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Can Science Ever Be "Settled?" 497

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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  • Not a summary (Score:5, Informative)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:16PM (#46429801)
    That's not a summary, that's a click bait.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:39PM (#46430021)

    That isn't true. The term law was used in the past with the expectation that certain things were settled. The philosophical underpinnings of science have advanced since then and the term law is no longer used. Some older theories are still referred to as laws for historical purposes however they are theories. Theromes do exist but always with a defined set of starting axioms and therefore a theorome when applied to the physical world becomes a theory.

  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:40PM (#46430041)


    Per se

    It's a bad idea to try to write something you've only heard spoken. It frequently makes you look semi-literate and/or pretentious.

  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:51PM (#46430137) Homepage Journal

    Theromes do exist but always with a defined set of starting axioms and therefore a theorome when applied to the physical world becomes a theory.

    Theorems and theories are two different things. You're quite right, that proving a theorem requires a well-defined set of axioms; the natural world, unfortunately, doesn't provide us with such axioms*, which is why we have to use theories to describe it.

    *Well, maybe. "The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" argues that maybe there is some axiomatic Truth at the basis of reality. But if so, we have no idea what it is yet, and anyone who tells you they know is lying.

  • by ClickOnThis ( 137803 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:10PM (#46430319) Journal

    Laws have been settled and theories haven't.

    This is a common misconception. It appears in several places in this thread. I suffered myself from this misconception before someone set me straight.

    Roughly speaking, laws are quantitative whereas theories are conceptual. They both need experimental evidence to be considered "settled" in the sense of the current discussion, and both can be considered to have equal support in that sense. One is not "stronger" than the other.

    For example, Newton's laws of motion express relations between quantities measured of objects in motion. Atomic theory provides a conceptual framework for explaining the behaviour of matter. Both are highly successful. The latter is in no way reduced by calling it a theory.

    Feynman, in the first of his Lectures on Physics asked his reader to imagine that some cataclysmic event has wiped out all human knowledge, but that one single sentence could survive to be passed on to the next generation. What would he suggest that sentence be? The universe is made of atoms.

  • by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:35PM (#46430537)

    In the past 30 years Darwinists suppressed information about inheritance of acquired traits. The Lamarckian-looking genetics that explain this are now FINALLY being accepted as science and are called, as a group of phenomenon, "epigenetics".

    This simply demonstrates your ignorance of the field. Epigenetics is far more fundamental and complicated than Lamarckian inheritance - it's a basic mechanism of genetic regulation in all multicellular organisms. This wasn't even remotely controversial 15 years ago, when I started studying biology; any freshman biology course would cover the subject. It still isn't terribly well understood, but what can you expect when we still don't know the function of half of our genes?

    What was genuinely controversial was the extent to which epigenetic regulation affected germ cells and was therefore heritable. It was not controversial because "Darwinists" (whatever that means) tried to suppress information, it was because none of the loudest proponents of the theory had found molecular evidence to support it. This is now slowly changing, as biologists are realizing (yet again) that genetic regulation is even more complex than they imagined.

    In any case, none of the new information contradicts modern evolutionary theory; likewise, it does not have any relevance to the issue of whether modern life forms were designed or evolved. It also doesn't overturn the "central dogma" of molecular biology or prove that Lamarck's overall hypothesis was correct. We still have every reason to continue to believe that the unmodified genome is the most important carrier of genetic information and determinant of phenotype, and the extent to which epigenetics is heritable is still an unsolved debate. That makes it a fascinating target for more research, and I'm sure there will be more startling discoveries (and perhaps Nobel prizes) in the near future. I'm also very confident that any new discoveries will be made by actual scientists doing actual research, not theologians.

  • by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:51PM (#46430655)

    I have no idea how monetary policy or vaccine reactions are relevant to this debate, or what they have to do with religion. Nor are politics particularly relevant, since you can find scientists of all ideologies working productively without making extravagant pseudo-scientific claims.

    As a biologist, I do know that nearly every single objection I have ever encountered to evolution - and, in particular, common descent, especially as applied to humans and apes - has ultimately been driven by a religious viewpoint, usually a belief in the literal truth of the Old Testament. (I was going to say that the panspermia advocates were the biggest exception, but even they aren't really arguing with the fact of evolution, but the origin of life, which is a different matter.) This goes doubly for the age of the earth, which is even less controversial than common descent. The creationists are also almost uniformly not practicing scientists (or even trained as biologists, in all but a handful of cases); I have yet to meet any biologist who continues to be productive while completely ignoring 150 years of scientific evidence. Conversely, I've known a decent number of biologists who were religious, but did not see the need to distort every scientific finding to fit into their theological worldview. (Francis Collins and Ken Miller are two of the most famous examples, but I've never met them, although I think I used Miller's textbook in high school.) In fact, the one who found "intelligent design" the most infuriating was a conservative Catholic.

    In summary: why shouldn't I assume that creationists are religious? You've given me absolutely no reason to think otherwise.

  • Re:Evolution (Score:4, Informative)

    by taiwanjohn ( 103839 ) on Saturday March 08, 2014 @10:03AM (#46434137)

    Natural selection comprises two types: ecological and sexual. Both work the same way: An individual passes its genes down more successfully by surviving longer and in good enough health to produce more offspring.

    Ecological selection is what we normally think of as "natural" selection (survival of the fittest). In this case the "selection pressure" is determined by fitness for the environment where one lives. In sexual selection, the selection pressure comes from other members of the species.

    Though they work in similar ways, the two may often be at odds with each other. The classic example would be the peacock's tail, which is "costly" to produce and maintain, and actually makes the bird less well adapted to the environment -- dragging all that plumage around slows him down, making him more susceptible to predation. The only useful purpose it serves is to attract peahens. The peahen's preference for a large, showy tail creates a positive feedback, pushing the peacock's tail to its maximum "survivable" size.

I THINK MAN INVENTED THE CAR by instinct. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.