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The Really Hard Science

To be of true service to humanity, science must be
an exquisite blend of data, theory and narrative
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Over the past three decades I have noted two disturbing tendencies in both science and society: first, to rank the sciences from “hard” (physical sciences) to “medium” (biological sciences) to “soft” (social sciences); second, to divide science writing into two forms, technical and popular. And, as such rankings and divisions are wont to do, they include an assessment of worth, with the hard sciences and technical writing respected the most, and the soft sciences and popular writing esteemed the least. Both these prejudices are so far off the mark that they are not even wrong. (continue reading…)

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The Fossil Fallacy

Creationists’ demand for “just one transitional fossil” reveals a deep misunderstanding of science
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Nineteenth-century English social scientist Herbert Spencer made this prescient observation: “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.” A century later nothing has changed.When I debate creationists, they present not one fact in favor of creation and instead demand “just one transitional fossil” that proves evolution. When I do offer evidence (for example, Ambulocetus natans, a transitional fossil between land mammals and modern whales), they respond that there are now two gaps in the fossil record. This is a clever debate retort, but it reveals a profound error that I call the Fossil Fallacy: the belief that a “single fossil” — one bit of data — constitutes proof of a multifarious process or historical sequence. In fact, proof is derived through a convergence of evidence from numerous lines of inquiry — multiple, independent inductions all of which point to an unmistakable conclusion. (continue reading…)

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The Enchanted Glass

Francis Bacon and experimental psychologists show why the facts in science never just speak for themselves
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In the first trimester of the gestation of science, one of science’s midwives, Francis Bacon, penned an immodest work entitled Novum Organum (“new tool,” after Aristotle’s Organon) that would open the gates to the “Great Instauration” he hoped to inaugurate through the scientific method. Rejecting both the unempirical tradition of scholasticism and the Renaissance quest to recover and preserve ancient wisdom, Bacon sought a blend of sensory data and reasoned theory.

Cognitive barriers that color clear judgment presented a major impediment to Bacon’s goal. He identified four: idols of the cave (individual peculiarities), idols of the marketplace (limits of language), idols of the theater (preexisting beliefs) and idols of the tribe (inherited foibles of human thought). (continue reading…)

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