Science, technology and human nature
An essay about the three driving forces of society (Part 2)
By Dr J Floor Anthoni (2001)
the scientific method Humans have various ways of thinking, from ancient emotions to new-brain reasoning, and they all interact. Scientific thinking attempts to be objective. Read how the scientific method raises scientific knowledge above doubt, and how hypotheses and theories are formed and results published.
how science works An insight into the practical workings of science. Not a very nice story. Scientists are in a race, competing with other scientists to be first, and also competing for limited funds. Many of these practices do not benefit science.
In order to protect the quality of scientific publications, each paper is subjected to anonymous peer review. But is this a good practice?
limits to science Science is limited, not only by the capacity of our brains, but also by many other factors, such as the enormity of a problem, previous knowledge, the limitations of what we can do now, our present state of technology, and so on.
Science can be divided into four types depending on whether we are aware that we either know or don't know. Overlooked science fills a narrow niche.
go to part1 (contents index) <=> go to part3 <=> go to part4
related pages
on this web site
New Ideas in Science: Dr. Thomas Gold analyses the herd instinct that leads to scientific consensus. (7p)
resource management: knowledge can be considered a resource, so how could it be managed? (22 p)
timetable of mankind: the most important discoveries affecting the course of history. (24 pages)
threats: a summary of the world's problems, arriving from many directions. (20 pages)
conservation: the principles and practice of conservation with emphasis on marine conservation. (large)
belief systems: a summary of the many beliefs, still active today, stifling rational thought. (23 pages)
sitemap: discover what the Seafriends web site is all about. (11p)

Reader please note that the issues raised in this article, have been caricatured. So when it says that scientists can't do this or that, it should be read as most scientists... or in general, scientists .... Exceptions to a rule can always be found. The name Man is used to denote mankind. Also please note that this document is updated from time to time.

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The scientific method

Scientific methods have evolved over time, from the first occasion that an experiment was set up to prove a theory. In ancient times, scholars were very interested in the stars and planets, trying to understand their movements from what could be observed. Although planets move along elliptical paths (stretched circles), it proved very difficult to arrive at that insight, as was the notion that the earth rotates around the sun, likewise that the earth is round, and much later that continents move.

Underlying all science are the principles of finding the truth:

But these principles in themselves are not enough, because each depends on human qualities, and can thus be biased. In other words, the studied effect may have been influenced by the human mind in the form of bias, wilful deceit, omitting evidence, and also by human errors. Also variability in circumstances, resulting in random fluctuations in the data, can be of influence. Thus to secure impartiality, the following principles are followed as well in studying cause and effect:
The problem of repetition and averaging
When measurements are swamped by uncertainty and noise, scientists resort to doing more measurements, averaging these and applying statistical methods to this end. It is thought that this will increase precision and accuracy while reducing uncertainty. 
If ten people are tasked to measure the distance between points A and B on a map, their observations will differ slightly. By averaging, a more precise number is obtained, but is it also more accurate? Obviously, when the measuring tape is wrong, the error of the tape will be multiplied rather than reduced. Thus systematical errors become larger and more significant rather than less.
In science it has become quite fashionable to do meta-analyses (Greek: meta = above, after, over-arching) combining the results of different studies by different authors, and even combining measurements of different kind, like apples and pears. This obviously leads to more systematical errors, while at the same time the characteristics of the original measurements disappear, resulting in a kind of data-soup, retaining hardly any information at all, except for systematical errors.

When reading the scientific literature, it appears as if each experiment just happened without prior thought, as if it was the only logical thing to do, as if failures are not part of the process. The reality is that the real scientific process is not revealed. It starts with a hunch, an idea, which is then tested with a quick-and-dirty experiment, to see if the idea has any grounds at all. When it looks promising, a hypothesis is formed.

hypothesis (Gk: hypo= below/under; tithemi= placing/ proposing; foundation) a proposition made as a basis for reasoning, without the assumption of its truth. An idea to work with. A starting point for further investigation. Note that a hypothesis is not a theory, but may become one over time.
A hypothesis formulates the problem in such a way that it can be attacked by others. The scientific investigation that follows, attempts to prove the hypothesis while disproving any objections to it. Often more than one type of experiment is needed to cover all angles. Often a null-hypothesis is formed as well, in the sense of if this is proved true, then the opposite must be proved false, which gives more credence to the assumption and results.
null-hypothesis: a hypothesis suggesting that the difference between samples does not imply a difference between populations. It is usually formulated before the experiment, for the express purpose of being rejected by the evidence in the data, thus confirming the research hypothesis. Because science is strong in disproving but weak in proving a case, the null-hypothesis should be a serious effort at disproving the experiment and in doing so, fail. It should prove that there is no other cause. Alas, this is not normally done and the null-hypothesis has become a farce.

Experiments can seldom be done without also making the tools to do them. Often ingenuity and inventiveness in making the experimental setup and instruments, is more important than the actual experiment. Vast numbers of scientists are devoting their lives to improving scientific instrumentation: making them more sensitive, more precise, easier to use, cheaper to use and so on.

Every successful or unsuccessful experiment brings new insight, but the successful ones are being published. So those people who acquire knowledge by only reading scientific journals, miss the insight that comes from making mistakes, and that from actually doing the experiment. This makes it hard for newcomers to enter the field. As stated before, it is not the purpose of science to produce data or information, but more so to interpret this to understand the functioning behind it. Such functioning is then formulated as a theory. A theory may link the results of many experiments by many people together into a coherent whole. Sometimes millions of elements of data and years of thought can be compressed into a single formula like Einstein's famous energy-mass equivalence:  e = m x c2 .

theory (Gk: theoreo= to look at) a supposition or system of ideas explaining something. An explanation based on general principles, independent of the particular things to be explained. The exposition of the principles of an idea. A scientific theory evolves from a hypothesis (working idea) after very thorough testing by many scientists.
Scientific theories do not happen overnight. They require years of testing and experimentation, to gain confidence. They need to be accepted by a large number of scientists, and even then it is every scientist's duty to keep doubting them, for doubt is what makes science great. As new discoveries continue to be made, an existing scientific theory can become outdated and will have to be replaced by a better one that can explain more facts.  In this way, scientific knowledge is always growing and improving. Every scientist must be prepared to give up his ideas and beliefs for better ones.

When scanning the scientific literature of today, one may be excused for thinking that science is done only with expensive instruments, and inside laboratories, using the most advanced computer techniques. However, good science can be done with simple means, although it is almost true that all simple things have been done already.

In any new field, science develops along a predictable course:

An important part of the scientific process, often overlooked is that of simplifying knowledge such that it can be understood and used by the intelligent lay person, in order to advance other ideas like technology. The gift of a scientific discovery can be used by society only when presented in a kind of text book, and in a language understood by many, and particularly when it is being taught.
Although science is invented only by the brightest of people, it can be understood by many, and used by very large numbers of people with only average intelligence. Only when science is taught, does it truly become useful to society.

Scientific thinking for you and me
It is perhaps an enormous tragedy, that the scientific method of thinking is thought to belong only to scientists, but aren't we all interested in the truth, and aren't we all keen to ban falsehood? Shouldn't we all be keen to protect our brains from lies and half-truths that clog up our memories, and obstruct our thinking? Aren't we in the end only what our memories represent?

It is so promising that most humans by the age of 11, are eager to learn, wide-eyed and on the ball, unobstructed by an overload of misinformation and trivial information. Yet by the age of 40 they have assumed many bad habits, their brains dulled by overloads of unimportant facts, and confused by conflicting truths and lies, that they are not able to tell them apart. In the end they won't be able to steer their lives, living only from one impulse to the next. So, why not protect that most precious of organs you possess, your brain?

As you can see from the scientific method outlined above, it is not difficult to make it your own. Do everything you can to remain honest with yourself. Try to be objective. Try to doubt the undoubtable. Try not to load your brain with unimportant trivia. Cut through the nonsense, and keep your brains clean. Postpone belief, because you won't need it. What is wrong with saying: I (we) don't know (yet)?


Peer review

An important part of the scientific method is the international publication of the experiment. It allows other scientists to take notice, to feel inclined to repeat the investigation (replicate), or to rebut it. One problem with a scientific publication is that once published, it can no longer be corrected. So in order to make sure that publications meet all criteria of quality, thoroughness, truth and objectivity, scientific publishers have each paper peer-reviewed before publication. 
Peers are other scientists, who have proved themselves knowledgeable in their field of expertise. Depending on their disposition and the amount of work that needs to be redone, it may take 1 to 2 years before a scientific publication is considered ready. Once published, the article will become part of the growing mountain of scientific literature. Peer reviewers typically weed out the following: But problems remain:
Independent scientist John Daly describes peer review as follows:
The system of `peer review’ was established during the nineteenth century as a means to uphold quality control in science and to exclude patently flawed science from the publications of the scientific community, known as `journals'. This of course involves something of a trade-off between the wider social values of free speech and the narrower values of preserving the integrity of science itself. But `peer review' has exposed its dark ugly side, as a system of quality control which works passably in other sciences, but which has become in the climate sciences a ruthless instrument of censorship by one partisan school of ideas against any dissent to its supremacy.

A scientist or group of scientists (or lay persons) may author a paper intended for scientific publication and submit it to one or more of the recognised journals for publication. This is done in the sure knowledge that unless it appears in a journal, it will be summarily dismissed without further thought by the scientific establishment. In other words, it is journal publication or oblivion for whatever ideas or knowledge the author is intending to impart.

The journal editor (or sub-editor in the case of the larger journals) consider the paper and make a quick and ready judgment about whether the paper might be suitable for publication at first glance. This is the first censorship hurdle as the prejudices of the editor can influence the decision. If the editor is satisfied the paper might be acceptable, he or she sends it out to 'referees', usually two or three reviewers known to be expert in the same field as the subject matter of the submitted paper, these reviewers being selected by the editor. The choice of reviewers itself may also be open to editorial bias.

The reviewers have enormous power. They act in complete anonymity and can recommend for or against the paper, and few editors will go against their judgment. They will provide comments and reasons for their decisions, but there is no appeal. In other words, the paper's prospects for publication rest entirely with two or three possibly prejudiced individuals acting in complete anonymity and safe from any criticism of their decision. The author has no idea who these referees are - they could be rivals, or they could be ideologically hostile to the subject matter of the submitted paper. The referees by contrast know full well who the author(s) is and are easily swayed if the authorship originates with a prestigious institution.

In a politically charged environment like climate science, the scope for abuse of this system is obvious. Both the editors and reviewers are quite liable to act as upholders of a partisan orthodoxy and reject any paper which questions the basis for that orthodoxy. It is a profoundly subjective process, vulnerable to abuse and all done with no transparency behind the veil of anonymity. The peer-review system is an impregnable coward's castle

Even then one must remember that science is an on-going process; that what is discovered and explained today can be proved wrong and un-explained tomorrow. Yet publications always remain and cannot be withdrawn. As a result, the scientific literature is awash in falsities, and from these one can pick whatever peer-reviewed publication supports one's viewpoint. The scientific literature is a labyrinth of truths and untruths.

Andrew A. Skolnick,"The Maharishi Caper: Or How to Hoodwink Top Medical Journals, Science Writers: The Newsletter of the National Association of Science Writers (Fall 1991), available at
John P. A. Ioannidis, "Why Most Published Research Findings are False," Public Library of Science Medicine 2, no. 8 (August 2005): e124, .
Neal S. Young, John P. A. Ioannidis, and Omar Al-Ubaydli, "Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science," Public Library of Science Medicine 5, no. 10 (October 2008): e201,
Jeffrey D. Scargle, "The 'File-Drawer' Problem in Scientific Inference," Journal of Scientific Exploration 14, no. 1 (2000): 91-106,

How science works

Scientific study is done by the brightest of people who are following their curiosity in the workings of nature and who pursue the answers to their questions, independent of public opinion, religion and other constraints. Remarkable discoveries were made already thousands of years ago, but it is recognised that science as we know it today, began with the great Italian scientist Galileo, who stressed the need for carefully controlled experiments.  In his research, Galileo used observation and mathematical analysis as he looked for relationships in cause and effect among natural events.  He recognised that experimentation could lead to the discovery of new principles.

In the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment) in the 18th century, science really took off with major progress in the fields of astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and economics. Today, scientific study can be divided into four major groups:

Scientific study is an activity which doesn't produce goods or income directly, and thus relies entirely on funding from outside. Since the public at large eventually benefits from scientific progress, governments are their main funders, followed by industry. Science and research have a great tradition in universities where it is part of educating budding young scientists. It was also traditional that scientists could pursue freely their areas of interest, no matter how arcane (understood by few), but this has been changing since the amount of money is limited and recent problems demand all attention.

Limited to 1-3% of Gross National Product, most scientists in the world are now competing for limited funds, but large, affluent nations such as the USA and Russia, spend large amounts on research. Traditionally, research has brought the technology that gave advantage in warfare. With the advantage of weapons that were more powerful, could be deployed over longer distances and aimed more accurately, nations could project their powers, converting military advantage into economic advantage. The colonisation of resource-rich primitive nations, brought wealth to those who held the technological advantage. This is still an important function of science today, and in general it can be said that those who have knowledge hold an advantage over those who don't. However, such advantages are short-lived since others quickly catch up.

Science is practised in 'factories' called institutes or laboratories (laboratory = workshop). In such places, scientists work together with other scientists and with laboratory or research assistants, technicians, librarians and so on. The very expensive equipment they need, requires trained operators and is shared between them. By working in an institute, scientists benefit from having very intelligent and motivated people nearby, to discuss problems, make plans, share work, etc. The institute also shelters them from the soul-destroying task of funding, while providing all the facilities they need, including travelling.

Behind the scenes, scientists have found themselves in an ever more competitive position, encouraged by such practices as:

Having a close look at the way science works, has revealed a number of shortcomings in the way science is funded, but there are other limits to science itself.

Limits to science

It could be argued that because of the sheer infinity of variety found in nature, and the way problems can be understood to an ever finer detail, while also considering time scales from the immediate to the age of the universe, the amount of knowledge that could be obtained, is in fact infinite. Others have reasoned that all the great laws of nature have been discovered and that what remains is just tidying up the fabric within the larger designs.
Judging from the escalation in scientific knowledge, one would say that science has no limits. It is an amazing achievement that the whole sequence of the human genome could be decoded in such a short time. However, unravelling the meaning of this code still requires to be done. Regardless of its achievements, science has always had to weather the following critiques: The above problems are not the only ones plaguing science. Part of science's plight is caused by environmental problems which are accelerating too. Knowledge brings power, particularly when it can be acted upon, either by our whole person or by some machine. But little do people know that knowledge can also be an obstacle. For scientists, the 'purveyors of knowledge', this is particularly true: The litany of scientific obstruction is not complete without also showing the public and political mind-set affecting it.

The hidden types of science
All knowledge can be divided into four main types which I have labelled with K for Know and D for Dontknow:
If this classification is true for all knowledge, it is also true for each of us as an individual. We live and act mainly by the KK type of knowledge, paying no or little attention to the three other types. Worse still, much of our KK knowledge is still wrong, for the very reason that we believe too easily in any convenient explanation, often being unable to verify new information, and thus often relying on the authority of others. When such knowledge is proved wrong, we react emotionally. This part of our animal origins has been noted by ancient sages like Socrates and Plato. They knew that all truth (or belief proved wrong) passes through denial to ridicule to violent resistance, eventually to acceptance as self-evident.

Hence the importance of outsiders and skeptics to science. Outsiders have no axe to grind, no position to defend, have no institutional blindness, and they are more open to other explanations. They do not mix solely with like-minded people, and often have the time to approach problems from a wide angle, spanning several scientific disciplines. By comparison, a successful scientist needs to spend all his time on his experiments, publishing and keeping uptodate with the latest in his narrow field of expertise. Obviously the one supplements the other, and both are needed. See science needs skeptics on this website.

When shown their views to be false, far from recognising the problem, people react by intensifying the fervour of their beliefs.

go to part1 (contents index) <=> go to part3 <=> go to part4