By Ken Perrott 06/01/2016 18

Love this tweet from John Cleese.

There is the obvious point about “belief.” Many people seem to think the scientific knowledge is a matter of belief and, in their eyes, something that can be subjectively chosen. That is ridiculous.

But also the wise stress on science as a method of investigation and not just a body of knowledge. Scientific knowledge is always imperfect and is dynamic changing with new data – but not in  an arbitrary or chaotic way.

However imperfect our current knowledge the scientific method holds out possibilities for its improvement. And however may “mistakes” the cynic can find in our scientific knowledge they are always unable to suggest a way of correcting these mistakes except more science.

Science as a method of investigation remains by far the best way we have of understanding objective reality.

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18 Responses to “Science – a method of investigation, not a belief system”

  • I had no idea John Cleese had an interest in science. I too tend towards thinking of science as a method (although it requires a few “priors” that need to be believed) – the most powerful one we know for discovering “How?”. I think scientists must take some responsibility for the misinterpretation as a belief system. I think the biggest culprit is the use of the word “prove” which should be limited to mathematical proofs not as a short hand for someone’s interpretation of current evidence. The other words that gets us in trouble are scientific “law” and “theory”. I think simply because we have to explain that their use in a scientific context differs from common usage means that we are on a sticky wicket. Perhaps we need to refine our language.
    ps. You may be interested that there is some discussion amongst physicists whether some theoretical physics is really science or not (ie “only” mathematics) based on whether or not experiments are ruled out by the theory itself.

    • John, Cleese has doen some videos on both aspects of science, scientific method and safety/managment issues.

      I am aware of the discussion in physics. Perosnally I think speculation is a justified and creative part of science and the scientific method -as long as it is recognised as such. In the real world, of course, this somnetimes doesn’t happen and “scientists say” becomes a claim of fact for some. Another aspect is that which Lee Smolin referred to in his book “The Trouble with Physics” where he criticises the way funding is directed at string theory and alternatives suffer.

      The way some scientis fall back on a “belief” approach is parodied quite well in “The Big Bang Theory” programme. For example Sheldon and Leonard are respectively supporters of String Theory and Loop Gravity. In one of Leonards link ups with a female physicist they had a conflict about the respect allegiences to String Theory and Loop Gravity. As she said – what would we bring up the children to believe!

  • Wow so great and so relevant, maybe this can change the way we look at the universe.
    Speaking of investigative science versus beliefs, in the universe science is pretty crazy with belief systems.
    “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Albert Einstein.
    Some interesting investigative science have found Stars have strong magnetic fields confirming they are indeed electric.
    Current models of how stars evolve lack magnetic fields as a fundamental ingredient.
    “An international group of astronomers led by the University of Sydney has discovered strong magnetic fields are common in stars, not rare as previously thought, which will dramatically impact our understanding of how stars evolve.”
    “Such fields have simply been regarded insignificant for our general understanding of stellar evolution.”

  • Actually, of course, science is both a method of investigation and a belief system.

      • What I mean is that, in reality, science as a method merely constrains belief somewhat, relative to completely unfettered belief, but it still leaves a lot of “wiggle room” for scientists to believe whatever they like and try to convince others to follow. In reality, humans are probably incapable of holding an opinion with an associated level of uncertainty. How do you believe something with 80% confidence? Either you believe it or you don’t. If you do, you know you have a 20% chance of being mistaken, but you choose to believe it anyway. In reality, it is even more complex, because we don’t often have a definite quantified level of uncertainty, so we just choose to believe if the evidence seems to point that way, but we could be mistaken. How likely? Who knows!

        • Stephen, of course scientists “believe whatever they like.” They are after all human.

          But a belief is not (necessarily) derived from science as a method. It can have cultural, ideological, religious, family, etc., sources. Scientific knowledge is not made up of beliefs.

          Of course we may have opinions, and express these as “beliefs” about aspects of scientific knowledge. Especially in the more provisional or indefinite areas of knowledge – but even in some of the more definite regions. But we do science so that we can test such “opinions” or “beliefs.”

          • Ken,

            >Scientific knowledge is not made up of beliefsBut we do science so that we can test such “opinions” or “beliefs.”<

            Yes, but the testing is rarely, if ever, conclusive. So what's the point?

          • Oops, I used a symbol which turned my reply to garbage. Try again:


            ‘Scientific knowledge is not made up of beliefs’

            You appear to have a different definition to mine of the term ‘belief’. You seem to preload the term with the assumption that it is unsupported with evidence. For me, a belief is something we think is true about the world, be it supported or unsupported with evidence. We hope that our beliefs are true.

            ‘But we do science so that we can test such “opinions” or “beliefs.”’

            Yes, but the testing is rarely, if ever, conclusive. So what’s the point?

          • Stephen, you are not understanding what I said – “But a belief is not (necessarily) derived from science as a method.” Surely it is a misinterpretation to interpret this in the way you did – “You seem to preload the term with the assumption that it is unsupported with evidence.”

            But then you seem to almost literally agree with me by saying “For me, a belief is something we think is true about the world, be it supported or unsupported with evidence.”

            Of course “we hope that our beliefs are true.” But isn’t that utopian? After all, many beliefs are not derived, or ar poorly derived, from objective information. Isn’t it a bit silly to think they, therefore, may accord with reality? I guess when we don’t have better reasons we can always “hope!” But surely the sensible person recognises we can do much better than that.

            As you say “testing is rarely, if ever, conclusive.” But isn’t an opinion based on testing infinitely better than one based on hope, ideological conviction, belief, etc?

            I will take issue with a bald statement about testing rarely being conclusive. It is philosophically correct but in the real world we are continually faced with issues requiring solutions, the need to preserve life and improve its quality, etc. We would by insane to take a purist philosophical approach and harp on about how testing is rarely if ever conclusive. Therein lies the path to extinction.

            Scientifically derived knowledge is provisional – as I said – and improving all the time. Good science recognises this. But simple humanity also recognises that a consensus in science provides a way to solving our problems if we just get stuck into using that knowledge instead of insanely worrying about it being inconclusive and hence relying on “belief.”

            Certainly we should not raise “belief” to a position of preference over a scientific consensus. That is exactly what some people do and what John Cleese is complaining about.

          • Ken,

            You are still not making much sense (and doing your very best to straw man me!) I have already made the distinction between unfettered belief (which is what you just seem to call ‘belief’), and belief which is constrained somewhat by scientific method. My point is just that we are still left with belief, albeit not unfettered. This may be an improvement over unfettered belief, but it is not a difference in kind, just in degree. So, Cleese was wrong to say that science isn’t a system of beliefs. It is a system of beliefs, just not completely unfettered beliefs. If science supports X with 80% confidence, then a scientist (or other person) still must choose whether to believe X or not. Often, they start out by believing X, and then just show that it has 80% support (or whatever). Bear in mind that applied science is somewhat different in that, at the end of the day, something either works or it doesn’t. I am thinking more about pure science.

          • Stephen – I find this comment strange “If science supports X with 80% confidence.” I think most scientists would say something with 80% confidence may be interesting but they would not say it is “supported by science.” Yes, such speculation may lead to a scientist believing it is possible, but they would rely on the scientific process to provide a clearer understanding. That speculation (80%) is not something they should confidently recommend for action by society.

            (Although a religionist may have a strong belief or conviction and would recommend action on that basis. But they are not doing science. Any sensible person should ignore such recommendations).

          • Now you have lost me, Ken. I haven’t the faintest idea what is in your head. Science never supports anything 100% My mention of 80% was just an example, make it 90% or 99% if you like. But, the crucial point is that often we don’t know what the percentage is, just that a hypothesis is more or less supported by science, but it still could be wrong. Often a scientist already believes the hypothesis, and just wants to convince others to believe it, by showing that it is strongly supported by some scientific method and statistical analysis.

          • Scientists are, of course, human and suffer friom all the normal biases and emotional commitment to ideas and opinions. It is true that “Often a scientist already believes the hypothesis, and just wants to convince others to believe it, by showing that it is strongly supported by some scientific method and statistical analysis.” But that dioes not guarantee the acdeptance of those beliefs by others.

            It is telling that you refer to the use of scientific method and statistical analysis. That is the very point made by Cleese. We rely on the scientifc process to give us the knowledge – not on the beliefs of a person, scientist or otherwise. How else can we critically and intellignetly analyse an opinion being advocated.

            As for thre provisional nature of scientifc knowledge – surely I have prresenbted the argument for that.
            The fact remains that whatever the beliefs or opinions being advoicatied and whatever the standing of the person advocating, rational deicsion makers in society rely on a critical and intelligent analysis of the evidence before accepting a recommendation – or they should.

            In other words, they rely on the scientific method as a process rather than simple beliefs.

          • Ken,
            Your use of the term ‘belief’ is still confusingly equivocal. I agree that unfettered belief is often a bad thing, and that science improves on it to some extent. However, I diagree that science gives us knowledge, and everything else is mere belief. The fact that science is hardly ever (never?) conclusive means that “belief” still gets in there. As I said, it makes somewhat of a difference whether one is talking pure or applied science. Applied science is grounded in reality (it either works or it doesn’t). Pure science is a far dodgier beast. A good example is phylogenetics. Biologists got sick of the subjectivity of postulating evolutionary relationships between taxa, so they fixed on an objective method. But all that means is that you get the same answer whoever does the analysis (given that they make all the same assumptions and don’t make any mistakes). But there is little or nothing to suggest that the objective answer bears any resemblance to reality (i.e. the true relationships), but it just looks more like “hard science”, which seems to please some people (including funders).

          • It’s not only me and Cleese. download this image – Sciblogs does not allow images in comments

            I think everything you say actually confirms these memes, Stephen. Science is about method, not “belief” or even “knowledge.” Your assertions, or interpretations, about lack of conclusiveness surely reinforce that. How good can our “knowledge” or “beliefs” be if we do not always and continually open them up to the scientific method.

            Not being a biologist I cannot comment on your example but many concepts used in science are instrumental – and meant to be – rather than exact copies of reality. Even good theories retain a degree of instrumentality. Our knowledge can only ever be an imperfect, but continually improving, reflection of reality. In the meantime, humanity gets stuck in and tries to solve problems rather than arguing the philosophical questions akin to the number of angels on the head of a pin.

            I think where we disagree is on the degree of optimism or pessimism about knowledge. It is certainly pessimistic, in my mind, to downplay the degree of confidence we have in many scientifically accepted concepts. And even then when we are extremely confident we do not allow this confidence (or “belief”) get in the way of revealing the limitations and restraints on that knowledge adnd its uses. Newtonian mechanics is an example.

            Science does give us knowledge (in the provisional sense that we accept), or the possibility of knowledge, about reality. There are not alternatives – no matter how hard religious apologists work on their mental gymnastics. I have never claimed that the scientific method gives us knowledge on ethical issues, for example, although it is still bloody useful.

  • It is funny sometimes how investigation sometimes doesn’t change belief systems. Almost as if Dogma has taken over when it comes to the metaphysics that is the big bang. I call it metaphysics and not science because it is totally a belief system. The metaphysics in relativity are taken to be believed as if Word from God.. Even though an outstanding amount of investigation into other more real aspects of our universe reveal so many facts that take us away from this myth, they are ridiculed as crank.
    It has been confirmed this year stars are indeed electric. The Electric Universe way of thinking has compiled more and more scientific facts based around investigation of active properties in galaxies. I wonder when the time will come when we will ditch a gravity based system in favour of the more obvious. When will the 3 dimensional world, over come Metaphysics, that we call the Big Bang. The universe didn’t start.
    Hans Alfven “I was there when Abbe Georges Lemaître first proposed this [Big Bang] theory. … There is no rational reason to doubt that the universe has existed indefinitely, for an infinite time. …. It is only myth that attempts to say how the universe came to be, either four thousand or twenty billion years ago.”
    Nikola Tesla “What is ‘thought’ in relativity, for example, is not science, but some kind of metaphysics based on abstract mathematical principles and conceptions which will be forever incomprehensible to beings like ourselves whose whole knowledge is derived from a three-dimensional world.”
    Halton Arp “After all, to get the whole universe totally wrong in the face of clear evidence for over 75 years merits monumental embarrassment and should induce a modicum of humility.”

  • Surely the term is ‘accept’ rather than ‘believe’? Take evolution: I accept it on the basis of the evidence currently available. That is rather different from a belief system.

    While we’re on evolution: “But there is little or nothing to suggest that the objective answer bears any resemblance to reality (i.e. the true relationships), but it just looks more like “hard science”, which seems to please some people (including funders).”

    Not necessarily. Phylogenies based on genetic data can be compared to existing evidence from fossils, anatomy & so on. A relatively recent paper on octopus phylogeny did just this & found strong congruence between the trees thus produced. Similar a new paper on insect evolution didn’t restrict its analysis to genetic data. The application of data from multiple sources can give a reasonable degree of confidence that the phylogenies do give a good approximation of reality.

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