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08 May 2011

Science! It works, bitches! (Again. And gain, and again, and again...)

Today at Skepticblog, Donald Prothero had a great write up about science.  As a matter of fact, it's so great that I really have very little to add to it.  Although I think he missed an opportunity to show off that XKCD Comic that I am so fond of.  But he does treat you to another comic, so it's all good.  He calls his entry "Reality Check" which I encourage you to read.  And I love the very first quote he starts the blog off with.

The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.
—Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on “Real Time With Bill Maher”, Feb. 4, 2011
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
—Philip K. Dick, author
It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
—Carl Sagan
In recent years, both philosophers and science deniers (such as creationists) have repeatedly attacked the objectivity of science and scientists. Creationists claim that scientists are big frauds, deceived by a mass delusion about evolution. They argue that the stratigraphic sequence of fossils in the rock record is faked by evolutionists who shuffle the fossils and the strata in the order they need to prove evolution, then allegedly point to the same sequence as proof of evolution. (Never mind the fact that the objective, empirical sequence of fossils through geologic time was worked out by devoutly religious naturalists like William Smith and Georges Cuvier before 1800, at least 50 years before evolution was published by Charles Darwin). The Creation “Museum” in Kentucky is built upon the basic premise that “evolution scientists” and “creation scientists” start with the same data, but view them with different assumptions about the world–the fossils cannot speak for themselves, nor can the evidence falsify one position or the other.

On the other hand, philosophers and cultural critics have attacked science as well. Some philosophers have argued that outside reality is an illusion, and we can only know what we personally experience. If we do not perceive it, reality does not exist. More recently, the fad for deconstructionism in the non-scientific realms of academia argues that all our ideas are so culturally based and biased by our human prejudices that we cannot decide what is “real” or “objective.” This argumentation has gone in circles within philosophy for centuries. Philosophers of science, in particular, are fond of telling scientists what they should do, often without finding out what scientists actually do.


For the most part, scientists themselves have largely ignored these debates swirling around their activities. Rather than agonize over what method they should be using, or whether they are being truly objective, most scientists just get to work and produce results. Although some working scientists are familiar with the debates among philosophers of science, most are not, and it doesn’t seem to reduce their scientific productivity a bit. This raises a larger question: How do we know what scientists do, and what science tells us, is real or not? Is it all an illusion? Is it just the product of cultural expectations? There are many good arguments against the idealist/solipsist position or the deconstructionist ideas as well, but the simplest ones are these:
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