Fixing Science

Thoughts on what's wrong with the enterprise of science, from the viewpoint of someone who wants to improve it, not kill it. Why "science" appears increasingly irrelevant to many Americans and is losing ground.

Monday, October 03, 2005

God, Intelligent Design, Science,and Evolution

I'm working my way around to making a comment on "Intelligent Design"and whether "it" should be taught in high school Biology classrooms. This posting isn't there yet.

To my knowledge, no scientist has yet proven the existence of God, or "God" if you prefer, or the non-existence of God. Definitions vary so much the whole discussion keeps shifting. Some say this is not a legitimate question to ask, although it has, in fact, preoccupied most of the last 20-50 centuries of scientific inquiry. Can we bring this around to a question that even scientists would have to, perhaps grudgingly, agree is a legitimate question of models that has testable implications?

How persuasive should it be that Science has not yet found God, despite all that looking?
My own sense here is to investigate several questions that do have answers, or at least about which we can say something or test something. So, my question is, what are the right questions we should be asking.

Here's some candidate questions:

1) what fraction of the core, indisputable, vast-majority-held views of Science have, over the last 5000 years, survived the test of time over 100 years? Take any point in time, over 100 years ago, look at what was "obvious to everyone", go forward 100 years, look at whether the same thing was still "obvious to everyone." Rough answer, less than 10%. Maybe way less.

2) Same question about "medical science" and specifically biology. Same answer.

3) What fraction of the known universe has been observed in detail and well-modeled?
Fact: over 98% of the visible universe is in the plasma state, for which our intituition based on "liquids, solids, and gases" is not applicable.
Fact: The universe has been, by scientists estimates, around for 15 or so billion years.
It has been carefully observed for, oh , 10,000 years at the outside, mabye more like
100 years. Whatever it is, it's a pretty tiny window.

So, over space, less than 1% of the universe has been sampled. Over time, less than 1%.
Over states of matter that we know about, less than 2%. Multiply those together and we
can put an upper limit on what we've observed at less than 0.0002% of the universe.

This is somewhat like looking at a set of data points that cover a page of paper, and extrapolating a curve to where it hits the Andromeda galaxy. An honest assessment
would be that (a) we cannot be highly confident of our conclusions based on the sample size, and (b) we cannot be highly confident of our conclusions based on prior historical track record of science.

This isn't to say that "religion" or non-science has a BETTER track record, only to say that I believe reasonable men and women would have to agree that, after calibration, "science" is not a 100% persuasive body of knowledge and processes.

That's "in general". What about "in specific"? How good are scientific tools at detecting conscious interventions versus random happenings, on historical data sets for which we HAVE ground truth?

Again, I'd say that the track record is pretty dismal there too.
More later.

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