Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Persistence of Mythology in Science

My personal experiences as a scientist make it clear to me that scientific myths are quite prevalent in science, even among scientists - not just the non-scientific public.  What do I mean by a "myth"? - dictionary definitions include:
  1.  a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.  
  2.  a widely held but false belief or idea.
Mythology of the (1) sort can be thought of as a forerunner to science, in the sense that the myth is an attempt at offering an explanation for how things are.  Any myth that calls on the supernatural is, of course, well outside what we would call science.

No, I'm talking here of mythology of the (2) sort.  In a very real sense, a great deal of today's science incorporates mythology of type (2).  Science (as it is really done) never provides absolute truth.  Rather it offers provisional hypotheses that can always be reconsidered and revised, at least in principal.  The notion of a scientific  consensus is that a majority of scientists accept some provisional hypotheses as being not inconsistent with the observations (data).  I've deliberately used the double negative "not inconsistent" rather than its logical equivalent "consistent" in order to shade the interpretation of that consensus science toward being as provisional as possible.  New data from new experiments may overturn an earlier well-accepted hypothesis - the history of science is replete with examples:  Einstein's relativity, Wegener's continental drift, and so on.  By this process, our scientific understanding is ever a work in progress, even when applications of that science are quite successful.  There are no sacred truths in science, no dogma beyond question, no concepts that can't be challenged.

This uncertainty is inherent in the scientific process, not some sort of problem that needs to be solved.  Any scientific explanation is open to challenge, but challenges that invoke the supernatural (e.g., creationism) are not legitimate challenges in this context.  Rather, challenges based on the supernatural are attempts to impose mythology of type (1), an "explanation" entirely outside of the scientific process.

Every new contribution to science, mostly in the form of a paper submitted for publication in a refereed scientific journal, is a challenge to existing scientific understanding, to a greater or lesser degree.  A challenge to existing understanding inevitably gores someone's sacred cow.  It's natural that this creates controversy between proponents of the existing understand and those who advocate the new provisional hypothesis.  This is described by Thomas Kuhn in his controversial book The Nature of Scientific Revolutions as a paradigm shift.  Paradigm shifts may be minor (of interest only to those specialists in some narrow, specific topic of science) or major (e.g., nonlinear dynamical theory, or chaos theory), affecting many diverse disciplines, and anywhere in between.  Some newly-proposed paradigm shifts (not all) are then subjected to further testing and if those tests are not inconsistent with the data, they go on eventually to become a new consensus among scientists.  Others fall by the wayside, perhaps for lack of interest or because they fail some new test of their consistency with the data.

In my experience, there are many myths of type (2) in my chosen field.  I've written papers to challenge them and to replace those notions with a different understanding that I believe is a better fit to the facts than the older idea.  Not all science starts out to be directed at myth-bashing, but if new understanding is revealed, this sets the stage for a clash between old ideas and new ideas.  Most people, including scientists, who accept a myth are reluctant to abandon it - myths often have a sort of feel-good comfort about them that their adherents are reluctant to give up, so they do their best to attack the new ideas.  That reluctance to accept new evidence might be justified, if the new evidence is flawed in some way, or is being interpreted incorrectly.  The trick is to be as objective as possible, and most humans find this difficult to do, often on both sides of a controversy.  Such arguments frequently are plagued by confirmation bias:  "... the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses."

The main point to be made here is that controversy and challenge are inherent in science.  If you manage to accomplish anything at all, you will find those who oppose your ideas, sometimes even to the point of being mean-spirited in their critiques of your work.  This should not make you uncomfortable, but you should, in fact, embrace their opposition.  I tell my students that "Your most vigorous 'enemy' is your best friend!"  Such a crucible of intellectual heat is essential in helping you do your best science.  Their attacks can reveal weak points that need to be strengthened, and may even show that you're incorrect in at least part of what you're proposing.  Try to lose your fear of being wrong - being wrong is a learning opportunity!  Your opponent will have done you a favor by showing you're wrong!  When your opponent seems to misunderstand what you're saying, you should stop and consider how to express yourself so as not to generate that misunderstanding.

All in all, controversy is good for science and you should understand that without controversy, the science is dead.  When all scientists agree about everything, then that science had reached a dead end.  Fortunately, this has never happened and likely never will.  It's not a sign of some inherent problem with science.  Controversy is at the heart of a vibrant, living science!

Where scientists go astray is when they take or offer criticism personally.  The topic isn't supposed to be the scientist, it's the science!  No matter how mean-spirited an opponent may be, however, don't lower yourself to that level.  You're not being threatened.  It's your work!  And your work isn't beyond question, right?  Real humans find it all too easy to feel threatened by opposition, but you can't be a scientist without generating opposition!  Be prepared for it.  Keep your mind open to new ideas and be willing to admit when your notions need to be abandoned in the face of a superior understanding.

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