Dogma is Never Wrong. What About Science?

“There is no room for Dogma in Science”
J Robert Oppenheimer

Dogma-Rite over-the-counter

Dogma-Rite over-the-counter

Yet, sadly, it exists.

Question: What is the difference between Science and Dogma?

Short Answer:
The simplest and clearest way to distinguish them is that Dogma declared facts are Never Wrong – by definition.

By contrast you might be surprised to learn that Science derived facts are admittedly Always Wrong; (well wrong-ish). Experiment or observationally derived facts are inherently, and always, provisional due to measuring physical reality with imperfect instruments and systematic errors.

Long Answer:
From an rational point of view, the relative value of the two ideas is dramatic and easy to grasp, however from the point of view of each proponent a surprising result arises.

Unfortunately, there is no way to tell whether a claimed fact is wrong based purely on who is telling you – a Scientist or a Dogmatist. Of course some people are more reliably credible on a specific subject than others, but that does not mean anyone can guarantee each will be right or wrong for a specific claim.

It would be easy to tell them apart if all scientists confined themselves to Science derived facts and folks who believe in things with no experimental evidence were always wrong. Sadly, “your mileage may vary.” Dictators and tyrants do not have a monopoly on Dogma; it can come from scientists as well. And occasionally, to the surprise and dismay of some scientists — dogma purveyors get it right. (This underlines the logical fallacy of relying on a human for truth (called Appeal to Authority) – vs relying on the merits of an argument.)

Some well educated people wearing the mantle of a priesthood would have you believe science facts are always solid and always right. (Which is itself a dogmatic claim; a powerfully ironic  dogmatic claim.)

However, in the cold harsh reality of science experiments, observations and logic – it is amusing to me to reflect how scientific facts are always technically wrong.

If you feel that sounds weird and harsh, please hold your breath (and your ammunition) while I explain.

While that statement is accurate, lets put it in context. Science derived facts are “wrong” because we are inherently incapable of measuring natural phenomena accurately and precisely. Many experiment derived facts are only wrong by the tiniest bits (say one part in a billion or a trillion) and some are wrong by only a few percent. On the other hand, Cosmology ideas often have a variance measured in magnitudes (a hundred or even a thousand fold), and way, way out on the end one cosmology conjecture is off by the almost unimaginable 120 magnitudes.

Contrast that with Dogma which could assert that something is perfect number – when you know from measuring that it isn’t even close. For example Babylonians sometimes calculated the area of a circle by taking 3 times the square of its radius. Three is a lot easier to remember than 3.14159 etc. but not always as useful, practical or financially beneficial. However, if someone is holding a loaded gun and telling me the radius is 3 times the radius or 11 times his shoe size – who am I to argue?

Scientific Imprecision is Always Unknown

And it gets even stranger. Every responsible science experiment reports its observed facts as a numeric measurement and includes margin of error or a variance.

Which leads us to the weirdest thing — Even the most precise scientific knowledge we have, say the measured value of Gravity is wrong, not by much, but the surprising bit is we can never know precisely by how much.

If we did, it wouldn’t be wrong; or more accurately it wouldn’t have a margin of error or a variance — meaning all experimental measurements would be identical. Well, so far, in the sextillions (never hurts to bring sex into thinking discussions) of experiments conducted — that has never happened.

For me this is the beauty of examining nature with experiments: while we never get a perfect measurement, at least in physics, we typically get a darn reliable idea what the measurement is. For me, one part in a trillion is generally good enough.

The exciting thing about this for a young scientist is that they can pick a field they like and with a bit of work, and newer instruments, get a more precise answer than their predecessors.

While I am happy with a small amount of uncertainty in understanding natural phenomena, some folks are uncomfortable with uncertainty; some seriously uncomfortable. Some people are frightened to death of uncertainty. (See the book “Making Magic.”)

Which brings us to Dogma.

In contrast to science derived facts which are always, well lets call it “wrong-ish” – Dogma is never wrong – by definition. So it provides (I would call it erroneous) certainty that makes a lot of people comfortable.

Science is Always Wrong, Dogma is Never Wrong

Dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

Dogma is essentially “I say so – so it is the law of reality.”

No evidence is necessary, no experiment need be conducted and no rationale is needed – just “It is” because I say so.

Thats a lot easier than conducting experiments; painstakingly arranging measurements that often take funding, careful controls and lots of valuable time.

So anyone, including a highly qualified and trained scientist who would have you believe any particular science experiment derived fact is solid and right – is sadly actually asserting Dogma.

Happily in my experience, I have found many who are the most wise experts in their fields are not at all shy about explaining the limits of their scientific knowledge. They are totally comfortable allowing you to Question Authority.

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Notes:

Science Journalism: Not Buying The Higgs Hype

Science’s Sacred Cows (Part 1)

The Cult of Coincidence

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