Science vs Intuitive Understanding

From an online discussion on waccobb.net


claire ossenbeck wrote:

Every time there is a major earthquake, they come out with some statement that says their clues to understanding have been tossed on the heap and they pretty much have to start anew. Before the North Ridge quake they believed that the faults were not connected to each other. I read this in a science mag. Then after the quake they find that omg, they are connected, quite! Ok, now here am I for years now, an absolute nobody, thinking to myself (purely intuitively) I think that they are connected because it’s just common sense to me and it feels right. It may not have been based on the science of the day, but if science does not understand that which it cannot measure or prove, and is needing to continuously upgrade itself, then where’s the proof that I’m wrong?


Among the many non-experts who thought about earthquakes, and had an intuitive understanding about some aspect of the subject, a certain number thought as you did, and were eventually proved to have been right. However I am sure that there were many who had some other intuitive insight that did not turn out to be right. Which one should we have followed?  Back then, when they had it wrong and you had it right, what would you have had them do?

Should they have said to themselves (and to us) “Claire is quite sure that it is this way, and we should change our views to conform with hers!”? Clearly not, since there are myriad Claires, and they do not all have the same intuitive understanding, yet they are all equally certain.

What they did was what science does: continue to study the matter with as open a mind as they could manage (they are, after all, human, and prone to human weaknesses) and when they accumulated evidence that they were wrong, they changed their views and told us that they had been wrong, and now understood things to work differently than they had thought. Do you ever stop to consider how rare and courageous an act that is, to admit that you have been wrong? Yet that is what science does regularly, as better tests are devised and new theories tested and knowledge is more widely disseminated by communications technology improvements.

I think that perhaps you are under a false impression of what “science” is saying. If you had had the opportunity to talk to a reputable earthquake specialist at the time when the accepted view disagreed with your intuitive sense of what was the truth, he or she would probably have said something like “Well, that is a possibility, and may indeed be true, however the information we have right now seems to indicate otherwise.” Under appropriate circumstances the response might be “Well, what you propose is not impossible, but it has been studied so much with so much agreement that we consider the likelihood very low.” Even then they may turn out to have been mistaken; in almost no case will a reputable and honest scientist claim to know for certain that anything is either definitely right or definitely wrong. However, it is not up to science to prove that you are wrong; if they had to do that for every theory that came along, they would not have time for anything else. If you want to have your theory adopted it is up to you to provide the evidence, not just the assertion, that you are right.

As in all pursuits, there are individual scientists who care more about their ego or reputation than about the truth, but this is not true of science or scientists in general, any more than it is true of doctors or engineers in general, or of medicine or engineering as professions. You are of course quite free to believe that your theory is true and the accepted one false, just as I am sure there were earthquake scientists who also disagreed. Nobody was or is trying to stop you believing that. The difference is that the views of “science” (as opposed to the views of individual scientists) represents the distilled knowledge, tested and verified, of many people who have studied the matter. Even then as we have seen, they can be wrong. However, unlike people whose views rest solely on faith (and are therefore not really interested in evidence), when presented with new information that checks out, science will change its views. 

So if occasionally science comes around to a point of view you already held, you are allowed a smile of satisfaction, and even a modest boast, but at the same time it is always salutary to remember the ideas you had that did not turn out to be supported by the evidence after all. 

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