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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Science and Truth

When a politician says something, we don't believe it - and we shouldn't.

When a scientist says something, we usually believe it.

Sometimes we should. And sometimes we shouldn't.

The common perception is that science is about truth. Many young people enter the profession, thinking that they'll be able to work in a rarefied purity of purpose. They imagine that the discoveries they make, small or large, will move mankind toward a better and more complete understanding of Creation.

It doesn't work out that way.

Science is about money, and it's about politics. Truth can be a convenient platform. And that's all.

  1. Science is about models. We don't know how the world really works, and this side of Heaven, we never will. So we construct models of mathematical equations and chemical reactions that describe what we see. We start small, using a situation for which we know the limits, and for which we know the answers, and build a series of procedures by which we can use scientific tools - math and chemistry - to reproduce, on paper and in the laboratory, what we see. These models are proved - 'validated' - by applying them to a larger number of examples for which we don't know as much going in but we know 'where we're supposed to end up'.
  2. Science is about money. It takes horrendous amounts of cash to pay professors, graduate student assistants, and technicians. Equipment also costs money, and the university or institute gets a cut ('overhead') of ten to fifty percent of the total cost of the project (overhead pays for buildings, clerical support, toilet paper...the non-glamorous stuff). A scientist applies for grants from agencies like the national Science Foundation, or from industry, to solve problems that are of current interest - and these interests are often driven by either making money, or saving money.
  3. Science is about politics. It really depends on where you're from, and whom you know. If you work at a university that's 'in', and you got a PhD working for a professor who's popular, your chances of being 'funded' are good. If you're from a small Christian college in the Midwest, and got your degree from a journeyman technical college, you probably won't see a cent. The value of what you want to do is of really minor importance. You may have a cure for breast cancer but if your credentials aren't 'cool' your work won't be supported.
This may sound discouraging, and it is. The scientific world - the real one, driven by the factors that allow things to get done, money and power, simply doesn't care about truth. It cares about supporting its own.

Good things do get done, but it's not nearly what could be accomplished.

As a case in point, the cause - and cure - for stomach ulcers was discovered in the late 1980s. A researcher in Perth, Western Australia, found that ulcers were caused by bacteria, and could be cured by antibiotics. To prove it, he drank a cup of water containing the disease-causing organisms. He got ulcers, and cured himself with the appropriate antibiotics.

You'd think that he would have been hailed a hero. Quite the contrary - he was told that his research was of only limited value, because he didn't come from a big-name school, and he didn't work at a major university. The results were buried, published in a minor journal, and ignored, until an 'approved' researcher deigned to follow up his work, twenty years later.

So - the next time a scientist steps forward to tell you the 'truth' - smile, and nod.

And know where he's coming from.

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