The REDSTAR2000 Papers

Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

How "True" is Science? February 21, 2004 by RedStar2000

Discussing science with a young philosopher is not the sort of thing you run into on a daily basis.

I hope you will find it interesting...even if somewhat "off-beat" for this site.



Science has no firmly established knowledge. Science cannot and has not proven anything conclusive that can be of benefit to us for use in the future. You can produce no new conclusive knowledge through induction, deduction or falsificationism. Just because all swans I have encountered so far have been white, I can never truly say that 'All swans are white'.

This seems rather "sweeping" and, I suspect, involves one or more rather esoteric definitions of "truth" and "benefit".

What I observe is that when we say something has been "scientifically established to be true", we are really saying that the world behaves "as if" what we said about it was true.

On the other hand, a "religious truth" or a "philosophical truth" does not seem to be able to acquire the same "confirmation" from the real world. The real world seems to be totally indifferent to such "truths".


It [science] is not rational and requires similar leaps of faith that one finds in religion.

How can this be? A "scientific truth" can, at least in principle, be confirmed by anyone willing to go to the trouble of checking it.

How does one "verify" the "resurrection"?


We also [need] to remember that science often serves a purpose and is not just an objective unbiased pursuit of knowledge.

I quite agree with you here; it is rooted in class society and strongly affected by that. Sometimes, the effects are so strong that the "science" part is completely overcome and what's left is just an ideology.

I'm not one of those folks who "worship at the altar" where high priests in lab coats deliver the "final revelation".

But the efforts to pass off ideology as "science" are not very successful in the long run. If someone's "science" is really a scam, the behavior of the real world will expose that...sooner or later.


Also science is responsible for the holes in the Ozone and the threat of nuclear war which are big problems that are scientifically created. These problems came about purely by people messing with forces they never truly understood and underestimating the consequences of their actions.

No, that's just wrong. They were not "messing with" forces they never "truly understood"...they were carrying out directed research projects designed to achieve certain ends--because someone in the capitalist class paid them to do that.

Before Freon© was invented, refrigerators and air conditioners used sulfur dioxide or ammonia as coolants...both of which are extremely toxic to human lungs. Freon, on the other hand, is quite could breathe a tankful without damage or injury. It's true that no one anticipated the upper-atmosphere chemical reactions that made Freon so dangerous to the ozone layer; in those days almost nothing was known about the upper atmosphere at all.

But what was wanted from science was cheap and non-toxic refrigeration and air-conditioning...and science delivered.

The threat of nuclear war was directly connected with the rise of the Third Reich...German scientists were the first to demonstrate uranium fission in the laboratory in the late 1930s. It was felt by the capitalist governments of the U.S. and Britain that this potentially devastating weapon must be developed first...before the Nazis did it.

It is true that a small group of atomic scientists urged the capitalists to develop this weapon. In that sense, they were "responsible". But can you legitimately question their motives? What decent person (scientist or philosopher) in 1939 wanted to see a Nazi World State?

It's true that science can be "wrong"...sometimes catastrophically wrong. But "bad science" can be replaced with "better science"...and this has been observed to happen with some regularity.

I don't think the same thing can be said of philosophy and I know it can't be said about religion. If you look at the behavior of modern cults -- proto-religions that may someday become "major faiths" -- you see they behave as barbarously as anything you'll find in the "Old Testament". It's just "the same old shit". They never learn.

Science does.
First posted at Che-Lives on February 13, 2004


Deduction establishes a conclusion as true if both the initial premises are true. But how do we establish the initial premises as true?

Well, the initial premises could be truths that were deduced from even earlier premises.

Eventually, you'd work your way back to axioms that would seem to be "self-evident".

"Seem" is not the same as "is", of course...and I could see someone (you?) saying that my deductive castle is resting firmly on...thin air.

But suppose I "buttress" my castle with a large number of observations (induction)...the "self-evident" axioms that I began with "seem" to be true not just once but over and over again no matter how I choose to observe them.

Then suppose I borrow the falsification idea: I try in every way I can think of to falsify my axioms...and they still seem to "work".

Now, instead of "one path" to truth, I have a "tripod" to build my castle on...each serving to reinforce the other. Any one or even two of them might fail at a particular problem...but all three? All at once?

Thus I observe that all the swans I can locate are white. From examining the genome of swans, I learn that the gene that determines feather-color for swans is always identical in structure. I deliberately alter that gene...and sure enough, black swans emerge from their eggs.

Thus I conclude that in nature at the present time, all swans are white. It is possible that swans may, in the future, evolve to be other colors. It is barely possible that some swans that are non-white may exist now...but no one has ever found any.

Is that truth that "cannot be denied"?

On what grounds?


My point is that if they did not understand the upper atmosphere and the affect of Chlorine free radicals on ozone then they should not have used it. If they didn't understand it then they were messing with things they knew little about.

The logical inference of that view is paralysis. We clearly cannot foresee "all" of the consequences of our contemplated actions...therefore we can do nothing without risk. And if all active intervention in the world is "risky", and avoiding risk has the highest priority, then we can do nothing at all.

I generally dislike arguments based on "human nature" -- but it seems to me in this case that humans "mess with things" as a matter of "instinct". So, in fact, do all (observed) primates.

We do not seem to be "hard-wired" to "rest content" with "things as they are".

"Curiosity killed the cat" the old saying has it...and it may kill us as well. But the cat would not be a cat without curiosity...and we would not be humans.


As for the nuclear bomb, German scientists had seriously overestimated the amount of Uranium 235 needed to create a nuclear bomb and so were nowhere near to being able to produce one. When the bomb was dropped on Japan the Japanese were also nowhere near capable of making one.

You are speaking here of events subsequent to the decision to actually try to build a fission bomb. In the period 1938-1941, the Nazis were winning the war. The Japanese also did very well in 1942. When we look back, with all the information that was revealed after the war was over, it looks to us now like a "slam dunk" way the Axis could have won.

But it didn't look that way in 1939.


I think Nietzsche had a point when he said that truth must serve a purpose and that a blind pursuit of unknown truth is dangerous. If the world had the choice to never discover the nuclear bomb would it? It would not surprise me if the end of the world came from science opening Pandora's box...

This is a bit disappointing; it sounds like one of those old 1950s horror movies...where the voice-over says in deep tones "There are things man was not meant to know". (Ominous theme up.)

Had there been no World War II, nuclear fission might not have become practical before 1960 or's hard to say. But it was an "obvious" development of existing theory. You know as well as I that when a new area of scientific exploration is opened up, the "brightest kids on the block" rush to get in on it.

As to Pandora's famous box, yes, it could turn out that way. But don't forget -- hope was in that box too. We may kill ourselves off and much of the planet as well...or we may go to the stars.

But we will always refuse to tolerate boredom.
First posted at Che-Lives on February 15, 2004


A theist may choose to argue that to them the existence of God is self-evident from the design of the Universe and causality etc, etc.

Yes, and they often do. But I've noticed that after making such an argument, they then move on as quickly as they can to another subject.

Why? Because if you make an "argument from design" then you have to explain why "God" "designed" bone cancer -- possibly the most agonizing form of natural human death.

Is "He" a sadistic bastard? Or just a big fuckup?


we can never make all the required observations to induce statement or leave a statement unfalsified.

True, but how many are "good enough"? If we travel everywhere in the world where swans are known to live (and even a great many places where no swans are found at all), and swans keep turning up white...isn't it reasonably safe (if not 100% certain) to conclude that all swans are white? Especially if we preserve an "escape clause" -- in the event a non-white swan turns up sometime in the future, we will then say "nearly all" swans are white.

People in science sometimes use the phrase "certain to five nines" -- meaning 99.999% certain. That's a goal, of course, and not achieved nearly as often as they'd like.


what comes first theory or observation? Our observations appear to be theory laden (because we rule out certain observations we believe to be irrelevant - e.g. I don't observe cheese in my search for swans). Our theories also have to be laden with prior observations because there is trouble making theories which are unfalsifiable...

Must one have "automatic" priority over the other? It seems to me that science doesn't really care if you start with a theory and gather observations to support it (or refute it) or if you start with a series of observations and develop a theory to "explain" them (or most of them, or some of them).

I think good scientists switch back and forth freely -- what is preferred is whatever approach seems to yield "interesting" or "suggestive" results at the time.


If an observation appears to falsify or verify a theory we are still in no position to judge the theory because we can either suggest the observation was flawed, or that one of our previous auxiliary statements is wrong.

And do we ever! The old joke is that if you don't like the result of a scientific study (for any reason!), attack the methodology!

Such attacks are quite justified a lot more often than most people realize. A genuinely "robust" study is much harder to construct than an "elegant" theory.

Still, people do as well as they can (sometimes) and real-world data continues to accumulate. "Bad" science eventually runs into problems; "good" science keeps getting "confirmation"--still nothing but white swans turning up.


We know no longer experience things directly through the senses but through machines. My experience of electrons is never direct and so I am required to assume the accuracy of my technology. How can I ever be sure electrons actually exist or that electrons are what I believe them to be?

Well, you could be "sure" if you were willing to undertake a lengthy and arduous study of physics -- and eventually, you'd find yourself in a lab repeating some experiments made back in 1913-16 which first revealed some of the properties of the electron. (I'm assuming you're independently wealthy and can afford to properly equip your lab, etc.)

It does sometimes happen (though less often in recent decades) that erroneous assumptions and poor data necessitate the demolition of a whole "wing" of science's castle -- the "paradigm" is "hopelessly fucked" and we have to start over again with fresh constraints on our theory of what "is".

Even rarer but it still happens: a theory thought to be discredited is suddenly revived because its replacement turned out to be even less adequate.

I think good scientists are actually pretty resigned to a certain amount of "uncertainty"...a reputable piece of quantitative science will contain "error-bars" -- indicators of uncertainty in the data.

"Mankind is very stupid and progress is very slow", said Einstein in one of his grimmer moods.

But it's still progress.


...but on a more practical note I was meaning to suggest that experimenting on things fully in a lab is better then letting something loose on the world. I know nobody meant to use CFC's to harm the world but if it teaches us anything then it is to do more testing before we proclaim something to be safe.

Well, as I indicated, no one knew much about the upper atmosphere in the 1930s and 1940s. It would have taken extraordinary insight to even pose the question of CFC's and ozone.

Beyond that, I think we have to accept the fact that life itself is "risky" matter what we do or don't do. If there's a deadly epidemic raging and we attempt to halt it with mass vaccination, for example, a small number of people are going to die from the vaccine.

When our ancient ancestors learned how to grow and store grain, there were three consequences. 1. Famines could be averted. 2. A deadly fungus can grow on stored wheat that will kill you if you eat it. 3. A beneficial mold can grow on stored wheat (the source of penicillin) that will protect you from many diseases caused by bacteria.

And so on. Does anyone know the long-term effects on human health from the consumption of genetically-modified food crops? Or irradiated foodstuffs? Of course not...we can't ethically test this stuff on humans for 50 years, even if that were practical.

And since those are potentially profitable innovations, they will be dispersed into the population at large and "we'll see what happens". Everything I've seen suggests strongly that they are "safe", but no one really knows. In 50 years, we'll know. Probably.

In communist society, I could see people demanding more rigorous testing of innovations that could affect people's safety or well-being. But I doubt that it will be all that much more rigorous.

We "like" innovations...especially those that purport to make life easier or more enjoyable.


True and they all do so with a purpose in mind which we sometimes tend to forget with our cozy idea of scientists working towards truth for truth's sake. Sometimes the purpose is good (e.g. cure for cancer) and sometimes it is not so good (e.g wealth and power).

Well, I agree with you here. In science, you're generally not allowed to search for "truth for truth's sake" until you've won your Nobel Prize...if then.

I think some people "idealize" the scientist's life because all other "intellectual" lives look so much worse.

For the most part, "intellectuals" in capitalism lie for a living. And it's "comforting" to think that there are some people who "don't do that".

Since science has become more and more "market-oriented" in the last 50 years, the truth of the matter is that there is probably a good deal of lying going on in science...though of a trivial nature, for the most part. After all, does it really matter to science if some "scientist" "cooks his data" to "prove" that one shoddy commodity is "better" than another?

And there are real world limits. The more "spectacular" you claim your new drug is, the more other drug companies will turn its critics loose on your data...hoping to prove your new drug is no better than placebo.

Another factor is more serious and, in my opinion, undermines the scientific purpose a good deal.

For various reasons, we live in the age of the "five-minute crisis" -- a scientist who can locate and publicize a hither-to unknown "crisis" can make quite a name for himself and secure some very generous research grants, even a prestigious academic appointment, etc.

The "crisis" does not have to be a real one...though that helps.

There's a lot to be gained by scaring the public and some "scientists" are not the least bit shy about using that technique.

E.g., "Study Shows Increased Risk of Toe-Rot in Marijuana Users".
First posted at Che-Lives on February 15, 2004


In a longwinded kind of a way what I'm trying to say is that we open ourselves up to a huge minefield with science if we ever want to prove the soundness of one or two simple assertions...We simply cannot test all that has gone before us and so must have blind faith in the truth of what our teachers say. It takes exceptional young scientists (like Einstein) to destroy the paradigm that is around when they are learning their skills.

I think you make an important point...the "blind faith" in what our teachers tell us is provisional. If an "exceptional young scientist" comes along who is able to demonstrate that the existing paradigm is hopelessly inadequate, then "blind faith" is summarily relegated to the dumpster of history as the best scientists rush to explore the ramifications of the new paradigm.

I think such dramatic changes are rare in philosophy and non-existent in religions. All the "new revelations", upon inspection, turn out to be re-cycled material from previous "revelations".


I have not heard many scientists propose a three way system of science when asked what makes science and its methods so special.

Neither have I. My impression is that scientists rarely like to talk about the "foundations" of their outlook at all. To them, it's not an "interesting" question.

I think they are, though, very pragmatic in their methodology and are quite willing to "latch on" to any method that seems promising.

Many of them have said explicitly that science is not the search for ***TRUTH*** but just the search for a particular and limited truth.

The fact that they have constructed a sizable structure of knowledge which looks as if it might be ***TRUTH*** (if not now, then someday) doesn't really matter to them.

You can't get a research grant to search for ***TRUTH***.


Oh I never doubted that science progresses (as well as regresses from time to time). I just don't think it ever reaches its final destination of absolute truth. In my humble view it can be likened to the evolutionary process in which everything moves forward but with no specific goal beyond continual progress.

I think science converges on "absolute truth" even if, from philosophical considerations, it never "truly" reaches that goal.

I think every scientist would assert, if pressed, that s/he is trying for a more accurate understanding of whatever s/he might be studying.

The sum of "ever-more-accurate understandings" converges on absolute accuracy or ***TRUTH***.
First posted at Che-Lives on February 17, 2004


I've abandoned my hopes of a career in science partly to do with the fact I couldn't cope with the devastation if I'd worked for 40 years in one specific area just to have someone come along and reduce the value of my work to nothing by showing my data to be 'wrong'.

They should at least have the common decency to wait until you're dead, right?

Actually, I think it's rare to see "a major theory" go down the toilet while the scientist is still alive -- the only one that comes to my mind is Fred Hoyle's "steady-state cosmology". But Hoyle, undiscouraged, has published a "new version" and...who knows?

As the saying has it, "cosmologists are often wrong but never uncertain".

I recall reading an essay by the late Isaac Asimov in my youth that was titled something like "Experiments that Failed". His point was that we have often learned a great deal from failure, perhaps as much as we've ever learned from success. Experimental failure is a message from the real world: "I'm not like you thought I was -- try again!"


Light has been understood to be a particle, a wave, and something which is similar to both particles and waves. Now I understand each of the terms but yet I feel no closer to being able to describe what light is, just how I observe it to be.

Yeah, when you get down to the quantum level, words are almost hopelessly inadequate. Wave-particle duality -- light as a "wavacle" -- is simple and even elegant in mathematical terms. And it can be tested...and it "works".

But even those who understand the mathematics as easily and intuitively as I understand how an internal combustion engine works -- in other words, people much smarter than I am -- find themselves in difficulties when it comes to explaining matters at the quantum level. We can invent a verbal set of terms easily enough -- but the words have no "feel" to them, they don't convey "what it's really like" because there's nothing like it in our "macro-world".

Perhaps someday when our knowledge is more advanced and our ability to visually portray that knowledge much enhanced, it will be possible to show non-scientists "what it's really like" at the quantum level.

Safe prediction: that won't happen anytime soon.
First posted at Che-Lives on February 18, 2004
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