Friday, September 18, 2009

Authoritarianism in Science

The scientific method is a collection of techniques used to investigate phenomena, acquire knowledge, or correct and integrate existing knowledge. Information is collected through a process of observation and experimentation based on initial hypotheses. Researcher propose hypotheses, which are suppositions, and create experiments to test them.

Using the scientific method knowledge is refined over time into a more cohesive and coherent body. Inconsistencies between different elements within the body of scientific knowledge serve to point out that the picture we have is still incomplete, and point us into new areas wherein research can be performed. Assumptions are made, new hypotheses are formed and subsequently tested, and thereby the process continues.

An example: In the 18th century Henry Cavendish made inflammable air, or hydrogen, by combining metal and acid. He observed that this "inflammable air" reacted with "dephlogisticated air"(oxygen) to form what appeared to be water.
Dephlogisticated air derives its name from the phlogiston theory of Johann Joachim Bechler, which stated that the element "phlogiston" was contained within flammable substances and was released during combustion. What Johann Joachim and Henry Cavendish didn't realize was "Phlogistated" air was air in which the oxygen was converted to carbon dioxide, and "Dephlogistated" air was oxygen itself and that Phlogiston didn't exist.

Antoine Lavoiser named Henry Cavendish's "inflammable air" hydrogen. He later wrote "Reflections on Phlogiston" showing the phlogiston theory to be incorrect. He determined that the components of water were hydrogen and oxygen, and that air was primarily nitrogen and oxygen. In his book Elementary Treatise on Chemistry, he stated the law of conservation of mass, and explained that an element is a substance that can not be broken down any further.

The concept of the element at the time was simply any substance that could not be further broken down by chemical methods. John Dalton was the first to propose that each element consisted of atoms of a unique type which can be put together to form chemical compounds. Mendeleev, using the earlier discoveries by Lavoisier and other scientists published the first periodic table of the elements in 1869.

Now imagine what would have happened if during this period that a scientific/political authority stepped in in defense of the Phlogiston theory and stated that the debate was over. It seems quite silly doesn't it. Debate is not one of the tools of science. Debate in this context could only be used to suppress hypotheses and prevent further experimentation, observation, and interpretation of results. Debate would stop science. Authoritarianism has no place in science apart from the peer review process. When non-scientists get involved and set themselves up as authorities the problem gets infinitely worse.

This is the very message we learn from Galileo's defense of heliocentrism, which properly placed the sun at the center of the solar system. He was forced to recant, and spent his final years under house arrest. This due to the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church.

Not only does authoritarianism have no place in science, it is anathema to science. Peer review is not meant to be authoritarianism, and cannot prevent science but merely serves an editorial purpose for the specific journal in question. It quashes no hypothesis, and stops no experiment.

Government involvement in science, apart from funding, is uniquely dangerous. Governments seek to hide knowledge and stop competing interests, at the cost of science. They willingly blind themselves to reality in doing so, and science becomes just another means to an end.

Global Warming is the latest exercise in defending the phlogiston theory, after all CO2 is just phlogistated air. There is much to discover in the atmospheric sciences, but too many non-scientific authorities are stepping on the scientific process, and in some cases directly hijacking it.