Science and bunkum

  (26 June 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The New Scientist website features a review of Massimo Pigliucci’s book Nonsense on Stilts: How to tell science from bunk. (Thanks to Nigel Sinnot for the heads up on this.)


The review (and, one assumes, the book itself) is well worth a look. Some interesting questions are tackled, such as why quantum mysticism is in the ‘bunk’ category and string theory is considered ‘science’ (or ‘almost science’).


Reviewer Amanda Gefter says at one point:


The idea that science can't tell us anything about the objective world just because it is a human activity fraught with human flaws and biases is easily refuted the minute that planes fly or atomic bombs explode. Scientists, meanwhile, do us a disservice when they promote scientism - the idea that science can answer every meaningful question we might ask about the world.


I’d have to agree with this in principle, though the idea of science as a cultural activity is more complex and nuanced than Gefter allows here. Philosophers (Don Cupitt, for one) have no illusions about the usefulness of science, but they raise genuine epistemological issues that should force us to question the all-too-common assumption that we can grasp ‘reality itself’ in some magically unmediated way through science. The fact that we just can’t get a handle on the logic behind aspects of quantum physics is, I’d suggest, an illustration of this: our language-derived tools are indeed useful, but they don’t allow a seamless one-to-one mapping of what’s actually going on. In some sense, we are always ‘making it up’ or creating the reality we claim to ‘find’.




I sometimes think that the claims of science are a bit over-rated, not in the areas in which most practical scientists work where their theories are well establisahed, but rather at the fringes. Here they still operate as science but the lack of evidence for their assertions and the absence of explanations of some phenomena, make their claims risky at best.

Take cosmology for example. It appears that curernt theories can explain only about 4% of the matter/energy of the universe; the remaining 96% is called dark matter and dark energy. The explanation of this 96% could well lead us into areas of knowledge for which we have no anticipation whatsoever.

Reminds me of the certainty that physicists had around 1900 - "we've almost completed studies in Physics" -just before Einstein developed relativity, Planck quantum theory and Bohr the planetary-like form of the atom.

Science would do well to claim less and be less dismissive of pseudo-science.

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