It’s A Fallen World (Scientifically, That Is)

Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions.  The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.  C.S. Lewis

I understand the fascination with all things scientific; as a young man I particularly loved the hard sciences.  I subscribed to Scientific American and even took a post-graduate class in advanced Thermodynamics, just because it was pretty cool stuff (back when partial differential equations didn’t look like Sanskrit to me).  Even today I have a book about special relativity on my Kindle.  But the greatness of  science lies in its discoveries about the order of creation, not the institutional, politicized, and monetized organizations churning out “science.”  As I’ve matured (a euphemism for dendrite death rates approaching a vertical asymptote), it seems clearer that scientism and Catholicism have one great thing in common – their human institutions are both staffed and directed by fallen people.

There is an excellent article in First Things by William Wilson about why the majority of scientific findings reported are false.  Part of it is due to the nature of the scientific method itself.  He gives an example of a machine that can detect diamonds in rocks with an accuracy of 99%.  That would seem extremely high for any real experimental approach, almost a sure thing.  But is it?  Take 101 rocks in a field, one of which has a diamond.  There is a 99% chance of the machine sounding when passing over the rock with the diamond.  However, for the other 100 rocks, it will also average a false positive one time.  Therefore, after checking all of the rocks, our machine has detected two diamonds, only one of which exists.  Our 99% accurate machine, therefore, gives us only about a 50-50 chance of knowing whether we have a diamond in either of the two rocks that are identified.  If we view the scientific method as our machine, and the set of all testable hypotheses as our rocks, we begin to see the problem.  And of course, most actual studies are far less accurate than 99%.

The article mentions in passing a couple of recent splashy discoveries that were both retracted; that of superluminal neutrinos and gravitational waves.  I was fascinated by the announcement of both of these things when the press releases were published; one being a violation of the theory of special relativity, and one a confirmation of the theory of general relativity.  So-called superluminal neutrinos are a theoretical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light.  A few years ago a group in Italy made headlines by announcing they had measured neutrinos traveling 0.0002% faster than light, thus violating Einstein’s theory of special relativity.  They were later forced to admit their data was wrong.  A loose fiber optic cable was responsible for an error in their timing system.  Seriously…!  They “discovered” something so groundbreaking that it shattered the theory of special relativity, and published it before realizing their equipment wasn’t plugged in right.  Then a few months ago, gravitational waves were “discovered” 100 years after Einstein predicted them in his theory of general relativity.  I have not read any follow-up to those results, but according to Wilson they have also been retracted (not proving that these waves don’t exist, but they have still not been observed).  Allegedly a detector had measured a change in the distance between two mirrors 4 kilometers apart, supposedly due to gravitational waves.  The change in distance they said they measured?  One one-thousandth of the diameter of a proton.  You might think if you were basing a groundbreaking physics announcement on a change of distance of less than a thousandth of a femtometer (a millionth of a billionth of a meter) between two mirrors 2 ½ miles apart, you would maybe recheck that about a zillion times before saying anything.  Guess that’s not how “science” works.

The most interesting thing about the article is not its discussion of problems with the scientific method, though, it is the inherent problem with the scientists.  Of course, equipment can be faulty, cables can be loose, and results can be reported with irrational enthusiasm.  The bigger problem is with human nature.  Besides outright falsification of data (yes, it happens), a more common problem is confirmation bias.  Researchers find what they hope to find.  In a survey of 2,000 research psychologists done in 2011, over half admitted that they selectively reported data which gave the results they were seeking.  And the farther one gets away from “hard” science, the worse the problem.  Psychology papers are five times more likely than ones in astrophysics to report a positive result.  Yet while multiple studies have confirmed that the majority of published results cannot be reproduced, that doesn’t stop the scientific-industrial complex from its appointed rounds.  One group of cancer researchers studying replicability of preclinical cancer research found that only 11% of the results could be validated after the fact.  What is worse, the “bad” papers that failed to replicate were cited on average more often than the papers that did, which is particularly ironic in cancer research, as if the first bad result metastacized throughout the field.

So it turns out that scientists occasionally fabricate data (more often than you would think), often suffer from confirmation bias when analyzing results, frequently choose analysis techniques that favor their desired outcome, and selectively report what is necessary to get them the publicity, continued funding and career track they seek.  Entire fields are created for sometimes dubious findings, with political allies, funding, careers and prestige on the line, eager to suppress contrary findings with extreme prejudice (a la the global warming juggernaut).  The bottom line?  Our rational scientific heroes and the organizations they work for appear to be suffering from a bad case of Fallen Man syndrome – a disease which can only be treated by embracing theological truths that the majority of them deny.  At least Catholics know we are sick, and most importantly, where the medicine cabinet is.  There is much more of interest in this article on the pitfalls of the modern science industry; well worth the time to read.

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