December 31, 2010

More about the decline effect

Re: My previous post. I missed a few commentaries other than PZ Myers' summary from yesterday: Jerry Coyne wrote one a while ago called The "decline effect": can we demonstrate anything in science?, and ORAC has one called Is the "decline effect" really so mysterious? Both mention Jonah Lehrers clarification of his New Yorker piece at his Wired blog, that I had also missed.

In it Lehrer writes:

Although we often pretend that experiments and peer-review and clinical trials settle the truth for us – that we are mere passive observers, dutifully recording the results – the actuality of science is a lot messier than that.

Again, I hope he's speaking for himself. I don't think the idea that the scientific process "settles the truth" for us is that widespread among the scientists he seems to be talking about. I think it's a false chimera that Lehrer puts forward and blows up for the sake of having something to argue against. It's not how most science works. Jerry Coyne has identified this as well:

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. In many fields, especially physics, chemistry, and molecular biology, workers regularly repeat the results of others, since progress in their own work demands it. The material basis of heredity, for example, is DNA, a double helix whose sequence of nucleotide bases codes (in a triplet code) for proteins. We’re beginning to learn the intricate ways that genes are regulated in organisms. The material basis of heredity and development is not something we “choose” to believe: it’s something that’s been forced on us by repeated findings of many scientists. This is true for physics and chemistry as well, despite Lehrer’s suggestion that “the law of gravity hasn’t always been perfect at predicting real-world phenomena.”

As I wrote previously, I'm sure Lehrer knows this as well as anyone, but for the sake of his argument he seems to be inflating the decline effect as a flaw of subjectivity rather than a sign of the scientific method's strength. He does this by making science out to be the active pursuit of "truth". From ORAC:

Although Lehrer makes some good points, where he stumbles, from my perspective, is when he appears to conflate "truth" with science or, more properly, accept the idea that there are scientific "truths," even going so far as to use the word in the title of his article. That is a profound misrepresentation of the nature of science, in which all "truths" are provisional and all "truths" are subject to revision based on evidence and experimentation. The decline effect--or, as Lehrer describes it the title of his article, the "truth wearing off"--is nothing more than science doing what science does so well: Correcting itself in its usual messy and glorious way.

My previous post: "Science works, decline effect or not"

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