5X5 Episode 58

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5X5 Episode 58
The Self-Corrective Nature of Science
17th February 2009

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5X5 57 5X5 59
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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The Self-Corrective Nature of Science[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 in our continuing series on skepticism 101 and tonight we are talking about the self corrective nature of science. I want to start off with something that was written by Carl Sagan relating a story about a physicist Robert W. Wood in the 1920s. Wood was given a toast to physics and metaphysics and he had to respond about that topic. And Carl Sagan relates that Wood took a second, glanced about him and answered along these lines:

"The physicist has an idea, [he said] the more he thinks it through the more sense it makes to him. He goes to the scientific literature and the more he reads the more promising the idea seems, thus prepared he devises an experiment to test the idea. The experiment is painstaking, many possibilities are eliminated or taken into account. The accuracy of the measurement is refined. At the end of all this work the experiment is completed and the idea is shown to be worthless. The physicist then discards the idea, frees his mind from clutter of error and moves on to something else. The difference between physics and metaphysics," Wood concluded, "is that the meta physicist has no laboratory.[1]

R: I think it's very important for people to understand that science is self-correcting. Because often times people think of science as a body of knowledge that's completely static and unchanging but that's not true, it's a process by which we sort through the crap and find out whats true.

J: And most importantly Rebecca, its not just sorting through the crap and finding out what's true it's that anything that has already been deemed as true is always under suspicion or always under future evidence to disprove or to fine tune.

E: Yeah that's part of refining it.

R: You can look at something like Piltdown Man which is often held up by creationists as a time when science failed. But really we're talking about something that was shown to be a fraud not by priests but by scientists who investigated it and found that it was lacking.

B: Science is really the only human endeavor that's self-corrective in this way. All other activities that humans engage in require an external source for correction because its not an integral part of the process.

S: There are, you know, many ways in which the scientific endeavor is self-corrective but primarily it is that ideas have to be tested which means that evidence needs to be brought to bear against them to either support them or refute them. And there has to be the possibility that the idea can be proven completely incorrect.

J: So a good example of this self-correction of science is that when somebody puts out evidence, they typically put it out in a format which other scientists will review and then those other scientists will do their best to refute what that person has put out or even perhaps to help support it but in that manner that's how science progresses because the natural chain of things would be that a scientist puts out information and then it gets refined or fine tuned by other scientists around the world and then they use that information to make a new way to test the theory and that process keeps going.

E: The point also is that pseudo-science does just the opposite of this, pseudo-science makes a claim, has a position and they either don't subject themselves to the review process of other scientists or other people evaluating the claim, or if they do they stand fast on their ground and they remain unchanged and unmotivated by other evidence that comes along that often contradicts the pseudo-scientific claim. So that is sort of a red flag that you should look for in your pseudo-science if the self-correction is not evident in the pursuit of it.

S: That's right, I mean homeopathy has been the same for the last 150 years its not changing at all its not self-corrective pseudo-scientists as you say Evan, they start with their conclusion they know what they want to believe, what their conclusion is and then they the purpose of evidence for them is just to support what they already know. As opposed to scientists who actively try to disprove their notions and its only those notions which survive that rigorous attempt to prove them wrong that we give provisional ascent, that we say this is at least the best explanation that we have for now but its always subject to revision when new information, or just new ways of interpreting the data comes to light.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


  1. Carl Sagan (1995) Wonder and Skepticism, Volume 19.1
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