We all love science. Science is considered a noble endeavor by
the society, something to be proud of. It is something that will
move forward our society, taking us out of the Dark Ages.
Heroically we remember people that were fighting against
contemporary opinions and thought-patterns in society. We read
historical novels of how individuals were fighting religious
indoctrination and thus breaking the hegemony of institutes.
They did this in the name of science. As long as we stick to
science, so we think, everything will be OK. Yet, in 2014,
science is dead.
This is quite a strong statement to make. How can something be
dead that we all venerate so much? And, if so, how could that
have happened? What went wrong, and why? Are there examples to
substantiate this pessimistic claim?
We first have to introduce to the reader what is science, and
what it is not. It is amazing to see that nowadays PhDs are
given to people graduating from technical high schools. That is,
students of a faculty teaching a technology approach get a
philosophical degree. The reasoning behind it is that technical
high schools are of a level as good, if not better, than many
universities. It is not fair to call one school a university and
the other just a technical high school, implicitly assuming that
something that is called a school is of lower value compared to
a university. The result is that all high schools have been
re-baptized 'university' in many countries. And all students
from a university, after doing research (be it science or not)
get a PhD. Yet again, the reasoning is that “If it was as
difficult to do as science, it deserves a diploma equal to one
given in science”. As an example, students from our engineering
department, where they formerly would get an Engineering degree,
now get a PhD.
This goes even further. Most students getting this philosophical
degree never had a single lecture of philosophy in their lives.
Most people probably think that philosophy is just thinking
intelligent and complicated. “Since my research was difficult,
hard working, intelligent and intellectual, I deserve a PhD”.
This makes as much sense as calling a shoemaker a farmer,
“because it is just as difficult”. A PhD should be given to a
scientist, and an engineering degree to an engineer. They are
different things, and thus deserve their own diplomas. A
scientist knows something about philosophy; an engineer knows
something about solving problems. In a simple way, one can say
that a scientist tries to understand the world, while an
engineer tries to use this acquired knowledge to address
problems in the world, to make it a better place. Note that no
science is directed at making this world a better place. “Anyone
who thinks science is trying to make human life easier or more
pleasant is utterly mistaken”, as Albert Einstein said. This is
already directly busting one myth in society: Science is not
'useful', or anything similar. Science is closer to Art than to
Technology. Science may be beautiful, but never intended to be
useful. A better definition is that a scientist is someone who
uses the 'scientific method'. So, now the question is: What is
this so-called scientific method? Chalmers
wrote a very nice summary on this subject in his book “What is
this thing called science?”. One basic ingredient is
'falsification', a scientific approach is making a model that
may possibly be rejected by facts. And, science is then
addressed to falsifying the theories. Here is the second myth
being busted: Science is not calculating yourself into a stupor
until you get what you wanted when you started. Quite the
opposite, science is wrecking your brain until you cannot find
any more reasons why your ideas could be wrong. Then – and only
then – communicate them to the rest of the world, and let the
others have a go at wrecking your ideas. We recognize in this
the profile of a Skeptic, which tries to see where the ideas of
others might be wrong. A scientist is an auto-skeptic.
Skepticism is a basic ingredient of science. We have summed up
the scientific method in the following points , which were
presented by Feynman in his book "The Character of Physical Law"
While the details may be discussed, the scientific method is
made by the following five elements:
Based on data acquisition, induction and deduction, a
'hypothesis' is developed, an idea or model of how nature works.
Effort is spent on finding out where and how the model fails,
i.e., attempting 'falsification'. Moreover, Feynman added: It
has to be mentioned by the developer, not only where the model
is correct, but also where it is on thin ice. "In other words,
we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible,
because only that way we can find progress" [3, p. 158].
Falsification is of the type “If model P, then Q is not
observable. We observe Q, therefore our model P is wrong”.
Falsification is the search for Q. Frequently, research is based
on a logic fallacy called 'affirming the consequent': “If model
P, then observable Q”, therefore search for Q, – which actually
gives no information whatsoever. A hypothesis cannot be proven
correct; it may only be proven wrong.
The creators of the model should convince the readers that it is
the only model that can explain reality (the data). In this
respect, another form of 'affirming the consequent' is
frequently used: “If model P, then observable Q. We observe Q,
therefore, our model P is correct”. (“We know our model is
correct, because it can explain the data!”). The fallacy
here is that many models can explain the data, but – only one of
these models may be correct.
The model should include a verifiable prediction of an event
happening in the future, for instance an experiment that can be
done and the outcome of it. "Science is only useful if it tells
you about some experiment that has not been done; it is no good
if it only tells you what just went on" [3, p. 164].
Other scientists can repeat the work presented. This is the
so-called 'replication' requirement. Some comments are in order.
A vague model cannot be proven wrong. While science goes
about disproving things (and not proving things, something what
science can never do), models that do not produce any clearly
testable predictions are not scientific. Bayesian science is not
science. This approach adjusts the models every time new data
come in. It is named after Bayes, the founder of empirical
forecasting, where past data are used to predict the
future and every time new data arrive, the parameters of the
distribution of probabilities are adjusted. This directly
contrasts the second item of the list above, namely, the new
model that explains new as well as the
old data immediately makes the old model non-scientific (making
us equally doubt the new one, usually coming from the same
authors). Apparently, the old model was not the only model to
explain the old data – the new model can do that just as well. A
lot of published research is not meeting this scientific
criterion of model uniqueness. Related to this, if there are two
models that can explain a phenomenon, the simplest one is
correct. This according to William of Ockham, a XIV century monk
who presented this idea in what is called Ockham's razor; shave
away everything that is not needed. If a temperature series is
both consistent with constant temperature and a linear rise –
that is, if both cannot be excluded – the constant-temperature
model is correct (until proven wrong), because it has only one
parameter whereas the linear model has two. Then, linearity has
priority over parabolic, and so forth. If a group of scientists
presents a paper, “Here is the result of our simulation”,
without saying how and on basis of what, that is not science,
according to the fourth criterion of the scientific method.
Colleague scientists should be able to understand and possibly
repeat the research. It should not be about 'believing' or
'trusting' the scientists. It is all about convincing, and that
includes reproducibility by others. Replication, however, is
perceived ever more like an annoying, stalling part of science
Figure 1. Project proposal for the study of Relativity in
In reality, most of the papers presented in even the most
prestigious scientific journal, Nature, are not scientific .
Most are not aimed at testing a model, but are of the tallying
type. That is, either just simply presenting some numbers on the
subject (for example, the statistics on species X in biotope Y),
or accompanied by a retroactive (Bayesian) type of prediction,
also known as 'retrodiction' (for example, species X declined
because of phenomenon Y). Science is dead. How did it get this
far? We think it is due to the society that has changed and has
demanded that science is somehow useful for the society.
Our entire funding scheme is nowadays based on this paradigm of
usefulness. People who write project proposals know that
these normally contain 'milestones' and 'deliverables', or in
other words, things that should be solved in society. But, that
is technology. In technology you can make a future estimation of
what will be the result of the work. “We are going to reduce the
channel length of transistors from 50 nm to 30 nm”. However, we
would like to see Einstein in 2014 writing a proposal titled
“Invention and development of Relativity Theory”, or something
like that (Fig. 1). Is that too ridiculous for words? Let's
analyze the internet pages describing science at one of the most
famous and prestigious universities in the world, the University
of California at Berkeley (UCB). It writes there, in How Science
Works, that science has three aspects  (in brackets our
- “Exploration and discovery” (research)
- “Benefits and outcomes” (relevance to society)
- “Community analysis and feedback” (peer reviewing)
Some observations are due here. First of all, science is not
equivalent to research. Research – collecting data, reading
literature, modelling, discussion with colleagues, etc. – is an
important tool in science, but the two are not equivalent.
Second, science, as discussed above, has no relevance to
society. Of course, there may be beneficial side effects, but
science itself is not aimed at attaining these. When Galileo
developed the telescope, he did so to study the stars, to
understand nature better, not to develop the art of lens-making
so that problems of people with lack of vision would be solved.
In 2014, this has all changed: science is aimed to have benefits
and outcomes. The problem with this is that things will tend to
be proven correct as long as they make enough money (relevance
to society is, like everything else, expressed in monetary terms
in 2014). The truth loses significance. People are confusing
science with technology. Technology has benefits, science – not
A side effect of this, by being embedded in society, is that
things in 2014 have to be 'politically correct'. The pages of
UCB specifically state this. As an example, in its
Misconceptions tab, it is now said that science (philosophy)
does not say anything about religion or the existence of a
deity (in “Misconception: science contradicts the
existence of God”), where it is moreover denied that science and
beliefs are at war. The argument is that this subject is not in
the realm of science, science “pronounces on things of the
natural world and not the supernatural”. In this way, the
scientific community is avoiding difficult discussions with
people who believe things (and pay their salary). Believing is a
human right, so now it has been made a rule that science cannot
make statements about anything a person might believe. It has
been declared that science cannot make statements about beliefs
or generally make statements that may offend people. Everything
has to be politically correct. Make the extra effort to not
offend or insult anybody!
This is not correct. While science cannot prove anything to be
correct, including the existence or not of a deity, as it can
only prove things to be incorrect
(by falsification), it can indeed make statements on any
subject, including this one. (And if they offend people or not,
is irrelevant). There may be theories, including about deities,
and actually, one of the major discussion points of philosophy
is the subject of religion. Science also contributes. The
scientific reasoning goes like this:
1. There is no need to include a deity to explain the existence
of the universe and therefore – scientific observation – no
deity exists (see Ockham's razor above). The universe might
always have existed.
2. If a deity is needed to explain the existence (creation) of a
system as complex as the universe, then
3. This deity is at least as complex as the universe and
therefore also needs an explanation. “Who created the creator?”
This is an age-old discussion, but the current state of science
is that no universe-creating entity exists or existed. This, of
course, is not the end of the discussion. Like with any other
subject, including the ones we see as absolutely fully
established truths, science cannot prove things to be 100%
certified correct. That is science. Do not confuse “not being
able to establish undeniable truths” with “not being able to
make a statement”. Compare this to a discussion people might
have had some centuries ago: “I believe the back of the moon is
green. Since you cannot check it, you cannot make a statement,
therefore I am right”. This is false logic, Ockham's razor tells
us that the simpler model is that the back of the moon is the
same colour as the front. Science therefore makes a statement
that the back of the moon is not green.
Here is a nice counterargument for the reader, the ontological
argument for the existence of a god:
1. God might exist or not;
2. God is by definition perfect, without any imperfections;
3. Non-existence of something is an imperfection of that thing,
because a non-existing thing could be more perfect by adding the
aspect of existence.
Therefore, God exists.
As we see, there can be philosophical statements about the
existence of God. The scientific statement is that no god
exists, basically because of Ockham's razor. There is nothing
wrong with this statement. Yet, it is not politically correct,
and that is why UCB makes it clear that they will not say
anything against the beliefs of the people that pay for the
research. Don't bite the hand that feeds you. We now have a
scientific community that goes out of its way to not annoy
anybody and delivers any 'truth' the society wishes to hear. 130
years have passed since Engels wrote his disdainful comments on
spiritualism in his book "The Dialectics of Nature". In 2014, no
comments on spiritualism are allowed, apart from respectful
ones. If people believe certain things, then science will let
these people in peace and the area unattended. This way, we have
created a consensus in many subjects. We just basically vote for
what is the truth, exactly because of the link with a society
that pays and that can demand usefulness of science. 'Useful' is
by definition 'what the people want'.
Therefore, if a consensus in society exists about a certain
belief, science is called in to prove it. That, while science
cannot even aspire to prove a model correct, as stated above.
But, the concept of consensus is diametrically opposing science.
Science is trying to extend the boundary of knowledge, there
where a consensus is trying to fence it in. Advances in science
are always done by individuals and thus against the consensus.
To give an example, Einstein was against the contemporary
consensus. Einstein, in the modern approach to science and
research funding, would be completely marginalized. “Mr.
Einstein, stop being annoying. Gravity has been completely
settled! We have reached a consensus on the theory of gravity of
Newton”. If not for individuals trying to overcome the
boundaries of consensus, science would never advance.
A more dramatic example is the aforementioned Galileo. He was
forced to renounce his theory that the Earth was revolving
around the Sun because the subject was at that time dominated by
the church and they dictated the consensus, which placed the
Earth at the centre of the universe; a moving Earth
was against the consensus. On his deathbed Galileo uttered the
famous words “Eppur si muove” (and still, it moves), which we
now teach in the history of science as a heroic act of
scientific rebellion. If we look back at it, the scientific path
in history is littered with such individuals fighting the
consensus. In 2014, however, a consensus is called heroic. For
the present time, the majority is considered heroic, while for
the past times the minority had been heroic. This is quite a
schizophrenic approach our society has adopted.
Consensus is more so antiscientific, because of the definition
of science. Science being essentially 'falsification', a million
pieces of evidence cannot prove a
theory correct, while a single piece of evidence can prove a
theory wrong. Thus, a consensus is not a proof of a theory. It
never was and never will be. Closing the debate on a subject,
with consensus as an argument, is effectively killing science
and making it a political matter.
Still, it is interesting to analyze how a consensus is achieved
in scientific literature? What is the mechanism? How is
rebellion eliminated from the scientific
community? It has all got to do with the funding structure of
science and the peer-reviewing system used in publication. It
results in a positive-feedback behavior which, as we know from
control-engineering textbooks, results in saturation. In this
case, it results in 100% consensus on any subject. It works as
1) For a manuscript in peer reviewing, referees are selected on
basis of their publication record: more publications, more
chance of being chosen for reviewing.
2) By 'cognitive bias', referees are more inclined to
accept papers that confirm their belief than papers that go
against it. This effect is amplified by the feeling of
consensus, especially when consensus has gotten a heroic
connotation (the reviewer will feel contributing to society by
rejecting a difficult, controversial paper).
3) Authors without (enough) publications lose their job, because
they cannot show they are relevant for society.
Authors with controversial ideas see their publication rate
peter out, eventually losing their job and no longer publishing,
even no longer writing papers altogether. After a while, a
controversial idea cannot be published, nor studied. Those who
break the vicious cycle are scientific philanthropists, people
that do not do science for a living, but for their passion of
finding the truth. Such people are rare indeed in 2014. Either
this or studying irrelevant subjects, which also naturally peter
out because of the need to show relevance to society.
A perfect example of a scientific philanthropist is Nassim
Nicholas Taleb. He made a fortune in the stock market and can
now lean back and philosophize about (financial) forecasting and
all its pitfalls. In fact, his book The Black Swan  can be
considered one of the most relevant works of philosophy of the
last 50 years.
What remains for the researchers to do is technology, developing
new products to be sold to a gadget-hungry society. For this
purpose, all technical high schools are relabelled universities
and all universities are effectively converted into technical
high schools, where research is aimed at developing things that
are useful for society. Even fundamental research is addressing
society-relevant issues, like studying the physical processes in
photo-voltaic materials, to be used in solar cells and
light-emitting devices, etc.
This reduction in intellectual diversity is further exacerbated
by standardization of university courses around the world. An
example is the Bologna Treaty that standardizes all the courses
in the European Union. We have now wound up in a situation
similar to the state of things in the beginning of the 20 th
century, namely the illusion that everything is known. At that
time people thought that knowledge reached its limits and what
remained was just 'working out the details'. In many subjects in
the 21 st century the idea is the same. “Subject X is settled.
No need for further thinking”. How naive we were then; just in a
few decades physics was completely revolutionized by the advent
of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity Theory. How equally naive we
probably are now.
The amount of science remaining in the world is quite small. We
would like to express our concern for the lack of pioneering
We summarized here the appalling state of science in the 21 st
century. A state that reminds us of previous states in which
scientists thought that everything was known, and we only had to
work out the details and make use of the knowledge in
technological applications. Science is taught in a dogmatic way
in schools and universities. “This is the knowledge you have to
put in your heads. This is how the universe works”. It is all
List of references:
. A. F. Chalmers, “What is this thing called
science?”, 2nd ed. Open University Press (Milton Keynes, 1982).
. P. Stallinga, I. Khmelinskii, “The scientific method in
contemporary climate research”, Energy and Environment, accepted
. Richard Feynman, "The Character of Physical Law", The
M.I.T. Press. (1965). ISBN: 0-262-56003-8.
. M. Bissell, “Reproducibility: The risks of the replication
drive”, Nature 503, 333 (2013). DOI: 10.1038/503333a.
. S. O. Hansson, "Falsificationism falsified", Found. Sci.
11, 275 (2006). DOI:10.1007/s10699-004-5922-1.
. "How science works: the flowchart", http://goo.gl/19lSKZ or
. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The Black Swan. The Impact of the
Highly Improbable” (Allen Lane, 2011). ISBN: 9781846145650.
For more information, contact me at The University of The
Prof. Peter Stallinga