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Science

Can Science Ever Be "Settled?" 497

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the it's-all-a-computer-simulation-anyway dept.
StartsWithABang writes "From physics to biology, from health and medicine to environmental and climate science, you'll frequently hear claims that the science is settled. Meanwhile, those who disagree with the conclusions will clamor that science can never be 'settled,' and then the name-calling from 'alarmist' to 'denier' ensues. But can science legitimately ever be considered settled, and if so, what does that mean? We consider gravitation, evolution, the Big Bang, germ theory, and global warming in an effort to find out."
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Can Science Ever Be "Settled?"

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:14PM (#46429771)

    all attempts to disprove it have failed and until evidence can be presented to disprove or bring the results into question it is settled

    it doesn't mean "this is doctrine never challenge it" it means challenge it knowing that it has been challenged before and the theory has held

  • More or less (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BenSchuarmer (922752) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:16PM (#46429795)
    Newton's laws have been pretty much settled. Einstein found a way to get more precision under certain circumstances, but Newton is good enough most of the time.
  • Settled (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:19PM (#46429831)

    Claiming that a topic is "settled" is, typically, a tactic to shut a viewpoint down as no longer being a live option the community will consider in its collective deliberations.

    At best, this is a necessary pruning tactic, so that old, disproven arguments can't be repeatedly raised. Without some mechanism like this, it would be difficult for groups to proceed when they have a majority, but not unanimous, consensus.

    At its worst, "settled" talk is a rhetorical trick, to shut someone with a potentially valid point out of a public deliberation. We see this somewhat with climate science (since new data are regularly obtained), and also in law / public policy. For example, Marbury vs. Madison may have "settled" the law regarding whether or not court decision trump the other two branches' judgment in matters of law. But that doesn't mean the position is correct, or that the count-arguments were ever adequately resolved. One could argue that it's a thin veil over the military victor's (the North's) version of history.

  • by alzoron (210577) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:21PM (#46429849) Journal

    It's a process.

  • by StefanJ (88986) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:26PM (#46429893) Homepage Journal

    "evolutionary criticism . . . is completely forbidden in US schools."

    Well, unless you go to school in one of those states where the school boards also don't think children should be trusted to learn about puberty, carbon dating, and history that wasn't vetted by the Club for Growth and the Daughters of Confederate Heroes.

  • No (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:27PM (#46429909)

    No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.

    -- Albert Einstein

  • by the gnat (153162) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:27PM (#46429917)

    First class example is that evolutionary criticism (missing intermediate species or disputed claims of finding them, Darwin's doubled-down denial of genetics, etc) is completely forbidden in US schools.

    They're not "completely forbidden", and they're certainly not forbidden in private schools. What is forbidden is using petty nitpicking of details, which are at best only marginally relevant to the validity of evolutionary theory, to advance religious doctrine, which is the only reason these issues are ever raised in the first place. If you want religion taught in public schools, move to Iran or some other country where superstition is mandated by law.

  • by SillyHamster (538384) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:32PM (#46429955)

    Not a result. Thus, attempts to claim that the science is settled are attempts to shut down the scientific process.

    If the results of the scientific process are good, they're reproducible, and there's no point in trying to build up a religious dogma of belief on something that simply is.

    Questioning the "settled science" is science. Shut it down at the cost of shutting down science.

  • by jellomizer (103300) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:32PM (#46429961)

    A rare scientific law means it is settled.
    For most of them their are theories. the strength of the theory is based on the amount and quality of evidence for it, and lack of evidence that disproves it.

    The issues we are having isn't a problem with the science per-say. But people who religion/political stance is hindered by this science. So they will blame the people who came up with this conclusions as manipulating all their data to come to the conclusion.

    While they are situations where scientists manipulate their data to make their conclusion, however if the peer review is thorough it is usually disproved, or at least found to be not-reproducible.

    The biggest problem is the media posting confusing a hypothesis with a theory. So average joe who doesn't know the difference, see those scientists getting it wrong again!

  • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:34PM (#46429975) Homepage Journal

    Stalinism

    Is it petty of me to wish that people who accuse their political opponents of being Nazis, Communists, etc., could live for a little while in the world of their paranoid fantasies? If they survived the experience, a month in the actual USSR under Stalin, for example, might give them much more perspective.

  • by Jason Levine (196982) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:38PM (#46430013)

    First class example is that evolutionary criticism is completely forbidden in US schools

    Or maybe Evolution is just supported by so much overwhelming evidence that 99%+ of scientists accept it as the best theory. Most of the scientific discussions around Evolution are centered around how we dot the i's and cross the t's, not whether Evolution is a better theory than "last Tuesday God said 'abracadabra' and the Universe was formed as is with its 'history' as an illusion."

    In a school's science class, students should learn what the prevailing scientific theories are. They should learn why those theories are the prevailing ones. However, school is not the place for students - who are just learning the material and who will have a highly incomplete knowledge of the subject - to make a determination of which theory is the "right" one.

    Whenever someone says "we need to teach the weaknesses of Evolution", what they really mean is "I would like schools to teach Creationism, but that was struck down by the Supreme Court... as was Intelligent Design... so maybe if we sow enough doubt about Evolution in the students, they'll grow up believing that God created it all 10,000 years ago."

  • by maliqua (1316471) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:39PM (#46430019)

    as the OP suggested a law or something that is considered settled doesn't mean its immutable simply that it has held up to enough scrutiny to be accepted and used without the need to reconfirm its results. It does not mean that it should never be questioned and reexamed, nor does it mean it cannot be changed in light of new evidence

  • by the gnat (153162) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:44PM (#46430077)

    Is it petty of me to wish that people who accuse their political opponents of being Nazis, Communists, etc., could live for a little while in the world of their paranoid fantasies? If they survived the experience, a month in the actual USSR under Stalin, for example, might give them much more perspective.

    Yes, it's petty, but I do it too, all the time. For instance, just last week I was thinking about how helpful a smallpox epidemic would be in demonstrating why we have vaccines. Likewise, I'd like to see the American Christians who claim to be persecuted spend some time in Saudi Arabia or China so they could understand the true meaning of persecution. I don't actually think any of these people deserve this, but I can't think of anything else that would convince them of how stupid they sound.

  • by TheCarp (96830) <sjc@carp a n e t . net> on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:50PM (#46430123) Homepage

    I really liked the way one person put it to me a while back. Some people used to have some idea the earth was flat, but then some people realized that wasn't true and said it was a sphere. Well, that was clearly wrong too but a sphere is a lot closer to the truth than flat; treating wrongness as a boolean would just label them both wrong but, one is clearly a lot less wrong than the other.

    So to some degree, it was settled...possibilities were excluded. Then, well its clearly not a sphere, it bulges in the middle, I have heard "slightly pear shaped" is a good description.... then you have the satellites that have precisely measured variations in gravitational field...they have an even more complex picture.

    Whether it is settled or not depends on to what degree you need the answers.

  • settled != True (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Immerman (2627577) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:55PM (#46430193)

    Absolutely. Settled doesn't mean True - science is unconcerned with Truth, perhaps even actively opposed to it. Because there is no theoretical way to distinguish between Truth and an extremely accurate and reliable misunderstanding. Accepting something as Truth denies the ability to challenge it - and those challenges are the very essence of science.

    Settled means it has so thoroughly withstood all challenges that nobody much even bothers to challenge it anymore, and you'd better have some really solid new evidence to back any new challenge or expect to be laughed off the stage.

    This is why the vast majority of anti-AGW positions are considered so ridiculous: The studies they're based on are almost universally either so laughably bad as to be obvious paid "science" propaganda, or are so badly misrepresented that the researchers themselves object to the claims being made by the pundits. Meanwhile the handful of potentially legitimate challenges are largely ignored by the media, presumably because they're either so esoteric they can't be expressed in sound bytes, or so outlandish that only other scientists could take them seriously. Unlike the propaganda being fed to the public, the larger climatology community generally treats those challenges with polite skepticism and constructive criticism because they are at least plausible, even if they need a *lot* more supporting evidence before they could be considered viable alternative explanations.

  • by riverat1 (1048260) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:56PM (#46430199)

    No, the use of the term "law" in science is an old usage that doesn't get applied much any more. Theory and law essentially have the same meaning in science, that is something with lots of evidence to back it up and little evidence to reject it. What hasn't been relatively "settled" is science is generally called a hypothesis.

  • Re:Stupid question (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Grishnakh (216268) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:59PM (#46430235)

    There's also a difference between observations and theories. For instance, gravity is pretty much "settled". However, it's an observation. We always see that objects are attracted to other massive objects; every time we throw something in the air, it falls to the ground. At this point, it'd be stupid to say that gravity doesn't exist.

    However, whyare objects with mass attracted to other objects with mass? That isn't very well understood. We have a theory that describes the relationship (the universal gravitation theory), in a simple equation that tells you the gravitational force given two objects' masses and distance apart. But why is it so? According to Einstein's theories, it's because the spacetime continuum is warped by mass like a rubber sheet, and gravity is just a side-effect of this. According to Quantum Mechanics, particles called gravitons are responsible somehow.

    So we can debate all day about what exactly causes gravity, but the existence of gravity itself is really undeniable at this point.

    Similarly, with evolution, the age of the earth, etc., the theories might be somewhat debatable (but not nearly as much as gravitational theories), the evidence that led to those theories' creation is pretty undeniable at this point, namely fossils and other geological evidence. Claiming the earth is 6500 years old when there's enormous evidence contradicting that claim is just stupid.

  • TFA is just FUD (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Jawnn (445279) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:14PM (#46430361)
    Same agenda-driven bullshit. Different day. Next.
  • by preaction (1526109) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:16PM (#46430381)

    The people who do that have conflated proof with faith. We absolutely should not have faith in science, we should demand proof. Science is Faith's eternal enemy!

  • by MillerHighLife21 (876240) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:18PM (#46430397) Homepage

    First class example is that evolutionary criticism (missing intermediate species or disputed claims of finding them, Darwin's doubled-down denial of genetics, etc) is completely forbidden in US schools.

    They're not "completely forbidden", and they're certainly not forbidden in private schools. What is forbidden is using petty nitpicking of details, which are at best only marginally relevant to the validity of evolutionary theory, to advance religious doctrine, which is the only reason these issues are ever raised in the first place. If you want religion taught in public schools, move to Iran or some other country where superstition is mandated by law.

    The idea that questions about evolution are only raised to advanced religious doctrine is a bit of a religious doctrine in and of itself. Literally the moment that anybody questions anything main stream the immediate response is that those people must be backwoods religious extremists. You see it EVERYWHERE. Somebody raises questions about monetary policy and excessive spending and people immediately go straight to conservative therefore religious. Anybody had the gall to suggest that it was possible for some people to be predisposed to have a negative reaction to something in a vaccine you'd immediately hear "right-wing-religious-nut-job" thrown into the conversation somewhere.

    At some point public branding began happening that if you ever dare to discuss an issue, point out flaws, or raise dare I say "valid" discussion points that your question was invalid simply by invoking "right-wing-religious-nut-job" in the conversation.

    The sheer fact that so many people immediately use that as a go-to rather that even thinking of defending any questions would seem to indicate that those people feel their own doctrine is being questioned, which makes the idea of those people calling others extremist nut jobs kind've ironic.

    One of my all time favorite quotes:

    "The test of first rate intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." - Dwight Whitney Morrow

    There's a lot of people who believe themselves to be intelligent who cannot allow themselves to try to see things from another angle. Nobody holds a viewpoint strongly without having a good reason for doing so. If more people recognized that and tried to understand the other side you'd see a lot less vocal hostility.

    Odds are very good that if you feel strongly about something there are a whole lot of times where you're right and a whole lot of times where you're also wrong.

  • by the gnat (153162) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:59PM (#46430705)

    My money is being used to expose children to views I don't agree with.

    My money is being used to enforce laws I disagree with, and buy weapons I don't approve of. It's called representative democracy; deal with it, or move somewhere else. We do, however, have a specific clause in our constitution about establishment of religion, and the courts have decided that teaching religion in taxpayer-funded schools is included in this prohibition. (This does not equate to disallowing all criticism of science; you are welcome to spout any nonsense you wish, as long as you do not expect the government to pay for it.) If you're unhappy with that, work on getting the 1st Amendment repealed, or move to another country. I'm sure you won't find much support for teaching evolution in, say, Somalia. (But they're probably not going to be wild about your religion either.)

  • by flaming error (1041742) on Friday March 07, 2014 @05:16PM (#46430825) Journal

    "These words have specific meanings"

    And all those words have multiple meanings.

    From the context it seems clear that OP was saying, but I'll attempt to clarify:

    1) the scientific method historically has proven a better vetter of hypotheses than believing really hard in religious orthodoxies' explanations of natural phenomena;

    2) the scientific method requiires rigorous and objective standards, and is incompatible with the subjective/feel-good/suspension-of-disbelief approaches believers take toward religion.

  • by cmdr_klarg (629569) on Friday March 07, 2014 @05:24PM (#46430903)

    Science is Faith's eternal enemy!

    Science is not Faith's eternal enemy. Faith is Science's eternal enemy.

    Ignorance is Science's eternal enemy. Faith in and of itself is not Science's enemy, but it is not unusual for Faith and Ignorance to go hand in hand.

  • by the gnat (153162) on Friday March 07, 2014 @05:30PM (#46430959)

    How is asking critical questions about view points being pushed onto children with my money establishing religion?

    Stop playing dumb. We all know that the only reason these "critical questions" (which never come from actual scientists) are ever introduced into a classroom is to promote a religious alternative. Pretending otherwise is just disingenuous and insulting. At least Ken Ham has the honesty to admit this is his goal.

  • by lgw (121541) on Friday March 07, 2014 @05:51PM (#46431153) Journal

    A "law" is simply a terse theory. There's no hierarchy where a "law" is better than a "theory", its just that some very theories that explain a lot despite having a very short mathematical expression get called "laws".

    E.g., there's no "law of evolution" because there's not a clever math one-liner that conveys the theory. "F=ma" is a "law" not because it's particularly true (since it's not), but because it's 4 characters.

  • by hey! (33014) on Friday March 07, 2014 @05:56PM (#46431199) Homepage Journal

    There's a big difference between "settled" and "set in stone".

    "Settled" science can be challenged, but you just can't waltz into a field and say, "I have this data which proves that decades (or even centuries) of research are entirely wrong." You have to start with narrow claims and then gradually broaden them. You attack scientific consensus by patiently tugging at loose ends until the whole fabric of consensus starts to unravel.

    Science is, in fact, open to the possibility of perpetual motion or intelligent deign. It just doesn't make it as quick or easy as some people might like to make such ideas a new scientific consensus. The value of scientific consensus largely lies in that it must be hard-won.

    So to answer the summary's question, of course science can be "settled", but settled science can always be overturned. A "settled" hypothesis is merely one so well-supported that the burden of proof lies with its would-be rebutters.

  • by Pino Grigio (2232472) on Friday March 07, 2014 @06:38PM (#46431555)

    Peer-reviewed publication is how scientists communicate with each other and keep track of errors

    Depends on the field. It would be better if papers were more readily retracted when wrong. And peer review itself is a kind of group-think that sets the bar very high for hypothesis that go against the paradigm and prevents publication, for very Human reasons, of contrary analysis and opinion. Peer review isn't in itself all that useful a process for science.

  • by david_thornley (598059) on Friday March 07, 2014 @06:58PM (#46431687)

    Make a stupid comment, get downmodded, is more like it. The "politically correct dogma" Slashdot is working on is that highly intelligent people who have studied something all their professional lives are likely to be closer to being correct than people who just don't get thermodynamics.

  • by russotto (537200) on Saturday March 08, 2014 @12:58AM (#46433205) Journal

    How many actual scientific theories have been outright debunked. I don't count pseudoscientific bafflegab like phrenology or Ptolemaic cosmology as being science. I'm talking about out and out scientific theories posited under something approaching the methodological naturalism that evolved out of the Enlightenment.

    Phlogiston. The luminiferous ether, as you mentioned. Einstein's local hidden variable theory. Several theories of optics. Lamarckian evolution (though epigenetics bears some resemblance). Plenty of theories concerning characteristics of Venus and Mars.

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