Science Does Not Find Truth

Jonah Lehrer points out that the increasing number of retractions in scientific research is not necessarily due to fraud; it’s probably just an inherent flaw in the philosophy of scientific materialism as a mechanism for finding truth.

To measure the impact of rebuttals, the researchers tracked the citation history of seven high profile papers on fishery science originally published in Nature and Science. All of these papers were later subject to multiple falsifications, so that most objective observers would conclude that the proposed theories had been soundly refuted. How did these refutations impact the subsequent citation history? . . .

For those convinced that science is self-correcting, and progresses in a forward direction over time, we offer only discouragement. We had anticipated that as time passed, citations of the original articles would become more negative, and these articles would be less cited than other articles published in the same journal and year. In fact, support for the original articles remained undiminished over time and perhaps even increased, and we found no evidence of a decline in citations for any of the original articles following publication of the rebuttals. [Ecosphere]

Science is a human process and reality is damn complicated – we are bound to make mistakes. There’s also no reason to believe that scientists are somehow less likely to commit fraud than other ambitious professionals. The more relevant question is what happens after the error. Can science correct itself? Does a picture of reality gradually emerge from the scatterplot of mismeasurement? This returns us to the institutions of science, for they are what distinguish the scientific process from every other pursuit of the truth. As Richard Rorty once observed:

On this view, there is no reason to praise scientists for being more ‘objective’ or ‘logical’ or ‘methodical’ or ‘devoted to truth’ than other people. But there is plenty of reason to praise the institutions that they have developed and within which they work, and to use these as models for the rest of culture. For these institutions give concreteness and detail to the idea of unforced agreement.

I like the fact that Lehrer defines science, by elimination, as a social institution. By contrast, the worst definition of science describes it as an esoteric body of knowledge and then goes on to ascribe godlike attributes to the institutions that create it.

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