Harold Camping died recently. In case you don’t remember, Camping, the president of evangelical Family Radio, predicted that the world would end in 2011. Twice. He made these prognostications on the basis of numerology, which sounds like it might be a sophomore-level math subject, but isn’t. The data for the calculations Camping used to forecast rapture and Armageddon were numbers he found sprinkled throughout the Bible.
His procedures wouldn’t impress a referee for a peer-reviewed, academic journal. And unsurprisingly, many scientists waved off Camping’s doomsday dates as both silly and wrong. Well, it’s true that havoc and destruction were a no-show. But silly? Didn’t Camping follow the rules of science?
Let’s first acknowledge that he at least made a quantitative forecast. He not only put forward a strong hypothesis, but one that could be falsified. In other words, he offered up a calculated prediction that could be discredited if it didn’t pan out. And falsification is the classic, middle-school acid test of science.
Being fair about this, could you say that, by definition, Camping was doing a science experiment? After all, he had pored over some data and reckoned that they forecast a major event. If scientists scoffed at his work, maybe it was only because they were simply defining science as whatever they do.
Well, the middle-school definition of science is too simple – but can it suffice to describe what science is today? Is falsification all it takes to define science? After all, Newton’s laws, a classic bit of science, have been falsified (celebrated case for cognoscenti: the recession of Mercury’s orbital perihelion, which required the refinements of Special Relativity theory to get right). Still, who would say that Isaac Newton wasn’t doing great science?
Not only can falsification be a poor litmus test for science, sometimes it’s not even a possibility. Consider SETI’s hunt for signals that would prove the existence of clever inhabitants far beyond the realm of our solar system. The hypothesis seems well-grounded, given the discovery of planets and moons where life could exist. But what’s the bottom line? We haven’t yet found any confirmed signals, and there’s no way to ever, ever prove that the aliens aren’t out there. In other words, SETI operates on an hypothesis that can’t be falsified. So maybe SETI isn’t science? That possibility certainly appealed to novelist Michael Crichton, who once reversed our argument here by characterizing SETI as religion.
Well, most of the people sense that the difference between science and religion is hardly so muddled: It’s not simply that scientists use fancy instruments, sport credentials, and wear tweed jackets. For most people the main difference is context.
The ideas of science germinate in a matrix of established knowledge gained by experiment; they are not lonesome thoughts, born in a ratified realm where no researcher has ever gone before. (1)
All in all, science is defined by scientists! The scientific community itself defines what is science and what is not. A closed cast which self-defines its boundaries. Play nice and they will accept you in their ranks.
Meanwhile, scientific journals are discontinued because they allegedly are against what the “scientific society accepts” for climate (see here) and human made global warming deniers are getting banned from forums (see Redit case).
Do all the above say something about science today? Yes. They say a lot. Science, as the new religion, must defend its place. And as in religion, Orthodoxy will not stay in power for long. If the “mainstream” scientific community can select their own journal referees, so can the minority of scientists who share different views. The schisma is near. And then we will realize what we once knew: there is no definition of “science”.
People should just love knowledge and thinking. There is no “proper method” of doing research. There is no “proper method” of thinking. There is no “proper method” of conducting conclusions. In ancient Greece there was a vast selection of thinkers who each one had his own “logic”. None of them would pass “peer review” today – where specific philosophical dogmas have poisoned the process for the selection of “correct” scientific papers. We live in the cave of “Science” and “Nature”. And we cannot get out if we do not hear those who have managed somehow to get out. Follow the money. But in the opposite direction…
Most of the great thinkers were highly irrational for their time. (and for our time as well actually…)
Think freely and UN-scientifically!
It is the only way to be truly a SCIENTIST today!