Good science, bad science (sit, stay!)

I enjoy a good debate, but not unconditionally.  Here’s what I hate about such debates.  (Warning:  Contains spoilers)

The Scientific Principle

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” (Richard Feynman)

“One of the key points of the scientific method (the whole basis for science) is that it is negativistic. This means we keep moving towards the impossible goal of actually knowing anything. The goal is impossible because we can never really be certain the answers we have for something are correct, and there is always the assumption that there are better answers out there.
So, calling science the “belief in the ignorance of experts” is basically saying that following science is the same as putting your faith into people who admit they don’t really know anything. Even though they might have a lot of knowledge in their field, scientists are aware that all that knowledge is temporary and could easily be replaced by new theories, so they are all essentially ignorant (in a way).” (“Answers”)

I quote Richard Feynman on this because I couldn’t have phrased it better.  The German animal ethologist Konrad Lorenz in his “Die Rückseite des Spiegels” (English translation of the book: “Behind the Mirror – A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge”) explains that every morning as he gets up, he throws his favourite theory overboard.  Subsequently he has to find enough evidence to allow himself to consider it a possibility again.

Good science consists of research – the key being the “search”, and the search for more.  An experiment is a question posed to nature.  The answer will either tell you that your hypothesis is wrong, or it will strengthen (but never “prove”) the hypothesis (proofs are what happens in math, not in science, so if anyone tells you “it has been scientifically proven”, question their knowledge).  A hypothesis can go on for centuries and all evidence might be in favour (e.g. the “flat Earth” hypothesis – btw other Greek philosophers had already postulated a round planet), until a new invention (the telescope) suddenly upsets the whole applecart.

Instead of embracing the new evidence with excitement (for hurray, our knowledge is increasing), unfortunately it is human nature to slay the messenger.  Humans are animals of habit and don’t like change.  Often a bad theory has to die out with the last of the people who firmly, unshakably, keep believing in it against all new evidence.

Experiments need to be repeatable.  If the same setup keeps on giving the same answer, a correlation is more and more likely.  If an effect was only observed once, never to be repeated, it was probably caused by something outside of the experimental setup – some uncontrolled variable the researcher overlooked.

A lot of science is empirical, or begins empirically.  

The observation that “every time if this, then that” is at the very root of good science.   “Hey, I observe that every time I give somebody tea laced with hemlock, they die horribly.  Could there be a pattern?”

The step that follows empirical observation in science, ought to be an experiment.  “Okay, let’s give 100 people tea laced with hemlock and see if the effect repeats.”

To ensure that the experiment rules out some sort if bias (perhaps those 100 people are dying from the tea, not the hemlock) you need to set up a control group.  Let’s give 100 more people tea without hemlock.  And just to ensure that there isn’t even more of a bias, include another group that is given nothing at all.

The resultant observations strengthen or disprove the hypothesis (“Hemlock causes death”).


96% of people given hemlock tea died spontaneously, shortly after.  (3% were rushed to hospital and are in ICU in varying conditions. 1% died from strangulation after refusing to drink his tea.)

95% of people drinking tea without hemlock did not die.  (2% had lethal tea allergy.  1% drowned accidentally the same day, 1% died in a car crash and 1% passed away from old age.)

45% of the control group given nothing, also did not die.  (There was a civil war that killed the other 55%, which means because the statistics seem to indicate that no hemlock kills about half as many people as hemlock does, the experiment needs to be repeated.)


Due to the second control group showing irregularities, the results are inconclusive and more research needs to be done.

Bad Science:

Companies packaging and selling hemlock tea therefore list on the box that  Studies done on hemlock have all yielded inconclusive results.  The scientist conducting these experiments has been jailed and stripped of her title due to bad practices.  There is absolutely no established link between hemlock and death – only inconclusive results.  Therefore, hemlock has been proven safe.

(For those who did not “get” this:

Seralini homepage

What the media made of it

Hemlock tea, anyone?)


If something has not been proven dangerous that does not mean it’s been proven safe.

Watch out for the following tactics by those who would discredit empirical observations:

  • name-calling and discrediting (calling the person doing the observation, stupid, uneducated, a layman etc etc)
  • more name-calling:
    • “denialist”, “denier”, “conspiracy theorist”, “pseudo-scientist” (usually from the horse’s mouth), “dissident”, “anti-…” (fill in blank)
  • websites with down-pat “answers” (that are, on closer observation, usually full of holes)
  • replying to objections to those holes, with more name-calling and discrediting, and foul language and temper

Seriously, the second someone calls me names or discredits me instead of dealing with the material at hand, I know they are out of ammo.  They have no real reply.  They are thinking with their emotions.

It is easy to call someone who uses the scientifically correct terms “it seems”, “inconclusive”, “needs more research” and “too little is known” stupid and ignorant.  After all, if you know and they can merely postulate or doubt, you are the guru, right?  Not.


Science is the process of constantly doubting everything.  That’s a stable premise we can work from.  Nothing is certain.  Even what we think is certain, is not certain.


  • Without googling it, quickly off the top of your head, what’s your educated guess about current CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere?
  • Is increased CO2 bad for plant growth?
  • Without googling it, what’s the real physiological danger of elevated CO2 levels in your surrounds?


14 thoughts on “Good science, bad science (sit, stay!)

  1. I agree to a point – science can be interpreted, misinterpreted, and slanted depending which side of the fence you stand on. Off the top of my head I couldn’t tell you current CO2 concentrations in ppm. That said, I will say confidently that climate “science” makes for nasty growth/profit if you happen to produce questionable carbon emissions.

    • 🙂 Thanks for the visit, Notes! Yes, science can be misinterpreted in a number of ways. You need a real eagle’s eye to figure out what the scientist wanted in the first place, and then sometimes one finds that his article goes circular…

      Yes, the most irritating about the CO2 debacle is that it’s the same people who levy carbon taxes who make money selling us the fuel for our cars – and the same who put a spanner in the works with the development of the electric (zero emissions) vehicle.

  2. So …. basically what you’re saying is Richard Feynmann didn’t drink Hemlock Tea, yes?
    And as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon we know it isn’t made of cheese. But wait ….aha! This of course does not mean that there isn’t a moon out there somewhere, beyond the
    Final Frontier when no Vulcan or pro blanket vaccination type has gone before, right?
    I am plumping for a moon of Brie. I like Brie. But I’ll settle for Emmental.

    I try not to guess when it comes to science. The Eeeny meeny miny approach will usually lead to almighty cock ups.
    As for the CO2 levels –
    Couldn’t/wouldn’t guess.
    However, I would suggest that as we have less trees and a damn sight more cars etc then this can’t be such a good thing.
    Ask the Orangutans.

    • re your link: Wow!

      There is only one thing that bothers me, the statement that ” But germs were not the cause of that or any other disease, so they didn’t “catch” it.”

      The link between “germs” (microorganisms) and infectious disease is well-established. It makes me uneasy when someone reverts back to the medieval view that there are no predators, only scavengers. The microorganisms causing disease are most definitely predators, not scavengers, on the intra-cellular level.

  3. Being a market researcher myself, I liked your comment about the hemlock experiment. Civil war is always a bore. Screws results up.
    Have you tried the experiment with Special K?
    Be good

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