With a background in engineering, I’ve often gotten myself into discussions about technical issues and the veracity with which they’re presented. As an engineer, we’re constantly reminded that we have to be very careful in our work, because if we make a mistake, people die – and often in spectacular ways.The number of cases where this happens is immeasurable, but some examples include skywalks falling in a hotel lobby, bridges collapsing when being repaved and dams failing and washing away towns.
Scientists, however, have a different problem. The current system of funding/supporting scientific research demands the publication of new and important discoveries. This seems to lead scientists to publish their work without doing the due diligence to make sure they got it right. The noted physicist Dr. Richard Feynman once stated that the first rule of experimentation is “Don’t fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”. A recent example of such a failure is the much touted discovery of gravitational waves by the team led by Dr. John Kovac. This “discovery” was posted all over the net as proof positive of the big bang and that the theory of inflation was proven right. Unfortunately, the team forgot a step in the data reduction and when included, the “proof” disappeared. The harm? Only professional pride. No one died.
Recent studies have shown that anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of all scientific discoveries are disproven over time. This, along with my own experiences with failing more often than not, has led me to doubt almost every scientific announcement made. I call this skepticism and see it as a critical part of science. Unfortunately, in political arenas and internet blogs, this necessary step in the scientific process is commonly labeled as anti-science and purveyors of skepticism are derided as idiots. A recent BBC radio show discussed this and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in discussions of this nature:
So whenever you hear some politician or a blog-post bloviating about a skeptic as actually being anti-science, you’ll remember this…