Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Scientific intolerance

By Martín Bonfil Olivera

Published in Milenio Diario, november 4th, 2009

A month ago I criticized the fraud commited by people who promise to cure to almost any disease by using a machine called SCIO (against, of course, of a good amount of cash).

As always when pseudoscience and charlatans are attacked, I received some congratulatory e-mails, and some other (not many, luckily) that accused me of being dogmatic, intolerant and of disqualifying "other" forms or rationality "that deserve the same respect as the scientific worldview".

It's common to accuse science, and the people who practice it, promote it or communicate it, of being intolerant. But we must remember that science seeks only to study nature, in order to produce reliable knowledge that allows us to understand it and maybe predict it. When referring to the intolerance of science, normally what is questioned is its refusal to recognize practices such as astrology, the study of paranormal phenomena, miracle therapies based on principles "that go beyond science" or conspiracy theories, as scientific.

This exclusion is due in part to the fact that the methods of these disciplines ar not rigorous enough, or their data do not look reliable (in case they are not straightforward fakery). Sometimes, what is not acceptable are their study objects, since science studies only natural phenomena, not supernatural ones.

In science, for a statement to be accepted, it has to go through a complex process of peer review that involves the verification of data and methods, and the discussion of results. The reasons why scientists accept a affirmation have to do with its logical coherence, its plausibility within the existent scientific frame of knowledge, the reproducibility of experiments in which its based, and other reasons (among which some dose of politics and ideology are not excluded).

However, nothing makes a scientist happier than to discover that something that was known turns out to be incorrect. To find mistakes and inconsistencies in scientific theories forces researchers to find even better explanations. This is the force that pushes science forward.

But, for the process to work, it has to be subject to a highly rigorous quality control. The first duty of a scientist is not to delude himself. Science has an unavoidable commitment with reality. If, sometimes this sounds like intolerance, that's not a problem of the scientific method, but of the disciplines that try to pass as scientific... when they are not.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

To receive Science for pleasure weekly
in your email, subscribe here!

No comments:

Post a Comment