MM553The triumphs of science have provided its practitioners with an aura of respect*. Many people would have problems describing what the job of a scientist is. However, if someone can produce some kind of “credentials”, it may automatically increase his or her credibility. This might not be entirely unreasonable but still, don’t be over-reliant on “credentials”.

We need to bear in mind that Science is a collective enterprise, not the property of individuals. What a man of science believes is not as important as how and why he believes it. Scientific knowledge is tentative, not dogmatic; based on evidence, not on authority or intuition.

Everyone is entitled to have opinions. But opinions are not knowledge, even less scientific knowledge. A thriving scientific community provides a safety mechanism and prevents science’s most pre-eminent members from single-handedly pushing unscientific agendas.

During the years, very cleaver people, excellent scientists in their fields, have had not very cleaver beliefs:

Sir Isaac Newton, co-founder of modern physics, was a keen alchemist. As an alchemist Newton tried to transform base metals into gold. It has been said that Newton’s erratic behaviour in later life could be attributed to heavy metals poisoning; there was an alchemic tradition of tasting chemicals to take note of their flavour…

Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel Prizes, one for chemistry and one for peace, came to believe in his later years in something called “orthomolecular” medicine. He believed that almost any disease (like cancer) could be cured by providing overdoses of vitamins or other nutrients. Simple!

Fellow Nobel Prize laureate, French virologist Luc Montagnier, apparently endorses homeopathy; more specifically, that water has “memory”. Memory! Water!

The scientific community has scoff out of court these beliefs, regardless of the eminence of their supporters. This rejection is not out of narrow-mildness, on the contrary; it has rejected them because scientific knowledge is not based on authority or intuition but on evidence, and there is no evidence whatsoever supporting alchemy, orthomolecular medicine, or homeopathy (but there is a lot of evidence opposing them).

MM550Scientists always keep an open mind but they only change that mind based on evidence: Less than a century ago scientists didn’t believe that DNA could be the carrier of hereditary information, but they gradually changed their mind based on evidence. At the beginning of the 20th century scientists didn’t believe that the brain was formed by individual neurons, but they gradually changed their mind based on evidence. Less than 10 years ago scientists didn’t believe that stem cells could be created from adult human cells, but they gradually changed their mind based on evidence.

MM551The opinion of individual scientists without the support of evidence and their peers is just an opinion like anybody else’s, and should not be taken at face value.

Having acknowledged this, if I am in the middle of the Amazon, and I am bitten by a bug, I’ll pay attention to what the shaman of the village has to say. Not because I blindly trust on him but because he tends to be the most knowledgeable person around. When discussing about health or general science is advisable to pay attention to the scientist in the room. But always remember to contrast his or her opinion with that of the general scientific literature or other scientists. Then you will know whether you were provided with scientific advice or just the ridiculous opinion of a pariah or a member of a sect of lunatics.



See also  A guide to detecting bogus scientific journals

* Even in this relativistic, postmodern, society.


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  • Jane Sanchez 25/02/2014 at 5:12 pm

    Like most Bloggers, who are amateurs and arm chair Net surfers, not actual scientists themselves, you dramatically overstate science.

    There is actually VERY LITTLE science knows about out universe. VERY little. Stephen hawking comments about this all of the time.

    Furthermore, while Hawking is more familiar than the general public is with evidence in his area of study ( cosmology), Hawking himself is NO MORE CERTAIN than you or the general public that his ideas are “right.” THIS is exactly what makes him a scientist. His admittance of his own vast ignorance and the acknowledgement of tremendous uncertainty and monumentally vast unknowns….

    Science does NOT seek truth, as so many amateur Bloggers erroneously believe. Science ONLY makes models and tests them. That is it.

    All we can be is “less wrong.”

    HUMILITY is needed. Real scientists are not stuffy. They do not act at all like the Blogosphere. Science has limits. Learn them. Respect them.


    • Ariel Poliandri 26/02/2014 at 5:10 pm

      Hi Jane,
      I am not sure what is it about the post that you are criticising. You are right, science does not tell the truth, just provides an ever evolving model for reality. But I haven’t stated the former or rejected the later. The essence of the post was that you should not take the opinion of an isolated scientist at face value -no matter how eminent that scientist is- if his opinion is not supported by evidence and accepted by his peers who tend to be the best judges.
      Regarding WHY Stephen Hawking is a scientist: I am sure he will agree with me that what makes a scientist is not what “she believes in” but “WHY she believes in it”. Scientific beliefs are based on evidence and are not dogmatic. If a scientist is proven wrong, he will reject his belief and adopt a better theory. Otherwise she is not a scientist, she is just another guy who believes in something. In the Oxford Diccionary “HUMILITY” is not part of the definition of scientist and I don’t see why it should be. This adjective, although laudable on itself, is completely irrelevant.
      Regarding myself: If we are our job, well, because my salary as a scientist is what puts food on my table, many people would say that I am a scientist. I rather prefer to say that I am a scientist because I try to do my best to be convinced by evidence rather than by prejudice or authority and also because I do my best to change my mind when someone proves me wrong.

      • JaneSanchez 18/07/2014 at 5:42 pm

        Well, I just proved you wrong. Empiricism is INADEQUATE. From the outset, it was obvious something was horribly wrong with it. Scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the UNSEEN. And the unseen does NOT come from the senses. We do not “see” the curvature of space-time, we do not “see” the evolution of species, we do not “see” the nuclear reactions inside of stars, YET we know about them. Why?

        Sorry, challenging authority was NOT the CRUCIAL ingredient that led to the Scientific Revolution and progress from non-progress. Nor were predictive and testable theories. yes, testability is necessary, BUT IT IS NOT NEARLY SUFFICIENT. In fact, IF this CRUCIAL INGREDIENT is NOT present it does NOT EVEN MATTER WHETHER something is testable or not…..

        NONE of that stuff opened the intellectual prison gates.

        Scientific knowledge is not derived from anything. It is like ALL knowledge- conjectural, guesswork- tested by observation, NOT derived from it.

        Science is wonderful and very useful. HOWEVER, science has weaknesses, flaws and considerable limitations TOO. Science is a human creation/invention and endeavor. Scientists are JUST as biased as ANY other profession as Paul Davies notes.

        There may have been extremely important observables 5 billion years back that we missed that were ESSENTIAL to see. We may be forever limited in what we can ever know and the questions we can even ask. Intelligent creatures in the far future are going to look out and see the same model of the universe we saw back in 1930- the wrong picture. All evidence of the Big Bang gone. In the same way WE may be in the same situation right now.

        Further, if there is a Multiverse and there is some limited evidence for this from WMAP satellite, we may never know about it DIRECTLY because we are trapped in our single universe- like a fish unaware of up and out of the water…. We may know OF it but not DIRECTLY. This LIMITS us.

        P.S. There is NO SUCH THING as a common , universal , singular “method” that all scientists use or must follow. “The Scientific Method” poster taught in 6th grade is completely erroneous inaccurate garbage and a TOTAL myth. That phrase is the biggest myth out there about science and it is an insult to professional scientists everywhere.That is not how scientists actually do their work. Science uses literally thousands of methods- and they are all very different.


  • Alvaro Estevez 20/07/2013 at 10:12 am

    I like the article and the comments. I think the main point of the article is that intuition is not a scientific tool. Science should be based on empirical data rather than opinions. In the middle ages it was counterintuitive thinking that earth was round and moving around the Sun in one galaxy like millions of others in the universe. If intuition is better than results, then we should conclude that earth is flat, supported by 3 elephants on top of a turtle swimming in the Sea of Eternity. Of course, it has to be the center of the universe too. I like this version better than the facts, it is kind romantic. Many people die for opposing these ideas. No different of what happens now. Of course, now is not a question of burn people because they oppose establish knowledge. There are more subtle methods used by establishment to oppose change. It takes time for everyone jump on the boat know as “it is obvious,” or “everyone knew.” In the mean time many investigators with new and original ideas are ostracized making their life veery difficult for reporting something that goes against dogma. Some times, it takes so long that it is rediscovered, completely forgetting the original contribution. The scientific community also has a very short memory. So using evidence one can conclude that science is not what it should be. Could it be possible that scientific knowledge and advancement is impaired by established ideas, fear and lack of flexibility, independently of the credentials of the scientists?

    • Ariel Poliandri 20/07/2013 at 10:54 am

      Hi Alvaro,
      Certainly -as you say- established ideas, fear and lack of flexibility play a part in reducing the speed of scientific progress but I don’t think they commonly drive it to a halt. If evidence and reproducibility are strong enough, change can be pretty swift. Look at what has happened in recent years in the field of stem cells. From very few scientists using them now almost every big university has a stem cell and iPSCs program (and I am one of the initial disbelievers that recently have jumped into the van wagon).
      A car without brakes will take you somewhere fast but very likely not to the place where you really wanted to go. With science is the same thing: Peer consensus acts like a brake that allows you to navigate more safely to ever closer approximations of reality. This brake is especially useful when you are not a very experienced driver.
      Peer consensus still holds. As today, nutty professors using pseudoscientific language to mix mahabharata’s story with quantum thermodynamics haven’t come up with a flying carpet to prove the value of ancient wisdom. The day I see one of them flying on a magic carpet (or better yet flying passengers on a carpet), if my scientific fellows still don’t believe in Rig-Veda’s differential quantum electronics I will abandon my trust in “main stream” science.

  • Aidis Stukas 11/07/2013 at 6:09 am

    How to identify when the judgement is based on evidence and not on authority?

    • Ariel Poliandri 11/07/2013 at 6:11 am

      That is a good question Aidis.
      First, I will assume that you believe in reality, apparently many people commenting on this post don’t.
      Then I will assume that you generally trust your fellow man. I know of a professor that doesn’t believe the results of the experiments his assistants bring to him until he has carried out the experiments by himself -As you can imagine progress in his lab tends to nil. You don’t have time to experience everything first hand. It doesn’t mean that you have to believe any crazy story; you just need to apply common sense. If somebody tells me that a room measures 3 meters I believe it; if somebody tells me that a room measures 3 microns or 3 kilometres I doubt it.
      Now evidence is the result of experiments. First you have to analyse the experiments. Were they carried out correctly, using the right controls and statistical test? For example, if they are trying a new drug, what are they comparing it against? If they don’t have a control, how do they know that the drug is really doing something?
      After you are satisfied with the experiments and the quality of the results you have to contrast evidence (the results of the experiments) with the conclusions drawn from them. Do the conclusions come just out of the blue having no relation whatsoever with the results? Are they wild extrapolations? Are they reasonable?
      Of course to carry out such analysis you need to have some background knowledge. You don’t need to be an expert; you just need to have what is called “scientific literacy” and lots of common sense.
      If you don’t have background knowledge, then the prudent thing to do is to follow the general consensus of the experts. Some people will call this a form of authority but it is not authoritarian; it is more like an informed democracy or meritocracy. New ideas take a while to catch on in a system like this because it takes some time for the majority of the experts in a field to change their mind. But if they are real scientists -by definition- they ought to change their mind based on evidence. Not being an expert the most prudent thing to do is to wait and see how things develop. That is what I do in areas such as physics that are not in my field of expertise. When the physicists involved in the calculation of the orbit of telecommunications and GPS satellites, production of lasers, nuclear power plants, and generally all things that are useful and work, decide that there is something better than Einstein’s relativity, I’ll go with the new theory of their choice. In the mean time I just stick with Einstein’s because it is what they use and I live in a real, sensible, world where even the most idealist looks at both sides of the road before crossing.
      The message of the post was not to believe anything a single scientist says, no matter how magnificent his “credentials” are, unless it is supported by the majority of his well-informed peers.

  • Susan 08/07/2013 at 8:14 pm

    Getting back to my 2 comments early in the discussion, I suggest catching the Weather Channel’s special on the Challenger Disaster in January 1986. Most of you are probably aware that the decision to launch was made despite data that strongly suggested problems with an O ring seal…yes a simple part in a highly complex piece of equipment/system…due to the extremely cold weather in Florida at the time. Although wind shear apparently contributed to the seal’s failure during the critical 2 minute “burn”, NASA had been warned by design engineers of a potential catastrophic, event because of the cold weather’s highly likely detrimental effect on seal integrity. As anyone who has developed products knows, components need to meet specs under defined conditions. The more dangerously risky the potential outcome, the more critical the spec. The flight had already been delayed 5 days. We all know what happened. So…. even where the technical/scientific info is clear cut, decisions contrary to the information & evidence may well be made. This most enlightening discussion participated in by so many has in a way come full circle, and here is my “wish” : that scientific data & the resulting interpretations/ conclusions are not, ideally, ever skewed by the bias/ego of the researcher or the reviewer absent the articulation of assumptions on which different conclusions are made. What happens to the data in the bigger scheme of things is a more problematic issue as my 2nd post alluded to and the Challenger disaster illustrates. Simplistic? Perhaps. But note that articulating assumptions in favor of or against a scientific conclusion can enhance creative thinking, pave the way for improvements/discoveries and cause us to ask “what if” or “why not.”

    • Korban 13/07/2014 at 7:24 pm

      The scientific meohtd is a process for testing ideas:1) Ask a question2) Do background research3) Create a hypothesis4) Design an experiment to test the hypothesis5) Analyze the data you’ve collected and draw a conclusion6) Communicate your results.What are you testing by creating cotton candy?What you could do is you could test something using cotton candy. You could start by asking the question, Does everyone like cotton candy? You could then do research on cotton candy, how the human tongue tastes things, and about why people have different opinions on the same things.From your research, you could create a hypothesis. An example could be If I increase the sugar content of cotton candy, more people will like it. Then you design an experiment to test that hypothesis. How you do so is half the fun, so I’ll leave that to you. Ask your teacher for help, but if you need more, visit,Remember- science isn’t just memorizing definitions. It’s about asking questions and using the scientific meohtd to find answers. It’s how we know so much about the world- everything from atoms to germs was figured out using the scientific meohtd. It’s a very powerful tool!

  • Prof.Suresh Kumar 08/07/2013 at 8:11 pm

    There is lot of meta reason that goes into making of science theories apart from logical reason and empiricism-that is also proven by evidence;
    hence authority and emotions/fashions and lobbies count in science,as part of the meta reason,alongwith reason-though to a muted extent

  • Theocharis Kromydas 08/07/2013 at 5:26 am

    I urge you to read Thomas Kuhn, Gaston Bachelard, Bertrand Russell and Michael Foucault…except Popper. Science is not just evidence inputs in our brain because you brain is not a component of a body-machine…Science is not independent, never was as it always operates within societal and political contexts, science is not value-free when it come to hypothesis testing, science is probability not evidence, science repeatedly falsifies itself so evidence is not a universal truth. Science cannot capture and explain, freedom, democracy, love, culture, taste etc…And the worst of all, most of the times modern science is here to beautify politicians terminology so they can manipulate public belief on a -usually- market-oriented concept. Example from this article: ”modern agricultural techniques” instead of Genetically modified food. You are free to eat these if science tells you…but please let me grow my own food, keep my own seeds etc…Have a look on this issue to see the role of science there…Alas to our human nature, if we expect science to tell us what to do…

  • Byron Cross 07/07/2013 at 8:20 pm

    Science is based on fact, not authority.

    May we return to the topic?

    ” What I’m trying to say is that in terms of how science is done and shared worlds are created, science does not differ from art, religion, economics, military, etc. Science differs in terms of the actors involved in the process and the end results. Actors build collective worlds, collective life.”

    Science differs very much from art, religion and the military, in terms of epistemological dynamics, how it builds a “shared world” and how it frames an emergent discourse. Science, first off, only accepts those phenomenon existing withing the empirical world, or derivable from the empirical world. Secondly, science never attempts, as Poliandri says, to assert anything as “truth”. For instance, social scientists construct a null hypothesis. Scientists make direct observations, or work off data derived from direct observation, and apply rigorous methodology. The shared world created consists of a collection of observable, often experimental data. Subsequently, this evolving mass of data, grounded by observation and/or experimentation, seeks to negate theories about the empirical world. Thus, by eliminating what is not true, we come closer to truth. The dynamic is like a limit in calculus. My final point is that the actors involved in any human endeavor differ from one community, or population group, to another. I see no need to point this out, since one is only stating the obvious in doing so. What is of consequence is how a given set of actors frame the discourses in which they engage in order to build a “shared world”. The scientific community has some very rigid ground rules, resulting in a “shared world” that allow me to respond to your comments on this blog as I babysit a freshman biology lab, which is the reason I’ve the time to be blabbering on in such a lengthy, but hopefully not pointless manner.

    On the other hand, art accepts any communique that conveys the human experience in a manner that captures the teleological reality of life – novelists tell spectacular lies to arrive at the truth of human experience. This epistemological dynamic does not hold water within the scientific community. The artistic community does not accept any ground rules. The moment someone attempts to create rules of any sort, a renegade will emerge to destroy that construct. This, I assert, is a historic fact. References will be provided upon request. How art creates truth resembles in almost no way the manner in which science creates an approximation of truth. Or correct me if I’m wrong.

    Do we really need to compare religion to science? All that really needs to be said are two things. a.) Science deals with the empirical world and rejects all phenomenon or knowledge not based on observations of the empirical word, while religion accepts and builds irrefutable knowledge concerning phenomenon outside the empirical world, therefore, regardless of the actors involved, the two communities resemble each other in no way, other than the fact that both consist of human beings.b.) Again, religion claims to have arrived at truth, while science claims that “truth” may be approximate, but never arrived at.

    I love “The Mothman Prophecies”. My 7yr old daughter gave her class nightmares telling them about it. Story telling must run in the family. I wax anecdotal. As a novelist, I am biased and certainly ego comes into play, but as well emotional trauma and PTSD. As a scientist, bias does not come, I posit, from my ego. Rather it stems from that of which I am not aware. I can’t read everything before death. But that’s OK. The colleagues in my “shared world” keep me grounded in the empirical world.

    • Ariel Poliandri 07/07/2013 at 8:22 pm

      Good comment Byron.
      The truth is that all this metaphysical debate is a good exercise for the mind but does not help people to solve pressing problems. I wrote my blog post to help the undecided to reject quackery, even when promoted by scientific “personalities”.
      I greatly admire Richard Feynman, excellent physicist and outstanding science communicator, but if tomorrow I find out that he believed in –say- Big Foot that won’t be a reason for me to believe in it as well.

    • LinkedIn member Ken 08/07/2013 at 8:19 pm

      Byron, thanks. Seems our perspectives are sort of near. We diverge on science as follows:

      Science differs from art, religion, the military, etc. in its never ending efforts to see objects, all objects from as many perspectives as possible. Feynman in his famous lectures to physics students points out that science is guessing about things and then looking to confirm the guesses with in his words “experiment and experience.” If the guesses differ from the experiment/experience then they are rejected, no matter who made the guess. Problem is Feynman as smart as he was accepts that experiment and experience are unproblematic when in fact they are anything but. Byron you describe some aspects of how they are made, as have I. Comparing the guess with “reality” is not as straight forward as Feynman assumes. It would only become so if humans somehow had direct and undiluted contact with the one real world. Looking and looking again and again build up both the number of observations and what is being observed. Consistent with quantum physics.

      Sciences are based on a communal world, but its not just a shared world of words (of discourse), but also of things and objects.

      As I’ve already noted realty or the empirical world are not simple things. They are made, constructed via communal interactions. What is considered real, a fact, is the result of long processes of building. And are changed through this same process. Artists, priests, poets, etc. are also involved in building empirical worlds, just not the same worlds as scientists. William James was correct. There are multiple worlds, even multiple universes.

      While I the think the worlds Feynman wanted to explore are much more complex, fragile, and constructed than he believed, I agree with his contention that talk of truth has no place in science. It’s presumptuous at best, arrogant at worst. And rigid ground rules for observation do not change the fact that there are different human observers, using different and divergent mechanical and mathematical instruments, at different locales, with different education and training, subject to feedback from different fellow actors (human and nonhuman), at varied points in time, and for varied institutional purposes. So I see science as a best effort to overcome all these factors in making sense out of what is guessed and observed. Not a noble profession but certainly a worthwhile one.

  • Fred 07/07/2013 at 8:33 am

    Replying now to the comments about GM seeds: It is bias – or carelessness – when a scientist does not draw a perimeter around his/her research results. (“The results have been tested for such-and-such parameter range,” or “just for this strain of mice.”) Sometimes the bias comes from disciplinary orientation. When a medical researcher says, “GM foods are safe,” s/he probably just means (and should say!), “If you ingest it, it won’t make you sick in the short to medium term.”

    As editor of a technology assessment journal, I’d like to see researchers address the social, political, ecological, and other consequences of a new technology, not just the personal medical consequences, before making a blanket judgment of the new tech.

    This is part of “relying on evidence and logic” in stating research conclusions.

    As for positivist vs. constructionist/postmodern views, I consider these philosophical. No systematic empirical evidence has been put forth for either view in this comment stream, and I suspect none is possible.

    • Ariel Poliandri 07/07/2013 at 8:38 am

      Science cannot prove anything “true”, only “untrue”. But if we want to avoid paralysis we have to accept that evidence points to something being -at least- closer to the truth than any other contender and move on.

      Scientific evidence shows that GE food is completely safe. It has been grown for over 20 years in the USA and elsewhere without A SINGLE proven HUMAN FATALITY. That is what scientists report. Discussing about political and economical implications is not the business of science; that introduces non-evidence based bias. I’d like to be able to travel faster than the speed of light but I will not argue that physicists are wrong in telling me that I can’t just because I don’t like what they say.

      You have an aesthetic problem with GE food, which is fine, but not scientific. People of certain religions feel very strongly that pork is impure –I have had many discussions with such people; people of other religions think that GE crops are offensive to Gaia. I have no problem eating pork or eating GE food as long as they passed reasonable QA controls.

  • LinkedIn member Ken 07/07/2013 at 8:06 am

    So many interesting points. First, biases are about egos (which is itself a Freudian bias) but about the fundamentals of how the world works. In John Keel’s “The Mothman Prophecies” Keel makes the point that what the extrasensory entities talked about in the book do and how they act is not unusual at all to them. They after all stand on a high mountain before which all human actions and events no matter time and place are seen spread out before them. The point is this, standpoint is important in what is seen and understood. So it is with science. Regarding data, it is never simply just data. It is recorded by a certain group of people, in a certain sequence based on certain instruments, inscribed on papers by numerous other people, using one or more inscription schemes. In other words data is what this process produces. And getting to the “facts” of the data involves whole other processes with even more stages and instruments involved. Most important here is the long (sometimes very long) process of publishing papers, that are then supported or refuted by other papers, supported or refuted by other papers, etc. In other words scientific facts are very much a community effort. And a closed community at that. As to Peter’s concerns, science is not always “practical,” to use Peter’s term. But gravity has withstood that long process of scientific fact making I just described and is thus difficult, very difficult to question or refute now. As to mathematics, it is not much different than science. As Reuben and Hirsch point out in “Descartes’ Dream” mathematics is very much a cultural and community phenomenon. Subject to the same kinds of processes as science and scientific facts. All this said, a**holes exist in science as elsewhere. Science doesn’t get a free pass.

  • Sidney 07/07/2013 at 8:00 am

    I want to say that observation and the recording of it is without bias. A Photo Point in Monitoring woudl be an example. I will not claim that a picture or Eye Witness is always without bias, but it does not have to be. No I do not mean that the photo is photoshopped and a wart or a pimple is removed. That would be manipulation that Susan warns us about. I think that a theory can come out of the blue but observation of events can cause our evaluation of it as we seek understanding. An Example is the movement of galaxies and their increase in momentum.hence Dark Matter and Dark Energy are sexy topics today.

  • Susan 07/07/2013 at 7:58 am

    Regarding my original post that resulted in the nice historical summary by one of the commentators, the 2 sentences of my post need to be read together. Obviously scientists, too, have their biases, egos, etc. Bias in the scientific arena becomes problematic when the hypothesis is not proven by experiments/R&D and data manipulation occurs or undesirable data are ignored and the ego does not permit admission that the idea is not going to work out. Or where, for example, undesirable data are manipulated by others who are using it to make policy decisions.

    My comment was intended to emphasize that data interpretation should be based on experimental data. If more than one reasonable conclusion is possible, the assumptions on which conclusions are based should be articulated. This approach does not take away from the scientific process, creativity, etc. A scientist secure with the quality & thoroughness of experimentation should have no problem critiquing the results in such a manner. As a quote from the book Middle March by George Elliot states, “Science is a constant contest with mistake.”

    As for an example of scientific peer bias, a study conducted many years ago showed that research papers from scientists from prestigious universities
    submitted for publication to scientific journals had a much high publication acceptance rate relative to papers from less well known universities. When the reviewers did not have any info on the authors, the trend was reversed. Furthermore, some previously accepted papers from prestigious universities. Am I biased in staying that this study helped establish that it’s not who is doing the science, but how it is being done?

  • Susan 07/07/2013 at 7:47 am

    Great post! I would also add that sound science is based on an unbiased interpretation of the data/results. If more than one conclusion is possible, then the assumptions relied on for reaching a particular conclusion need to be stated as well.

    • LinkedIn member Ken 07/07/2013 at 7:49 am

      Susan, first of all unbiased anything is impossible. In fact, it is the biases that make things happen. That form the world we live in. Science and scientists are certainly no exception. The rationalist bias (yes bias) you repeat came out of the enlightenment. And over the years it has created more problems than it has solved. The first Greek, Egyptian, and Arab scientists knew this. Too bad it was lost with Plato and Aristotle. René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, and Emmanuel Kant just made the situation worse. So rationalism itself puts the lie to “unbiased.” Empiricism (radical or otherwise) is equally a bias. And let’s not forget Romanticism, also a bias that played a noticeable role in the history of science. And facts are not just the facts. I suggest you take a look at Mary Poovey’s book, “A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society.” And as for a discussion of biased numbers (all of them are) I suggest Theodore Porter’s “Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life.” Finally, for a systematic glimpse into science at work I suggest “Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts” by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. There is no point in any of these publications where scientists show themselves unbiased. In fact, scientists over and over again violate the rationalist bias that underlies both the objectivity bias and the numbers as facts bias. And the way to address these so called problems is not to retreat into some supposed unbiased or objective state but rather to embrace bias, uncertainty, and risk even more

    • Sidney 07/07/2013 at 7:54 am

      I cannot agree with Ken. Why? He begins to say unbiased research is impossible. Thus all cases of research must be biased. That is very difficult to defend.
      If he said most research is with a bias that is easier to defend. It is even easier to day that some research is biased. It would be easy to think that some research is without bias and some research is unbiased. I think that I will take this last position. I do think that Ken’s point of view is biased, but I had no opinion prior to reading his statement and was unbiased.

  • Dr. Kees le Pair 07/07/2013 at 7:44 am

    There is a kind of contradiction in your posting. You argue for instance: “The vast majority of scientists -and therefore science as an institution- do not believe in…”

    “Scientific knowledge is… based on evidence not on authority.” But you should realise that using ‘a majority of scientists’ as a reference, you imply authority. At some of the major paradigm breaks in the history of science the originators were opposed by the majority of their peers. In the process against Galilei with his Copernican helio centric description of the planetary system the leading astronomers of Italy testified before court against him. Einstein’s theory of relativity was met by fierce opposition of numerous physicists. When Einstein learnt about a paper written by at least 20 colleagues together attacking his theory, he wondered: ‘why 20? One is enough, if he is right.’ I suggest you should reformulate your ‘evidence’ postulate without referring to what others – even a majority – might think.

    Intuition and formulating a hypothesis are nice brain instruments to build science. When they are worked out into a handsome theory, the only yardstick to determine whether it is of any value is evidence. The theory should describe the natural phenomena observed accurately enough for the precision whith which they can be measured. When a newer theory emerges, it often does not falsify the former one. Newtonian mechanics is still a valid instrument to calculate the orbits of planets around the sun or the behaviour, motion and statics of macro objects in terrestrial surroundings. Only if one measures the movement of the axis of the eliptical orbit of Mercury, there is a riddle which cannot be solved with classical mechanics in a simple, precise and elegant way. That phenomenon can be adequately solved by applying relativity. Nowadays we can only be precise enough about the motion of our satellites around the earth in order to do cm-precise geo positioning if we use relativity. On earth we observe only aberrations in Newtonian mechanics, if we look at small or fast objects. For the other purposes Newtonian theory is sufficiently accurate. There, relativistic and classic computations lead to the same results within our measurement accuracies.

    Physics is not a method to determine the all encompassing truth. (The crux is the word “all”.) Of course, physicists should not lie or cheat, but I mean the description of phenomena. If we have an adequate theory to describe what is observed, that theory remains valid until a newer theory can do the same but more accurate and or encompasses other observed phenomena as well. We then call it more powerful. A theory is only false, if it gives results which are in disagreement with the observed phenomena. If a domain can be defined in which the observations and the theoretical results coincide within the measurement accuracy, that theory is OK. This is even the case, if there are some flaws in the logic or missing proofs in the mathematics. There are beautifull examples of theory improvements that came much later than the first rude formulations which already explained a wealth of data.

    No matter how clever and well learnt some critics like mr. Khan may be, their reasoning does not contribute to the body of physics. Only if they present a theory with rigorous mathematical tranformations – which is the theory of relativity – which describe the natural phenomena such as I mentioned before at least as precise as the relativistic tranformations and perhaps also throw some light on other phenomena not covered by ‘relativity’ as well, will their objections be incorporated in our body of knowledge. Philosophy around relativity is mainly a means to try to make the ideas understandable to people not able to follow the mathematics. It is not the theory itself. I know it is frustrating for critics like mr. Khan that physicists like me just ignore what he is telling. But I assure him that if he comes up with better transformations than Einstein did – I mean better in describing observed phenomena – then he will be listened to. May be by few in the beginning. That is the fate of paradigm breakers, but in the end he will convince. I am afraid though that he has to give up his idea about gravity being a form of electromagnetism. I know of no natural process where the one influences the other. So on that subject he has to come up not only with new theory but also with new evidence.

  • Shafiq Khan 04/07/2013 at 9:01 am

    Science is not based on evidence but on authority. Following is the proof.
    The very space-time concept, on which theories of relativity are founded, has been mathematically, theoretically & experimentally proved as baseless and openly challenged on the basis of published scientific articles. Since the very space-time concept has been proved as baseless the question of curvature of space-time being correct does not arise. Gravity has been shown to be an electromagnetic force as foreseen by Maxwell due to the curl/vortices of aether (the electric dipoles) in the published article ‘Revised Foundation of Theory of Everything: Non-living Things & Living Things’ (; Sep 2010) Revised version of this article is available on vixra & World Science Database in my profile. Following is the open challenge which everyone could see at and


    The article ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’ by Albert Einstein is based on trickeries is proved beyond any doubt whatsoever in the articles (1). Experimental & Theoretical Evidences of Fallacy of Space-time Concept and Actual State of Existence of the Physical Universe published in the peer-reviewed journal namely Indian Journal of Science & Technology (March 2012 issue) available on (2) On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies By Albert Einstein is Based on Trickeries (Open letter to Professors, Teachers, Researchers and Students of Physics) published in peer-reviewed journal Elixir Online Journal (February 2012 issue) available on The Voigt transformation was simply a mathematical possibility which was changed by Lorentz by introducing the Lorentz factor but the Lorentz factor is simply a manipulation. Thus nature and forces in nature were trivialized and made subservient to mathematics in the theories of relativity, Big Bang Theory, Space-time concept and in all physical sciences which are directly or indirectly based on the ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’. It is unfortunate for humanity that exposing these trickeries took more than one hundred years.
    I openly challenge all the professors, researchers & teachers of physics/philosophy of physics to come forward & show me where I am wrong or else they have to accept that they are teaching incorrect physics based on trickeries.

    My challenge may not be treated as a publicity stunt, but I sincerely wish that truth should prevail on this planet and am expecting identical response from all truth loving people/intellectuals. I do understand that it is hard for mainstream physicists to reconcile with the alternative philosophy; though actual and factual; as almost all the living physicists and researchers are borne, brought up and taught physics which is fundamentally incorrect. Their livelihood is based on the physics which has been adopted as the result of fraud, but these material interests should never be a stumbling block to acknowledge the reality, which to my understanding is the essence of scientific thinking and honest living for the betterment of entire human society.

    I have not an iota of doubt that sooner or later the truth will prevail, but it would be in the interest of humanity that truth is accepted now so that humanity comes out of clutches of materialism which in itself is naked atheism.
    Mohammad Shafiq Khan.

    I would like to keep you informed that the open challenge has been sent to almost all professors of physics & universities of the world and so far two retired professors of physics namely Jeremy Dunning-Davies of Hull University & Brian Cole of Columbia University accepted the challenge but both of them finally failed to show a single error in the articles on the basis of which open challenge has been put forward. In this regard exchange of articles between me & Jeremy is available on vixra, General Science Journal & Elixir Online Journal.

    • Ariel Poliandri 05/07/2013 at 6:02 am

      Not being a theoretical physicist I am completely unable to argue against or in favour of your argument. Hopefully a physicist will take up the challenge.
      The problem is that many things –real, materials things- that we use these days, from nuclear power to interplanetary probes, were created based on the theory of relativity. And they work.
      Einstein may have been wrong, as Newton was; maybe a better theory to explain, predict, and change the world is down the corner.
      For now, as I am incapable of deciding by myself, I have to be coherent with this post and rely on the opinion of the majority of physicists and engineers that build and run nuclear power plants, satellites, PET scanners, GPS, etc.

  • LinkedIn member Ken 03/07/2013 at 5:34 am

    If science runs on evidence, which I agree it does (it’s just that evidence isn’t what most non-scientists and scientists think it is) then the evidence on GMOs so far is that they do no harm and can be beneficial. The patent situation is I agree nightmarish. When I’m asked about scientific evidence I often tell the story of the isolation of radium by Marie Curie and her assistant Andre Debierne. Over more than a year they refined several tons of pitchblende in order to isolate one-tenth gram of pure radium chloride, and then almost missed the radium because the amount was so small. This is not the way most people would like to spend a couple of years of their lives 24-7. They just kept looking, in this case refining and testing with an electrometer. Not particularly interesting work but it reflects well what scientists do. Now obviously if they had been looking for the smallest elements of cell walls refining and an electrometer would not have worked. Today of course such processes have been automated and computerized. So scientists spend their time reviewing the results of robotic actions and computer readings.

    • Sidney 03/07/2013 at 5:35 am

      Ken I agree with you. Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is so very important. I am working to get for projects in Africa that mitigate the Global Climate Change factors
      with existing and new evidence. The Baseline monitoring and then Effectiveness monitoring is important for the needed knowledge of appropriate actions. The Three Legged Stool concept is supported by me. Space based. Aerial based and Ground based data and working it into a GIS as well as reports will be helping. Elements of that exists today.

      To be innovative I will suggest that GMO maize be grown for Biofuels. Alternatively, we can accomodate skeptics with regular maize and use the stover for the feedstock for biofuels. People need industry and with an income food can be purchased. Really how
      good would Campbells Chunky soup taste to a starving person? Food crops and cash crops are good. It is hard to grow in the dry season especially if you are poor and are a subsistence farmer..

    • LinkedIn member Ken 03/07/2013 at 5:37 am

      Sidney, doing something with the results of observations and reading a whole other issue. What did Curie do with radium, what did Pasteur do with Anthrax, what did Salk do with Polio, what did Watson and Crick do with the double helix, what did Dempster do with U-235, what did Marcy do with deep-space planets that seemed to look like Earth? The answers: not much, killed it, stopped most of its effects, made lots of models of it, he himself, not much – later it was used to fuel one of the two atomic bombs used in WWII, was interviewed incessantly about them and wrote articles for both scientific publications and news publications on the planets. This is sort of a high level summary of sciences over the last couple of centuries.

    • Ariel Poliandri 03/07/2013 at 5:59 am

      Ken it is clear that you understand scientific concepts. It appears to me that you find scientists extremely boring… I can accept that in some cases but wouldn’t make it a general rule (think of Feynman).
      I agree that most basic researchers do not do by themselves productive things out of their discoveries. But that is because in a complex society there is division of labour. A single person or group cannot do everything. Scientists make discoveries; engineers devise useful things out of those discoveries; marketers sell them. Without scientists we wouldn’t have much input into the pipe line. Without science there wouldn’t be vaccines, antibiotics, electricity, etc. I know you will mention discoveries that lead to not so good results such as the production of H-bombs (a cynic will tell you that thanks to the H-bomb we have had peace in the West for over 70 years though). But over all I think that the person that scorns science as useless should go at least for one year with tooth ache without a dentist and without pain killers before being considered consistent.

  • Fred 03/07/2013 at 5:27 am

    When, as a scientist, I choose what to research, my values (including religious values and, as Ariel puts it, aesthetics) play a strong part. When, after the research is done, I decide how to apply it, values and aesthetics again come into play.
    In the middle, though, when I’m doing the research, evidence and logic rule totally. (Well, except for my disinclination to harm animals or people in the course of the research. And my awareness that investigator bias is always a possibility in spite of best efforts.)
    “The vast majority of scientists… trust in modern agricultural techniques.” Trust them to do what? To bankrupt farmers who unknowingly have GM seeds blown into their fields and get sued by Monsanto? To denude rainforests?
    Not sure I understand this statement.

    • Sidney 03/07/2013 at 5:30 am

      Fred, my impression from your questions may be wrong, but I will try to comment.
      I could not find the vast majority of scientist statement, however it implys some survey or statistics were involved at least an opinion that may be tested. The bankrupt farmers is a serious statement. The impact of drought as a possible result of global climate change or drifting tetonic plates that may be a cause could exist with any seed from any source. Drought resistant seeds may be selected and be helpful. A slow process.
      The legal ownership of seeds is an issue for sure. Population growth and demand for food are both growing. With an expected population growth of 50% from about 1950 to 2050 will be interesting for the youth of today.

  • Sidney 02/07/2013 at 6:46 pm

    In my understanding of Philosophy, a science like Physical Philosophy (Physics) have tools to be applied in research. These include a process called A Priori and A Posteriori
    methods. The first is the mental theory or musings, with maths being logical tools for a valid product. However, theories can be valid yet not true. With A Posteriori the science research includes the empirical method and results in evidence based gnosis (knowledge). This is not to say that one is better than the other, but both are needed
    and together provide a greater benefit in the advancement of understanding. We know
    well of the specialist in a particular field focused on basic research and of generalist who might be better at integration in applied research.

  • Lara Tauritz Bakker 02/07/2013 at 7:45 am

    Consensus, especially among scientists, is a dangerous state of being, because any sceptic remark is deamed unfitting: ‘if 97 % of scientists believe this, it must be true, and if you question their arguments, you must be biased.’ Whereas, I think that questioning arguments is at the core of the scientific enterprize. As for evidence: any evidence can be used for any argument, it’s just easier or harder to make certain arguments with particular evidence. As soon as authority is used to convince, the argument loses power: this is a rethorical fallacy. As for Einstein convincing people with ‘theoretical evidence’… you mean an argument based on logic, but still without empirical data (that is: a theory without evidence). Evidence is always empirical, there is no such thing as theoretical evidence. The only thing a theory can provide is a direction in which to search for evidence, or an argument to induce what the evidence can tell us.

    • Ariel Poliandri 02/07/2013 at 9:27 pm

      Consensus is important but open mindedness is important as well. A scientist –at least a good scientist- will not say that if you disagree with 97% of your peers you are biased. He or she will say that you are either a genius or a fool. Then it is up to you to prove what you are.
      If -as you say- any evidence can be used to prove any argument we better close down all laboratories and go to live in a hat. But I don’t think that it is like that because evidence is not a record of anecdotal events; it is careful collection of unbiased data followed by analysis. If it were as you say, astrology would have been proven a long time ago.
      I don’t think that evidence is always empirical. A mathematical demonstration can be good evidence as well. But I will not do as Continental philosophers do and waste time arguing about words. If you don’t want to call mathematical demonstrations evidence call them whatever you prefer. The important thing about scientific theories is that in addition to explain natural phenomena they make predictions that can be verified empirically. The predictions in Einstein’s theory have been subsequently verified.

  • Dave 02/07/2013 at 5:56 am

    I want to like that statement, but history tells another story. We have what is called “consensus.” It wouldn’t be scientific to exclude peer review. That is the authority we must rely on, otherwise Cold-Fusion was created at BYU.

  • Ariel Poliandri 01/07/2013 at 9:13 pm

    I must say that the first two chaps seem not to have a clear idea of what science is and the post was unable to enlighten them.
    The fact that you do not understand something and need of somebody else (probably a science journalist that maybe doesn’t understand either) doesn’t mean that science is just a “social construction”. The fact that you find scientists socially annoying doesn’t invalidate science neither. I do not understand Heisenberg uncertainty principle. However, I am happy to accept it because it is supported by the vast majority of physicists that use it for undeniable real things such as nuclear power, semiconductors or lasers.
    And gents… if you provide me with real evidence –as opposed to anecdotal reports- that astrology is real, I will be willing to give it a chance. If in addition you are able to produce a coherent theory integrating astrology into the body of science –say without contradicting physics and biology- I will be willing to embrace it as passionately as I embrace evolution.
    Finally it is supportive of my thesis that physicists accepted the theory of relativity –despite Einstein being a ridiculous looking “outsider”- because they were shown evidence, first theoretical and then empirical. It is not personality what counts but evidence. And in the post I have given three more examples of how scientists have changed their mind based on evidence.
    Science is social, but it is not a social construction in the way that some social scientists –who scarcely produce evidence and are scarcely scientists- would like it to be.

    • LinkedIn Member Ken 02/07/2013 at 5:52 am

      Ariel, I wish you all the best in your adventures with science. I’ve been involved in STS studies for about 30 years, mostly as an applied art. I’m also a mathematician and as such have interacted with physicists, astronomers, biologists, etc. as well as engineers for years. These are the sources of my understanding of sciences. Scientists are no more trustworthy, no more pledged to truth, and certainly no smarter or wiser than the artists, philosophers, and novelists I’ve known. And they certainly are not above or beyond self deception and deceit. Case in point, Robert Oppenheimer. Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biography of Oppenheimer make two things very clear. His passion was physics. He tried to take every possible view of it he could. Way beyond obsession. Second, he was in many respects a coward and deceived himself and others about what was going on at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. How could such a man successfully administer such a project as “The Manhattan Project?” According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Oppenheimer’s secretary Pricilla Greene (Duffield) was actually the administrator. She made Oppenheimer a successful administrator. Bottom line: sciences and scientists are not the salvation of the world. Often scientists can’t even find the world. That’s not to say we shouldn’t listen to them. We should. But take them for what they are: humans who are obsessive observers always looking for a new laboratory, a new experiment, a new platform to observe some object.

      • Ariel Poliandri 02/07/2013 at 5:54 am

        I agree scientists are human with human passions and faults; I was trying to communicate that. But science is a collective enterprise beyond individuals; its internal works (consensus based on evidence examined by peers) provide decent protection against quackery. If quackery still rules it is because of inefficient politics not because of science. We can also blame many scientists for being unable to communicate with laypeople.
        I am a classicist and enjoy art. I am also a free thinking Catholic. But neither art nor religion compare to science. I have little evidence for the superiority of classical to modern art or the existence of the Trinity but that is what I believe and you won’t change my mind. With science is different. It is not what I believe that is important but why I believe it and I will be willing to change my mind if you prove me wrong, for example, in that there is no reason to assume that all GMOs are dangerous and should all be banned (but this is not the subject now).

  • LinkedIn member Buck 01/07/2013 at 9:10 pm

    Bravo Zimmerman! “Science is based on evidence not authority” seems rather simplistic, since the same could be asserted of many disciplines, correctly, such as astrology or 9-11 conspiracies.
    Advocates of both of these can bury skeptics in mountains evidence.
    While scientific consensus nearly always provides the most reliable explanatory theories, understanding the definition of good scientific practice and how discoveries are made is most reliably obtained from philosophers of science.
    Profound discoveries in STEM come notably often from outsiders to the affected discipline, and as a side effect of something else they were working on.

    Science is a human endeavor, and our brains are overwhelmingly emotional. The narrative of science building steadily is taught for its strength as a story rather than historical accuracy.
    I would disagree, however, with the claim “there exist no means to assess stories”. True, we cannot “know” for certain, but there are criteria for higher vs. lower risk concepts based on historical assessments of success.

  • LinkedIn member Ken 01/07/2013 at 9:09 pm

    I think Ariel Poliandri means well. But he’s helping no one when he claims sciences are based on evidence not authority. Sciences (and there is not one but many of them, since what a science is and how scientists act depends as much on the objects of the science as on some assumed universal methodology) are produced through the same processes of interaction and construction as all other shared ways of life. What really sets sciences and scientists apart is not what they are but what they are not. They can not stop reconsidering how they look at things around them. They’re always moving from one vantage point to another in looking at things. Which makes them really irritating at parties and wholly unable to reach any final conclusions about anything. But they tell some fascinating stories and create ill will where ever they go. Hardly endearing qualities or generally useful ones for that matter. But when their stories are framed, given a beginning and an end, usually by someone who is not a scientist they sometimes provide instructions for doing, or making, or explaining something of interest or concern, or not. Sometimes the stories give us nothing, or worse they are pointless and useless. No way to know in advance.

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