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90% of scientific basis is wrong? wtf, please.
October 10, 2006 9:47 AM   Subscribe

My religion prof. tried to tell our class that there was a 'scholar' who did research and came up with the claim that 90% of the presumptions upon which current science is based are wrong. Where can I find who said this so that I can find a rebuttle saying it is crap?
posted by ackeber to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there any reason why you can't ask your professor who he was referencing?
posted by amro at 9:51 AM on October 10, 2006

I don't want to seem like I'm intentionally trying to prove him wrong.
I am, but I dont want him to think I care this much.
posted by ackeber at 9:55 AM on October 10, 2006

The burden of proof is on the person who makes the extraordinary claim.

Furthermore, someone who uses an appeal to authority without citing sources will not accept a rational counter-argument. My advice: flip the bozo bit on that professor. If you need the course credit, learn what the prof wants to hear and regurgitate it back to her/him, and wait until you've got your passing grade before you start any fights.

For the record: I took classes at a Jesuit college in my younger years. They're scary devout, but even they wouldn't put up with crap like that.
posted by Mozai at 10:00 AM on October 10, 2006

Are you sure he didn't mean that of modern scientific hypotheses, theories, etc. that continued research has proven that 90% of it is wrong? And that once proven wrong that an improved version of the hypothesis, theory, etc. was then introduced or the original presumption was summarily dismissed? I could at least find this plausible. But if this wasn't the point he was making then you may just consider dropping the class because there is no use arguing with a fool.
posted by quadog at 10:03 AM on October 10, 2006

first line should read: . . . that of "all" modern . . .
posted by quadog at 10:04 AM on October 10, 2006

He may have been making the "pessimistic meta-induction through past falsity" argument. I am not a scientist, but I believe the argument refers to the fact that since previous scientific theories throughout history have proven false, eventually we will prove all current theories false as well. Wikipedia.

It may be an argument improperly marshalled against science, but in fact seems to focus on its the greatest strength of the scientific method: its ability to change and re-evaluate based on empirical observation and testing.

Science doesn't claim to explain the universe, it is the current state of our understanding, as a part of an ongoing inquiry, using logic, experimentation, and testing. Better description here.

If you believe in a received doctrine that claims not to have changed in several thousand years, the ability of science to--uh--evolve must be significantly irritating.
posted by Phred182 at 10:10 AM on October 10, 2006

Short version: falsifiability is a feature, not a bug.
posted by Phred182 at 10:10 AM on October 10, 2006 [5 favorites]

what Mozai said

and re: the Jesuits. they may or may not be scary devout, but they're certainly scary smart
posted by matteo at 10:14 AM on October 10, 2006

Re: Phred182's post:
One of the main articles in the New Scientsist 2 weeks ago talked about scientific theories and how they can change over time. He takes the stance that the laws which govern the laws of nature may have evolvled over time- yes, just like biological organisms. If you follow his thought pattern, then it's only natural that in time, scientific theories change. Of course, the time scale he's talking about is on the order of billions of years, an idea some people can't seem to understand.
posted by jmd82 at 10:19 AM on October 10, 2006

The only thing I remotely related I can think of is this article from last year. IIRC, it made it to the popular press. Never read it though.

But yeah, ask your prof for a citation and let us know.
posted by epugachev at 10:25 AM on October 10, 2006

Maybe they aren't 100% correct but current science still manages to extend our life, allows us to explore space and travel faster than on horseback, to increase food production, to make our life much better than it was 100 years ago. I'd have to say if science is wrong then give me more wrong.

For proof of what he means by wrong was something like Newton's theory of gravitation. We now know that Newton really didn't get it entirely right but his version of wrong still worked to advance science for almost 400 years.
posted by JJ86 at 10:30 AM on October 10, 2006

I dunno about "wrong", but I'd say that 100% of the presumptions that modern science is based on are unprovable. That's why they're "presumptions", instead of, say, proven fact.

And lest you think I'm just being pedantic, consider the Cosmological Principle.

A simple paradox to reach from there is:

a) If we accept the premise that the entire universe has the same physical laws and properties as the portion we have observed, then we can deduce an extremely large universe of which we are only observing .000000001%.

b) Accepting a premise based on observing .000000001% of a phenomenon is scientifically invalid.

c) See step a.

This isn't to say that your professor isn't full of crap, but you might want to make sure of exactly what he's claiming before you either dismiss him or attempt to rebut him.

(If he really is claiming that someone has disproven 90% of basic scientific facts, then I'm with the dismiss him camp. It's not worth your time)
posted by tkolar at 10:32 AM on October 10, 2006

I don't want to seem like I'm intentionally trying to prove him wrong.

Maybe you could phrase it as "I was interested in what you said about 90% of the presumptions upon which current science is based being wrong. Could you tell me who said that, so I can read more about it?"
posted by chrismear at 10:37 AM on October 10, 2006

Ackebar's prof is saying "90% of the presumptions upon which current science is based are wrong"

This sounds like a much more extreme statement than anything like pessimistic induction would support. The presumptions upon which current science is based are things like "the universe behaves consistently" (even the laws of thermodynamics have more rigor than an axiom). In fact, it would be an interesting job to compile a list of modern scientific axioms. I think it would be pretty short. There are some scientists who explore whether universal constants (like gravitation or the charge of an electron) are, in fact, constant. Very little is taken for granted.

The prof may be talking about something else. He may not know what the hell he's talking about at all. More charitably (to him) Ackebar may be misquoting. But I'd want to A) get a good list of those axioms, and B) some fer-instances from the prof to clarify his point.
posted by adamrice at 11:07 AM on October 10, 2006

I think what many people who are suggesting that the OP drop the class do not realize is that at this point he/she is likely at mid terms or beyond and in most colleges there is a cut off date where after that point if you drop the class you recieve a drop fail mark on your transcript, which is basically an F that does not affect your GPA. Hardly seems worth it becuase the just becuase the professor made a stupid comment.
posted by BobbyDigital at 11:20 AM on October 10, 2006

Here's an example of how to talk to your professor:

He is conflating an inaccurate theory with being 100% incorrect.

Newton's inverse square law is "wrong", and has been superceded by Einstein's theory of General Relativity. But it is 99.9999% correct in non-relativistic frames of reference. That makes it extremely useful.

Does that give you the general idea? Get away from the abstract language and nail him on specifics. Objects don't "tend" to fall. If you toss something in the air, you're pretty sure it will follow the path x = x_0 + v_0 t - 1/2 g t^2.
posted by Araucaria at 11:53 AM on October 10, 2006

Philosophically speaking, language can't provide a mirror to nature, so in strictly absolutist terms, no scientific theory is "right." But science doesn't deal is absolutes. Science is about describing the world and the stuff in it and then prediciting how the stuff in it will behave in the future. As Araucaria points out w/r/t Newton, a description/prediction model has come along that is more accurate than Newton's, but that doesn't mean the current one is "right" -- it just means it's a better explanation.

This is (a simplified narrative of) how the scientific method works:

1. Scientist A notes how Explanation A doesn't fully describe Phenomenon A. Scientist A has noticed this because s/he has been trying to find holes in Explanation A.

2. Having found a chink in the theory, Scientist A works to come up with Explanation B, which fits the available facts better than Explanation A.

3. After a lot of resistance, the scientific community accepts Explanation B as better than Explanation A.

4. Scientist B studies Explanation B, does a thesis in it, then begins trying to find holes in Explanation B. He may never -- that may not happen for decades. But while Explanation B is the domninant theory explaning Phenomoenon A, it's regarded by the community as "true" in the sense that it's the best explanation we have, given the facts we know.

So, science requires that there be "wrong" explanations. It's what makes science function. Difficult, I imagine, for a religion professor to understand, since religious discourse relies on being "right" all the time. Anti-science religious folks often make the mistake of seeing science as a competing model of the world, when it is more often just a completely different way of describing the world and doesn't play by the same rules as religion.

Check out "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn. Not only will it shed light on how the scientific community achieves consesnus, it is also applicable to religious communities as well.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:08 PM on October 10, 2006

It is the job of professors to know the literature in their fields and to be able to send students to a source for anything they say. Ask him, nicely.
posted by LarryC at 12:33 PM on October 10, 2006

"It's not a sin to be wrong in science."
"In fact, it's a duty."

-- eriko and freebird, respectively.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:18 PM on October 10, 2006

What kind of school is this? I took a bunch of religion classes and never heard anything like this from my profs. It's hard to believe there is not some misunderstanding going on here.

Anyway, you should just ask for a clarification after class. Explain that what you're looking for further explanation of the idea he put forward, where can you read more about it. Don't be afraid to say, "That sounds really strange to me, are you sure it's right? Doesn't ... (whatever example seems most apparent to you) seem to contradict that?"

I'd be really interested to know what the 'scientific presumptions' that current science is based on are. Falsifiability? Parsimony? Objectivity? It'd be a useful list to have, great opportunity for research grants..
posted by bluejayk at 1:23 PM on October 10, 2006

I don't want to seem like I'm intentionally trying to prove him wrong.

why would asking for further info/reading on a claim he made be seen as 'intentionally trying to prove him wrong'? and really, why would you begin with the intent to prove him wrong? why not investigate the claim on its own terms before passing judgment?

The claim as you describe it is rather inscrutable [what does 'wrong' mean in this context, basically - on what basis and to what end is the determination of falsity made], but my expectation is that the actual thought is making a point about foundationalism or positivism, or something like that. Just explain that you didn't quite understand what the argument was, and would like to look into it further.
posted by mdn at 2:58 PM on October 10, 2006

I'm trying very hard to give your professor the benefit of the doubt. This is the best I can come up with. (Please, please google "assumptions of science" before you take my word for anything.) Certain assumptions underlie scientific study:

Nature is orderly.

We can know nature.

All natural phenomena have natural causes.

Nothing is self-evident.

Knowledge is based on experience.

Knowledge is superior to ignorance.

Maybe the professor would like to invite you to question these assumptions.

At any rate, the list could be a good basis for your question. "Mr. Prof, were you referring to assertions like these... Maybe nature really can't be fully known by humans?" No matter what one's religious beliefs, it could lead to an interesting discussion.
posted by wryly at 5:27 PM on October 10, 2006

Thank you everyone so much.
Sadly, it is too late to drop the course. This guy has also given me a C on a test that was basically interpreting bible passages... honestly, probably because I didn't agree with him 100%.

If he brings it up again, then I will ask him who said that.

The Newton example makes sense, but the way he said it implied that current scientific study is based on crap.
posted by ackeber at 6:48 PM on October 10, 2006

And thanks for that appeal to authority article, I liked it.
posted by ackeber at 6:50 PM on October 10, 2006

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