Re: [asa] IPCC

From: Randy Isaac <>
Date: Thu Feb 15 2007 - 20:14:25 EST

    Maybe it would help if I approached it from a different angle. Interpreting and understanding an article about science is in many ways analogous to interpreting and understanding a biblical passage or a theological article. The analogy isn't perfect by any means but there are interesting parallels. Elementary principles of hermeneutics apply to some extent to scientific articles.

    1) First, what is the genre of this passage? Biblically, that means is it poetry, is it history, is it prophetic, is it pastoral, etc. Scientifically, it means is it about a new research field, is it an opinion piece, is it new data, is it a new interpretation of old data, is it about an established field having theories verified by data, etc.

    2) Who is the author? What are his/her credentials? Who is the audience? What is the context? What is the cultural setting? What is the motivation? Very important for biblical passages. For scientific articles, Rich Blinne's note a few days ago in this thread was an excellent guide for getting a perspective on this

    3) Based on the above, what is the level of reliability and credibility? For Christian literature there's a very sharp demarcation between the writings accepted as a part of the canon and all other literature. The origin of the canon is a valuable study in its own right for informational purposes. All other writings must be tested for consistency with the canon. In science there isn't a canon but there is a body of literature upon which future work depends. All work does need to be tested against that literature. Does it add to it? Support it? Contradict it?

    4) The above is only a beginning and doesn't tell us whether a particular article is right or wrong but it helps put it all in context and provide a framework for understanding.

    So now let's consider your comments. "...Smolin's book on string theory should be binned?" First of all, it is an opinion piece on a new field of research where there is no established theory verified by data. That means the field is wide open for input. Secondly, the author has published numerous papers in the field. Also notable is that his work is in opposition to string theory and we need to take his vested interests into account. Finally, his opinion doesn't contradict any technical literature that is verified with data. All of this tells me that his book is a valuable contribution to a debate about how to fund research into new fields. He may or may not be right but the opinion is credible and worthy of consideration.

    "... the measure of a publication's value within the relevant scientific community." I'm not sure what you mean here. From a scientific point of view, the above process is done routinely, almost automatically within a technical field. I'm suggesting that this process has some merit for the public to interpret the avalanche of articles coming at them on controversial topics in science.

    "...malcontents and misfits often have valuable things to say " I didn't deny that at all. I'm merely trying to provide a template for ways in which scientific claims can be put in perspective and filtered. If there really is something of value, it will work its way into the scientific literature sooner or later. If not, it will die. Well, maybe not. It might persist forever in some forum.

    Let's consider the article Wayne suggested which started this round. Rich took it apart technically but even without that and before digging deeply into it, it can be readily seen that the work is not published in the technical literature but in book form. It is a contrarian view that offers an interpretation of data that has previously been explained in a different way. That doesn't mean its wrong. It just means that the bar is pretty high. I could go on but I think you get the point--articles such as this shouldn't be trumpeted by anyone as justification for the existence of "controversy in the scientific community." It needs additional supporting evidence.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: David Opderbeck
  To: Randy Isaac
  Cc: ;
  Sent: Wednesday, February 14, 2007 12:47 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] IPCC

  I would suggest that it might help to ask ourselves the following questions when coming across such an article:

  So Lee Smolin's book on string theory should be binned? It doesn't seem to pass any of these tests.

  I agree that these tests are useful and that they are the measure of a publication's value within the relevant scientific community. It probably is helpful for the general public to understand how public arguments made by a scientist stack up against the norms of the scientific community.

  However, I'm a little nervous about using these norm as a general test for what the public should regard as truthful. Mavericks, malcontents and misfits often have valuable things to say -- sometimes precisely because they are outsiders. (I can imagine what the Pharisees said about whether reasonable people should believe Jesus.)

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Received on Thu Feb 15 20:15:21 2007

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