineffective if the situation deteriorates further (b) highly likely to greatly enrich the parties involved and (c) mostly designed to enable the first world to continue on as they have up until now while condemning the second and third world to remain as second class citizens of the globe.

            And all of them sidestep one of the thorniest issues – that of overpopulation. Say what you will about China – and it really isn’t a shining example of a country, but they recognised the issue early and implemented population control measures to keep the country stable. Equally, they are trying very hard to drag the country *as a whole* into the modern era, taking people within one or two generations from subsistence peasant farming to well paying educated jobs without having to go through most of the stages in between.

            Compare that with say India or Nigeria, where the population has doubled or even nearly tripled in barely sixty years, or two western generations.

            And the biggest issue facing the world isn’t climate change, it is the pressure that that increase in population is putting on resources, like arable land and fresh water supplies. And very few organisations are actually trying to tackle the situation.

            Look at the aid organisations – famine hits Ethiopia, and they truck in vast quantities of food in the form of wheat, or ready meals. What they don’t do now is address the root causes by supplying better seed grains, or simple cheap water purification. Or, bluntly, condoms.

            Compare the behaviour of the US during the fifties, when Norman Borlaug revolutionised food production across the world and the focus was on enabling countries to support themselves. And then in the seventies the superpowers dropped the ball to focus on the cold war, the subsidies dried up, and the production consortiums merged to form huge multinationals, where companies like Monsanto now sue farmers that have their land contaminated with genetically modified wheat. Modified so that they are higher yielding, but inert, so unable to be used as seed crops forcing the customer to buy seed grain from the multinationals.

            Gah, I’m losing my point somewhere in this rant, but I guess it comes down to start looking very closely at the agendas of those on all sides. Very few are clean any more.

          2. Joe says:

            @Mayhem 12/29/2011

            As far as I know there are two “solutions” to climate change currently on the table.

            Geoengineering the earth to reflect more sunlight. This won’t work because the ocean will acidify from the CO2 in the air. That was the cause of a mass extinction (Paleocene-Eocene boundary).

            The other alternative is to stop pumping so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That means, no oil from tar sands, more efficient transport, less agriculture displacing existing forests, fewer hydro dams (massive methane emitters), etc. I think all countries would be badly affected by it in the short run. I’m rather pessimistic that we’ll achieve all of these in the time available given most people’s attitudes.

            There may be a completely different solutions. For instance, it might be worth creating GMOs to absorb as much CO2 as possible, grow on the surface of the ocean, and sink once they die, burying the CO2 at the bottom of the ocean. Although it’s fraught with ecological concerns, it may be the most realistic option requiring the least investment. (And yes, in general I’m anti-GMO because anything that can reproduce, share its genes with other plants, etc is totally unpredictable, and therefore quite dangerous).

            With regard to world population, I agree, although I still think climate change is the more immediate issue. That is why I support girls’ education. Educated women have fewer children. The problem is the lag time of around 25 years.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    For some reason, people see science as something definite and discrete, when in reality it is a jumbled mess of facts that can be combined in myriad ways. Yes, there’s a system. Yes, the system can be read and interpreted, but please don’t confuse that for complete and utter understanding with the ability to manipulate said system to create the desired output.

    Anyone who professes complete understanding of a subject should be looked at with utmost care.

    And the general public’s attitude towards the hard sciences is as it has ever been: excitement when there is ‘something cool’ going on and deep skepticism at most every other time.

  3. Brian says:

    Your remarks describe science in general in the past for areas that can be replicated without too many variables interfering. But today too much grant money and fame are at stake and this has created problems in certain areas.

    What is the traditional Scientific Method?

    Step 1: Start with an hypothesis
    Step 2: Try to disprove not prove the hypothesis; if it passes then:
    Step 3: It becomes a Theory; if further test results prove that results are replicated, then:
    Step 4: A Standard Law results eventually (but is still usually tested as new data emerges).

    The cornerstone of the scientific method is SKEPTICISM.

    ‘Climate Change’ Scientific Method (Proof):

    Step 1: A Standard Law
    Step 2: Prove Standard Law.
    Step 3: Build consensus agreement.

    Funding is controlled and doled out to only one side of the approach, thereby violating the general scientific method. For example, Environment Canada spent $6.8 billion in 7 years to scientists trying to prove it. Furthermore, consensus building is a POLITICAL goal, not a scientific one. Therefore, in Canada and worldwide, those who fell in line politically and provided the results that the funding agencies wanted to see got a slice of the billion $$$$ ‘Climate Change Pie’. Recently revealed emails of ‘Climate Change’ proponents include frank admissions of ‘fudging’ data to fall in line with the end proof. Anything goes, I guess, in order to keep the ‘Gravy Train’ rolling. How many more Solyndras are there out there as a result of ‘fudged’ data?)

    It all began with the fact that the world has been on a warming trend since 1680. What was the cause? Scientists (some of the same who in the late 1970s proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that another ice age was fast approaching) dubbed it ‘Global Warming’ and focused on CO2 emissions.

    The overall global temperature has decreased since 2000 (and the consequence is that ICE is expanding in much of Antarctica, contrary to the widespread public belief that global warming is melting the continental ice cap).

    But CO2 emissions have increased. Proponents scrambled to rename their pet project. Hence, ‘Climate Change’. Which is like saying women get pregnant! The changing of Earth’s climate is a natural process and it is not changing outside recognized parameters. Blaming humans is really part of a political agenda. In doing so, the proponents have eliminated the inclusion and identification of the mechanisms that naturally cause the climate to change. For example, the Sun’s role in natural climate change is ignored!!! Everyone knows that the Sun is our main source of energy and any change there effects us here. How can you have a cogent discussion on climate and assume the Sun’s role is unimportant???

    Any who raise their voice contradicting the new Environmental Religion is attacked personally; threatened, sometimes physically assaulted and generally oppressed. Those in opposition don’t receive funding for their research so what can be their motivation. Perhaps it is the truth?


    Until I get answers to this important question that are not tainted by the above equation, I will remain true to the scientific method of SKEPTICISM.

    1. Joe says:

      Global warming is defined as an increase of the average temperature at the surface of the entire planet.

      The reason climate change is a better name is because people seem to think that any local cooling disproves global warming. In fact it takes more energy to have large localized temperature differences, so snow storms are quite consistent with climate change. Similarly if you heat the air, it can suck more water out of the land causing a drought somewhere and then a flood somewhere else.

      Your article was from 2009. Amusingly perhaps, 2010 was the hottest year on record:

      Playing semantic games, rather than researching the definitions of terms, does not a scientist make. Being “skeptical” also doesn’t turn you into a scientist. Science simply minimizes the number of assumptions required to make correct predictions. Falsification is the process of testing hypotheses to check whether they do indeed make correct predictions.

      Water vapor traps heat in the lab. CO2 traps heat in the lab. Methane traps heat in the lab. You are positing that these gases behave differently in the atmosphere. What is your proof? Observations do not agree with you, and there is no experimentally validated scientific law that agrees with you. The fact that warmer air causes more water to be trapped in the atmosphere are more methane to be released from the arctic as the permafrost melts should suggest a vicious cycle (more heat causing more greenhouse gasses exponentially).

      Do you happen to watch Fox News? Their editorial policy is to create doubt about climate change, facts be damned.

  4. Mayhem says:

    I am what can traditionally be described as a sceptic. It comes from being raised in a family of industrial chemists, engineers, teachers and lecturers. I have an extensive university education in the natural sciences, with a fair few dabblings in social sciences such as linguistics and psychology on the side. I also have a fairly good grounding in mathematics, and more importantly in statistics.

    What that means is I tend to look at things with a fairly practical eye, and don’t hold much truck with many of the less tangible arts and pseudoscientific belief systems.

    The scientific method is a proven, reliable way to develop an understanding of a given phenomena, it does have issues. The absolutely most important as stated above is that it takes time. A LOT of time. The gulf between Galileo and Einstein was roughly 300 years, and entailed a huge amount of work by a wide range of scientists along the way, but we finished up with a pretty good understanding of our solar system and celestial mechanics.

    Where we are with regards to Climate Change is somewhere around just before the Newton stage. We have a broad idea, with a wild assortment of differing viewpoints as to exactly how that idea works. And we have a lot of vested interests looking to make sure that their view comes across as the correct one. What we don’t have yet is a nice elegant theory that all sides can converge upon. We will. Eventually. Even the Catholic Church recently admitted that the Heliocentric model of the solar system is wrong after all.

    What we should not do is frantically rush along with the herd, insisting we burn the heretics and condemning all who dissent.

    R. Hamilton has a number of very good points in his somewhat confused message. Everyone else appears to be overlooking them as they jump on the Climate Change bandwagon. Firstly though I’ll dismiss his creationist opening. Individual religious belief has no part in this discussion, although Organised Religion as a faction does.

    Key points #1 – Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is a good thing. There are many good reasons why, and very few reasons why not. The comment about industrial feedstocks is very very important.

    #2 – Dissent should not be drowned out by people shouting rah rah you are wrong. Dissent is a perfectly natural human trait, and people should be allowed to say what they like. On the other hand, extreme minorities should not be given the same amount of air time as majorities, taking an 80% view and a 5% view and treating them as equivalents is *not* balanced reporting thank you BBC. A relevant argument is that those of us outside the US could consider the Westboro Baptist Church to be a representative sample of religious Americans based on media coverage.

    #3 – Science and Science writing should be done with a larger amount of humility. The Publish or Perish mentality that has developed over the last forty years, combined with the rise in litigation and patent wars has been actively detrimental to the overall cause of science – to bring about a wider understanding of the phenomena that surround us.

    #4 – leading on to the Media, the most openly manipulative group in play today, whether extreme right wing, a-la Fox News, or extreme left wing, a-la the Guardian. There are increasingly few ways to gain neutral information in the modern world without a solid education in reading through biases and picking up on lying by omission.

    1. Joe says:

      Perhaps you’d like to read the paper “Expert credibility in climate change” available here:

      Although preliminary estimates from published literature and
      expert surveys suggest striking agreement among climate scientists
      on the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), the American
      public expresses substantial doubt about both the anthropogenic
      cause and the level of scientific agreement underpinning ACC. A
      broad analysis of the climate scientist community itself, the
      distribution of credibility of dissenting researchers relative to
      agreeing researchers, and the level of agreement among top climate
      experts has not been conducted and would inform future ACC discussions. Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate
      researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i)
      97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the
      field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental
      Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and
      scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are
      substantially below that of the convinced researchers

      1. Mayhem says:

        I’m not going to criticise the paper, I’m quite sure it is accurate, but I do have to say that >> 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field << isn't exactly the most unbiased grouping.

        See point #3 above – the primary way to retain funding and gain prominence in the modern era is to frantically publish as much as possible. Get your name out there, and above all KEEP it out there.
        ACC is turning into a wonderful bucket to apply for funding with, as researchers are extremely good at adapting the aims of their research to fit the funding criteria. I know literally dozens of people at post doctoral level who carefully designed their experimental aims so that they would get maximum personal benefit from their research – ranging from overseas trips to extensive side benefits.

        And what that means is that unpopular questions will either not be addressed, or addressed in such a way as to minimise their relevancy. Which cascades onwards in that the next group of researchers will reference that research to reiterate the lack of relevancy.

        This is not something limited to Climate Change research, it is endemic to any field where there is lots of money available. Cancer Research, environmental work, you name it. I know one person from University who had enormous difficulties while working with the UN on water filtration systems for the Seychelles. What eventually proved sucessful at a village level had been repeatedly written off as uneconomic to produce as the profits weren't there. The product was cheap, reliable and easy to maintain, but the lack of obvious long term residual income put off funding for the research into proving viability compared with existing systems.

  5. Loren says:

    If I may, this has become such a common joke in science (bias influencing research methodology/papers) that it’s a widely circulated idea as best typified by Jorge Cham

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