Public: Information: Database
Database of Current Thinking   (+23, -2)  [vote for, against]
Do most researchers *really* think that?

Often in an argument, debate, or discussion a statement will be made that runs along the lines of "Well, most scholars agree that..." or "Scientists say that...". But since there are often competing theories floating around in various fields, there's really no way to know if it's true that "most" or "all" or even "many" of anyone really think anything in particular.

The Database of Current Thinking would be a database where everyone who is reasonably qualified to hold an educated opinion on a given topic could register his or her opinion or findings. Then we'd be able to evaluate those sorts of claims better, and know if it's really "most scholars" or only just "a few researchers speaking somewhat outside their area of expertise".
-- PotatoStew, Oct 14 2001

Family Fortunes
Suggested research method. (Obligatory funny link at bottom.) [pottedstu, Oct 14 2001, last modified Oct 21 2004]

Alleged Family Fortunes voting form
No idea if this is genuine (I have doubts) but try if you know Family Fortunes. [pottedstu, Oct 14 2001, last modified Oct 21 2004]

Idea futures
If you want to bet on it... [egnor, Oct 14 2001, last modified Oct 21 2004]

Anything Can Change, It Seems, Even an Immutable Law of Nature http://search.nytim...ff.tmpl&setCookie=1
[sdm, Oct 14 2001, last modified Oct 21 2004]

Paul Feyerabend http://plato.stanfo...entries/feyerabend/
Lengthy, and not very complimentary account of his ideas and life (apparently he nearly joined the SS for "aesthetic reasons" and was a failed scientist; note that Heidegger was also a Nazi but a better philosopher, De Man worse) [pottedstu, Oct 14 2001, last modified Oct 21 2004]

Less accurate but shorter. [pottedstu, Oct 14 2001, last modified Oct 21 2004]

BBC news story about scientists at work.
As if by magic, some evidence appears. [DrBob, Oct 14 2001, last modified Oct 21 2004]

this might make a really nice web site... however 93% of scientists agree that they will not be able to agree on anything...
-- RobertKidney, Oct 14 2001

I'd guess that most scientists have a good idea of what ideas are well-agreed-upon and what ideas are controversial in their particular (sub)field. The hard part would be getting enough people to register in the database to have a not-too-skewed sample of current thinking.

Example entry:

Registering your opinions in a big database is
a) a good idea 95%
b) pointless but harmless 5%
c) the short path to hell 0%

-- wiml, Oct 14 2001

My theory is that this is Baked; there are innumerable online journal databases available to scholars. But there are those who would disagree.
-- sdm, Oct 14 2001

Don't forget the 'coin toss' for the weekly lottery.
We'd see how random it is when someone's $1 is on the line.
-- reensure, Oct 15 2001

Statistics are:
a) a good idea 50%
b) a waste of time 50%
c) useful, in a limited way 50%
d) handy if you need to obfuscate data results 50%
-- A Farrago Of Calumnies, Oct 15 2001

It's important to remember that 47.7% of statistics are made up on the spot.
-- angel, Oct 15 2001

Farrago: Nice example. Welcome aboard, incidentally.

On some topics this would be useful, ie topics in which there isn't a lot of handwaving and theorizing going on, where a consensus means something. Used to decide between versions of string theory, however, I would think that statistics would be a poor way of predicting a successful theory.

One really needs a time-reversed database of future thinking which would tell you which GUT will be called the Standard Model in the year 2115 or so. What a nice shortcut that would be.
-- Dog Ed, Oct 15 2001

Well, semi-baked. The internet itself is somewhat of an implementation of this database, though 90% (of course that's exact) of what you'll find isn't from "reasonably qualified" people.

Also, there's wikipedia.
-- quarterbaker, Oct 15 2001

What about the TV show Family Fortunes. Of course, it's not strictly scientific knowledge, or panels of experts, but they do poll 100 members of the public.
-- pottedstu, Oct 15 2001

ravenswood: Exactly. I personally don't have the time to get a degree in the necessary fields and do my own research on varous topics, but at the same time, I'd like to know what our "best guess" is in some of those areas. Therefore, I need to trust the research and opinions of others. The problem is that when you look up information (particularly on the internet) you'll always find conflicting information and competing theories. It all comes down to who you believe. It would be helpful to know for a given theory on something if there is decent support and acceptance for it within a community that is familiar with the issues, or if it's only held by one or two crackpots.
-- PotatoStew, Oct 15 2001

Certain physicists are known for their penchant for making just that sort of bet with each other. I've seen some such contracts framed on various walls at Caltech.

More formally, you're describing a form of idea future. See link.
-- egnor, Oct 15 2001

[SDG]: I'm nit-picking as well, but modern philosophy of science is moving away from the idea that theories can never be proven, only disproved. This doctrine was first formulated by Popper. However, it is both incomplete and uncertain. Any theory of the philosophy of science must allow for the possibility of scientific truth, otherwise it explains nothing about the nature of science; in contrast Popper's position renders science worthless. Further, to falsify any theory requires the scientist to make numerous assumptions about the truth of other theories (to assume their measuring devices work, etc); therefore a scientist who follows Popper is never entitled to accept that a theory is falsified.

Modern realist philosophers, and most scientists, would hold it's still possible to establish truth. Scientific induction suggests that each time evidence accords with theory, that theory is more likely to be true. Furthermore, use can be made of theories that even if not absolutely true are true to good approximations in certain circumstances. And certain theories are so essential for progress in science their truth must be assumed (e.g. to assume that scientific laws are the same tomorrow as today).

One possible conclusion is that it's impossible to codify scientific progress, any more than it's possible to prove the existence of an external world. However, in practice it is possible to formulate an idea as to the truthfulness of a proposition, in science as in everyday life. Therefore we CAN establish the truth of a scientific proposition based on criteria like how well it fits with observations and how well it fits with other theories.
-- pottedstu, Oct 15 2001

pottedstu: I think that Steve is right about this one. It is, as a general rule, impossible to be completely prove a theory. The most obvious example is that prior to the 20th century, time was assumed to be absolute. There was no evidence whatsoever to challenge this assumption. Then Bert Einstein came along and thought up some good reasons why space should be curved and so on. It is, however, "good enough" almost all of the time to assume that space is not curved and time is not relative. Just because something has not been proved does not mean that it is probably wrong, or that it is the work of a random quack.

On the other hand, some theories can be completely proved in the mathematical sense. Can't think of any examples off hand.
-- cp, Oct 16 2001

[cp]: It's impossible to prove that a theory will never be falsified. However, there are certain facts about the outside world that are so certain we take them as proven, without being dogmatic about it. Is the existence of the external world proven? Or the fact that if you count 7 apples and 7 oranges you will have the same number of each?

My point is that Popper's idea (that theories can never be proved but can be disproved) is simplistic, misleading, and has little relevance to any concept of truth as used in science. It also, if taken to its full reach, denies that theories can ever be disproved, since disproving something inevitably requires assuming the truth of something else.

Slightly different standards of proof apply in the experimental sciences (e.g. chemistry, solid-state physics) than in the observational or historical sciences (e.g. evolutionary biology, cosmology). In the former, theories are falsified by experiments. The latter might allow predictions to be made and subsequently tested (e.g. we might expect to find a missing link between ape and man), but often it is based purely on the analysis of data already known to us (who was it who said there's not much applied cosmology?).

These have different standards of proof and degrees of certainty. If you want to prove the boiling point of water at STP is 100 C, you just need a pot and a thermometer. You then know if it's true or false. (Subject to the truth of some theories about the nature of boiling, physical properties, etc.)

If you want to prove birds are descended from dinosaurs, you need to accrue a large amount of fossil data; these forms of science are based on the accumulation of facts and evidence. We have found a large amount of evidence that man is descended from apes (or that they share a common ancestor with no other animals); it is highly unlikely that there is anywhere evidence that suggests otherwise, still less that there is enough hidden evidence out there to disprove this theory altogether. So we can take it as proven.

Godel's incompleteness theorem and various results in computational theory (the unsolvability of the halting problem; the equivalence of all digital computers with a Turing machine) have been proven in a mathematical sense. However, that's math not science.
-- pottedstu, Oct 16 2001

pottedstu: Wow, you've been busy. I agree with most of what you say, though.

«My point is that Popper's idea .... [list of faults]» I think that you have to remember that there are always certain concepts that you can take as given. Our entire society is based around this - we assume that the sun will rise tomorrow, that we won't spontaneously combust, that all of the gas molecules in the room won't rush into one corner and suffocate the occupants, that our house won't be crushed by a 767 or sprayed with anthrax, &c.

«That's math not science.» Sorry, my bias is creeping in again.
-- cp, Oct 16 2001

ravenswood's approach to this makes me wonder if you couldn't create a reasonable facsimile of the original idea by setting up a market for "idea futures" or something similar. It's done for elections using real money; why couldn't it be done for theories? Even if the theories are never fully proven, it would pretty accurately measure the degree of confidence in a given theory. And although amateurs would be able to place bets, the opinions and credibility of the real experts would sway the markets because the amateurs would follow their lead to protect their bets.
-- beauxeault, Oct 16 2001

[cp]: I think we're in agreement. I just have a bee in my bonnet about Popper. I think he was a miserable pessimist playing old, worn-out skeptical games, and people pay way too much attention to him. He's also had a very large an influence on a lot of recent anti-scientific and relativist thinking, but that's not *entirely* his fault.
-- pottedstu, Oct 16 2001

Sheesh, this got big.

Sorry, [stu]. If there's one place for relativism, then that's science [see link]. The way I see it, it's about continual learning and discovery - not doctrine and blind faith.

My scientific grounding is in <cough mumble> economics <said to the sound of 'real' scientists losing interest>. I'll probably regret saying this if I pursue economics further, but I think Feyerabend's anarchistic theories (against method) are the most truthful understandings of science yet.

Let's face it, we're all just pottering around. Method can prove wrong things right in just the same as armchair logic can. Sciences will never be prescribed and perfect.
-- sdm, Oct 16 2001

Oh. So science is not an exact science? Interesting thought.
-- A Farrago Of Calumnies, Oct 17 2001

I'm not saying that. I was more implying that science (1) is in need of definition, there's still a lot of argument over when something is science and why, just look at the academics squabbling over SETI; and (2) if science and uniform scientific method can be defined concretely at all.
-- sdm, Oct 17 2001

//So science is not an exact science?//

Erhmmm, define 'exact' and please, be very precise. An exact definition of 'exact' would be appreciated: does it fall between the 12th or 13th decimal?
-- Dog Ed, Oct 17 2001

[sdm]: I'd like to make clear a distinction between 2 forms of skepticism. Methodological skepticism seeks to question ideas by asking could they be false, is it possible that this is not the case, how could I disprove this, is there any way this can be proven? (The canonical example of this is Descartes trying to establish the bounds of knowledge and shrinking back to "I think therefore I am".)

The other form of skepticism is an ontological or epistemological position which hold that we can have no certain truth about anything and it is pointless even trying. This is associated with Greek philosphers living in barrels, David Hume some of the time, and certain modern thinkers like Baudrillard, Deleuze, and arguably Foucault and Derrida.

The former is an entirely proper position for a scientist to take. It means accepting that nothing you know is certain, and seeking always to look undogmatically at both sides of an issue. That is the position I endorsed in my previous annotation.

The second, however, is the position Feyerabend takes. It is a purely relativist position, denying the possibility of scientific truth, or that science explains anything about the world. It means we have no ground for preferring science over mysticism, Berkeleian idealism or elf-based ontologies. No scientist can accept this position, because it makes their quest worthless - I'm assuming all scientists are trying to find out the truth about the world.

Certain people, eg Alan Sokal, have made the point that Feyerabend's position, in denying the possibility of scientific truth, also denies the possibility of affecting meaningful social change, and thus renders progressive politics impossible. The rationale for this claim is that radical politics at their best have been based on identifying facts about the world and formulating theories about how they can be changed (E.g. Engels on the English working class, John Pilger in East Timor). However, if we deny that any theory can have a relation to the world, that would lead us to give up trying to understand and improve the world. I don't intend to defend that idea here, because it's rather off-subject, but that's part of the objection to relativism, along with its effect on science.

(P.S. Welcome back UnaBubba. We missed you (I think we needed you yesterday) but we'll need you in the future also.)
-- pottedstu, Oct 17 2001

But [pottedstu], the first form of scepticism lends itself to elf-based ontologies as well. Please, feel free to prove that leprechauns are *not* dancing on my laptop as I type. I find Feyerabend's understanding of science much more honest, even in spite of the character assassination.

I would also take you up on your assumption that scientists are on the perpetual quest for truth but I'm in agreement that it's too off-topic.
-- sdm, Oct 17 2001

[sdm]: Sorry, but I couldn't resist those biographical tidbits; he seems to have led an interesting life and developed his opinions considerably; but I agree that's not strictly relevant.

I still think there's a real difference between (1) considering the possibility that our beliefs are untrue, and (2) maintaining (as Feyerabend did) that voodoo is as valid as science. The former is a temporary position directed at achieving knowledge, while the latter relativist position is a negative, destructive approach that denies the possibility of knowledge.

I think you seem to be arguing for a heavily relativist position that at most takes the instrumentalist position that science is valuable if it can be used for things (we can use Newton's theory of gravity to launch satellites, so it doesn't matter if it's true or false or if "true" and "false" have any meaning).

I don't know if you'd go even further beyond that to argue that science isn't valuable even on instrumentalist grounds. Feyerabend appears to take that extra step: believing that science functions as a system which says nothing about the world, but is simply a case of scientists acting by their own rules and measuring success by their own valueless criterion. (So what if you predict an object falls at a certain speed? that's just because you've defined speed, falling, measurement to suit yourself. If I got a bunch of people to say leprecauns did it, that would be equally valid.)

There do seem to be people who hold this ultra-extreme view (Baudrillard is definitely one), denying all possibility of truth or knowledge, but it appears perverse to me, more a game than a philosophy to live by. Perhaps I am in thrall to notions of scientific progress (as they would claim). But at the end of the day, I do think science expresses truths about the world, and I believe there is an external world, without leprecauns. I am aware that you may say my theory is underdetermined by the evidence, but since my theory is the only one that makes any kind of sense to me, I hold it to be true.

I can't prove there are no leprecauns on your laptop certainly not from here, but I'm confident I can prove there are none on my PC (I would need you to be in the room with me, though). My demonstration would (1) demonstrate you could see nothing there, (2) demonstrate there were no invisible physical objects there by waving my arms about (3) grab randomly and go "ha ha I caught you and I claim your crock of gold", achieving no reaction. By most standards of leprecaun, that would constitute good proof.

A skeptic by the first measure would weigh up the evidence and consider whether the absence of leprecauns was proven; a radical relativist would say "That proves nothing. The issue is undecidable." It's one thing to claim gravity isn't 100% certain, quite another to walk out a 10th floor window. To look at it another way, a Feyerabendian has no reason to practice science except for the money (and the pay's not that good); an instrumentalist would do it for the good it brings; and a realist (who believes scientific laws are objective facts) does it to uncover truth as well.
-- pottedstu, Oct 17 2001

//My demonstration would (1) demonstrate you could see nothing there, (2) demonstrate there were no invisible physical objects there by waving my arms about (3) grab randomly and go "ha ha I caught you and I claim your crock of gold", achieving no reaction. By most standards of leprecaun, that would constitute good proof.//

You obviously are unaware of the great speed by which leprechauns can dodge waving and grasping hands.
-- PotatoStew, Oct 17 2001

Congratulations all, a thoroughly interesting little debate. I think your idea founders though, PotatoStew, on the following sentence...

//everyone who is reasonably qualified to hold an educated opinion on a given topic could register his or her opinion or findings//

So who gets to choose who is 'reasonably qualified'? To take an extreme example (although it wasn't at the time), it was The Cardinals who got to choose in the early 17th Century and poor old Galileo was the 'crackpot'.

If you wanted to use the database as merely backup for the assertion that 'most scholars think...' then I can see that it would be useful, although with limitations. To use it to determine how to think on a given subject would be wrong (but that's not what you're proposing is it?).

beauxeault's 'Ideas futures' would, for me, be a more honest system, in that anyone who cares to put up an idea can do so and then everyone can either give it a croissant or fishbone (ah, erm, this is baked isn't it?).
-- DrBob, Oct 17 2001

adetb n wrshlr5e4w3 1 1 <shoo shoo! Little bastard!> Now, as I was saying...

Feyerabend is an interesting case, its true. When looking at some of the more outspoken philosophers, I find in them a want to stand out and not be swallowed by history. Perhaps this comes from his brief stint in studying history. He’s dead now, I guess we’ll never know. Calling for the abolition of science, I think was more to do with his flamboyance, want to shock, and irreverence than anything else, though.

I on the other hand, will stop well clear of saying that sciences are useless and knowledge unattainable, but I would happily argue that the superiority of science over say, voodoo is pure value judgement. So what if science can prove itself, a quick realignment of voodoo and it can do the same.

Similarly, the fact that when I feel sick I go to a doctor, and then see a pharmacist, and not a shaman reflects more my preference of science over spiritualism, and not any objective scientific truth.
-- sdm, Oct 18 2001


//So who gets to choose who is 'reasonably qualified'?//

That's a good question, the answer to which would definitely affect the quality/nature/usefulness of the database. In my mind, the main point of it is to be able to say "The majority of people who know what they are talking about in this area have come to the conclusion that X is true. Therefore, it is more likely to be true than Y." I realize that there is a major flaw with this, namely that consensus does not always indicate truth. However, I can't think of a better way to get at what I'm after, which is an educated conclusion without any in depth knowledge of a particular subject.

If it helps to show where I was going with this, let me tell you what prompted it: I was involved in a discussion with some people about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin (please note: I am undecided on the issue, and have no desire to discuss it here; this is only presented to further flesh out the point of my idea). The shroud has been analyzed and picked over by researchers for awhile now. There are what appear to be blood stains on the shroud. Some researchers say that the stains are in fact blood. Some say they're paint. Some say the weave of the cloth matches weaves used in the first century. Some say the weave wasn't used until the thirteenth century. There is a point and a counterpoint held by researchers for almost every aspect of the shroud. What I want to know is is it one researcher who says "blood" and one who says "paint"? Or do 40 researchers say "blood" and only two say "paint"? Or vice versa? Is there only one guy who says "blood" but he's actually an economist and has no business saying "blood"?

I suppose I could track down every paper ever written on the subject and research everyone's credentials, but ugh. No way. That's where the database would come in. Probably it would be best (to get back to your question) to be a little lenient in the criteria for allowing one's opinion to be entered, but then to weight the opinion on how much experience the scholar has in the field. The place where this falls apart would be cases like Einstein, as UB pointed out. But cases like that are probably a pretty big exception. I wonder if progress is really driven by "unqualified" people per se, as you suggest UB, or if the classic example of Eintstein is a rarity, much as the man himself was. 99% of the time I would tend to trust the opinion of physicists on physics, rather than a patent clerk. Of course occassionally the clerk will be more right than the scientists, but probably not very often.
-- PotatoStew, Oct 18 2001

Well but didn't Einstein matriculate at university, and only worked as a patent clerk because he was unable to get a position as a privat-dozent(sp?) at an institution?

Be that as it may, I firmly believe that working scientists take it for granted that they are studying the real Universe. Ask them whether the origin of the cosmological redshift can be ultimately proven and they will probably say no and then go happily back to working on redshift problems just as if they really do describe the expansion of space. 'Unknowable' is for philosophers and metaphysicians, imho. But you guys have it all over me in learnin'.

Unfortunately, the web is in some ways the antithesis of PotatoStew's excellent idea--any loon who thinks the Sun is powered by electricity or that the Universe revolves around the Earth once per day can put up a web site and, if he or she is canny, make it sound awfully scientific, and even provide references to other loonies as 'scientific sources.' Well, you know the drill.

As has been mentioned, science is not an "exact science" and in fact fundamental constants like the speed of light and the charge of an electron are known "only" to ten or so sig figs. So how can we be sure that our standard model of particle physics will endure better than the earth, air, fire, water model? What database could evaluate this?
-- Dog Ed, Oct 18 2001

Thank you Dog Ed, well said.

And UB, this is the point (I think) Feyerabend and I was trying to make. Scientific method, at least as it was understood when Feyerabend’s writings were prolific, was fostering an uncritical approach, which led us to misguided assumptions about absolute ‘truth’.

You don’t know what you don’t know. Add to this that, if all we can ‘prove’ using science is what we don’t know (as-per falsificationism) then what do we know?

What we can rely on, is the fact that some things have worked for us in the past, and we can build upon that, but being critical and involving some things that may seem as though they don’t work. Further, just because some methods have worked doesn't mean that they are 'true' in a subjective sense.

Assuming some things are true, objective and universal leads can lead to laziness and closed mindedness, and I don’t think science should be about that.
-- sdm, Oct 18 2001

My, this has strayed off-topic a bit.
-- sdm, Oct 18 2001

// As for leprechauns [sp.], if I say I can see them and you say you can't then how do we determine they do/don't exist? Just because we can't see subatomic particles doesn't make them a myth, surely? Extrapolating further, I've never actually seen an anthrax spore, but I'm prepared to believe they may exist. Copernicus proposed something far more radical, in his day, and suffered the label of "crackpot" for it. //

I realise trying to prove there are no leprechauns in my office isn't the most constructive use of my time, so I'll keep this brief, but the point is that we understand why we can't see anthrax spores and subatomic particles, and we have ways of detecting their presence. In contrast, I believe leprechauns are (in concept) generally reckoned to be visible though elusive (though I'm not sure on that), and are universally reckoned to be (a) more than 1 millimetre high, and (b) capable of being caught for reasons of obtaining their gold. If what is standing on your keyboard cannot be detected by my tests, I submit that whatever it is, it is not a leprechaun.

// the superiority of science over say, voodoo is pure value judgement. So what if science can prove itself, a quick realignment of voodoo and it can do the same //

sdm: I agree it's a value judgement to say, science is better than voodoo because science makes things work but voodoo has lots of scary stories, and while I like scary stories I prefer TVs, the internet and modern medicine. It's a value judgement to say truth is important. But that also leads onto the main argument against relativism: that if truth isn't important, why bother with rational argument (which is I assume what you have been doing)?

That's a rhetorical question; I think answering it would be a bit too time-consuming. It also raises the idea that issues may be discussed in a framework that assumes truth is the goal; or they may be discussed in another framework that priviledges e.g. literary merit.

<on topic> Back to the original idea. In principle could it not work according to a peer review procedure similar to that used for scientific papers? A small panel of experts would be nominated, and they would either review the literature or poll people they considered able to offer judgments. This would be time-consuming, and would not be an indicator of an idea's truth, but would fulfil the main requirement of the database, that of representing scientific consensus, at least as well as published papers represent scientific consensus. </on topic>
-- pottedstu, Oct 18 2001

An alternative idea would be to require the authors of scientific papers to clearly state their position in the abstract (or journals to provide a summary of all articles). You could then use one of the many scientific search engines to locate the relevant abstracts and read off the judgements therein.
-- pottedstu, Oct 18 2001

And all this so first-year undergrads can confidently say "most scientists think that..."
-- sdm, Oct 18 2001

// Do most researchers *really* think that? // - idea summary

Since the point of this is not to find the truth, but to find the scientific consensus, selecting experts is not a problem, any more than finding people to peer-review scientific papers is a problem. Perhaps scientists could elect a board to pick the experts, as that board would be a de facto representative of the opinion of most scientists. Or you could just ask the publishers of the most appropriate journals.

Obviously if you don't believe the experts, you'll have to do the work yourself, but that's true of any experts, no matter whether they're qualified or not.

I don't believe this idea would advance human knowledge, but if there's any chance it might make journalists less likely to hear "Dr Frankenstein believes human flesh can be reanimated with fish oil" and rush to print with a "Fish Oil New Life Force" story without checking with the 999999 other scientists who favour peach schnapps, it has to be worth a try.
-- pottedstu, Oct 18 2001

No, you're right, they're journalists. [Slopes off to troll gun-owners.]
-- pottedstu, Oct 18 2001

I understand exactly where you're coming from with this one, PotatoStew, but I'm still not going to let you off the hook. Why should you trust physicists to tell you about physics? They don't have a much better idea of what's going on in the universe than I do (and I'm almost totally clueless!). To quote a 1/2bakery favourite, "...we have no satisfactory mechanism to describe even the simplest of phenomena...All we can do is calculate the probability that a particular event will happen." (Richard Feynman, 1985).
I could also quote at length his theory about the role of leprechauns in the Challenger disaster but the papers appear to have gone missing....
-- DrBob, Oct 18 2001

True enough, DrBob. Metaphysics, the underlying driving force behind things, ultimate truth, and other hermetic topics will surely still be cloaked in mystery, so I don't see myself getting off the hook here. If nothing else, maybe this database would at least serve to show how clueless we really are about so many things.
-- PotatoStew, Oct 18 2001

//maybe this database would at least serve to show how clueless we really are about so many things.//

Or you could just sit around watching American daytime talk shows.
-- sdm, Oct 19 2001

//Why should you trust physicists to tell you about physics?//

Because they study it more than most. And because they study it more, it's reasonable to believe they know a little more about it than those who haven't. That's not to say that their knowledge is perfect, it is merely to say that it is not UNreasonable to assume that their rudimentary knowledge in that particular field surpasses that of the commoner.

//They don't have a much better idea of what's going on in the universe than I do.//

Hmm...Really? WHY should I believe you? On what knowledge do you base this claim? Ready to prove it? Nevermind. (Can't make that claim unless you know MORE about physics than they which case you would be a physicist.)
-- iuvare, Oct 19 2001

This thread is starting to worry me. Here is my understanding, which is probably wrong in minor ways, but:

The aim of science is to find out about the universe in general, and everything in it in particular. I hope that we all agree on this point? Since this is a bit of a grand goal, science has been splintered into different areas - chemistry, physics, variations on the theme of biology, astronomy, geology, and so on.

Scientists can never be completely certain about everything. That doesn't mean that they wouldn't be willing to bet an arbitrary large quantity of custard-filled pastry over the validity of many important theories. On the other hand, much of quantum physics (among other branches of science) is (a) hard to understand; (b) hard (and often very expensive) to demonstrate experiment; and (c) not agreed on by many people who do understand. Even though physicists may disagree with each other on some points (which was the entire point of the original idea - find out how many people though what), you can be reasonably sure, Dr Bob, that they will have put much more time and thought into their theories than a non-physicist. This doesn't stop them from being wrong, or misled by accepting the current popular theories.

I suppose that a general rule of thumb would be that stuff that hasn't changed for a large amount of time is essentially accurate. (Either that, stagnant, or in urgent need of a re-think.)
-- cp, Oct 19 2001

Firstly: {{{{{{applause to all concerned}}}}}} for an excellent thread.

I'm not a scientist in any way, shape or form myself, though I do pick up the New Scientist every now and then to keep up on the latest stories. Journals like that are good for accessing the new ideas that go against the orthodoxy, but, yes, it can be hard to know exactly what the orthodoxy is; so I think the DoCT is an excellent idea. No-one has to take it as anything other than the learned (and perhaps fusty) opinion of a scientific establishment, but it would be a valuable tool for us laymen.

On the epistemological points raised, FWIW, as I understand it, scientific theories gain validity by being expressed in formal logical terms, which forces them to be rigorous - cohesive and comprehensive (though they can never be both consistent and complete according to Godel). Because they are, ultimately, high-level mathematical mappings, so to speak, there is, however, no logical necessity that even the most cohesive and comprehensive system should map correctly to reality (It's just a map, after all). A logical theorem can be proven to be valid but we can't 'prove' its relevance; we can only establish the relative relevance of one system - i.e. its truth - over others by observing how well it conforms to reality in terms of predicting things we haven't observed yet and not contradicting things that we have observed, in comparison to the other systems.

We build the systems deductively but we test them inductively; and both types of reasoning are rational methodologies, hand-in-hand components of the scientific process. To me, this means that I'd tend to avoid the word 'truth', if only because it implies a sort of absolute certainty that I feel uncomfortable with, although I can understand why it makes more sense than using a phrase like 'overwhelming probability to the extent that any contradictory proposition is just plain ludicrous'. I don't think that recognising the difference between valid / invalid and true / false neccessarily entails abandoning the whole idea of 'knowledge'. To me it just seems that our idea of what is 'true', our knowledge, is descriptive rather than definitive, and a bloody good description of the world and the way it works is a very useful thing to have. Better than a definition that doesn't fit.

As I say, I'm not a scientist, though.
-- Guy Fox, Oct 19 2001

I second GF's applause for this wonderful thread.

May I propose that we (gasp!) ignore the epistemological problems and philosophy of science, and instead adopt a very pragmatic approach. Forget about science altogether, and focus on technology/engineering (and, for now, let's not discuss the validity of that distinction).

The question then becomes, "What knowledge/theory/elfin magic is actually implemented in real-world solutions?" So we don't have to worry about the "true" nature of light -- we just know that phosphor screens, LED's, and energized filaments all produce light. We know that it takes energy to produce light. We know that, for all practical purposes, light exists insofar as it is detectable or performs some task (e.g., UV cure epoxy). The light/wave duality stuff doesn't matter here.

Sure, this kind of approach will not answer the questions about, for example, spectroscopic analysis of distant galaxies, or how many kind of quarks there are, or how many dimensions are required to fully explain quantum dynamics. But a strong case can be made for the position that, until the differences in theory about such phenomena result in adopting one technological implementation over another, then it is a difference that makes no difference.

Again, this approach makes no claims whatsoever about "truth" in the serious ontological sense of the word. Nor does it imply that arguments about esoteric phenomena are meaningless. It just says that we will place no bets on any theory that has no corresponding engineering practice.

Of course, this doesn't address the kind of situations where we have established engineering practices with little or no theoretical underpinnings. For example, aspirin was used for many many years before we understood how it works.
-- quarterbaker, Oct 19 2001

META: If this thread is any indication, then the hopes of finding any consensus are doomed.

Maybe the idea of consensus is itself flawed. Maybe the this thread exemplifies something more fundamental to the search for knowledge than the notion of "theory" does.

Yeah, that sounds right.
-- quarterbaker, Oct 19 2001

Database of Current Scientific *Arguments*?

That'd fail on the same grounds as the database of current thinking, in terms of choosing who to include, but it would be more honest, and better able to portray the true nature of science. (Unless the Database Of Current Scientific Thinking would include the disputes anyway.)

Still, I reckon that with a general education in science and philosophy, you should be able to understand any debate in most areas of science in a matter of, I'd guess, months. (Problems involving tensor calculus and manifolds might take longer, especially if you never did differential equations, but who cares about the large-scale structure of the universe anyway?)
-- pottedstu, Oct 19 2001

// Maybe the idea of consensus is itself flawed //

Make this the "Database of Current Flawed Thinking" and get less information packed into more space.

[pottedstu]: One unsung great theory about about the large-scale structure of the universe is that all we have is what's left after the creation of the acid that can eat through anything.
-- reensure, Oct 19 2001

[cp], //I suppose that a general rule of thumb would be that stuff that hasn't changed for a large amount of time is essentially accurate. (Either that, stagnant, or in urgent need of a re-think.)// - similarly, you can assume it is before midday, or after midday, either way you'll only be wrong when it's midday.
-- sdm, Oct 20 2001

<smile> iuvare, you're right of course but see the link above. Just to clarify my own position a bit. My problem isn't necessarily with scientific method, properly applied (although it has its problems), but with the scientists themselves. I do worry that people tend to set them up as founts of wisdom and, to a certain extent, they encourage this view themselves (blanket generalisation, I know), when the truth is, that they are just people, as competent or incompetent as the next guy and the direction that most research takes is determined not by the search for 'scientific truth' but by the promptings of the accountants who control the purse strings. PotatoStew's example of the Turin Shroud is an excellent illustration of this. The reason that there is still so much argument about whether it is genuine or not is because the Catholic Church control all access to it and determine what can or cannot be tested because it's in their interests to ensure that it remains a 'mystery'.
-- DrBob, Oct 20 2001

Good clarification and I agree: the public often errs in giving too much credence to the claims of scientists. Part of that error is because scientists take themselves to seriously. (..and very funny link..)
-- iuvare, Oct 20 2001

Just in case this idea is ever baked, I would like to propose the following evil meta-idea; the expert flash-mob. Just for fun, more-or-less-qualified people would rush in from all directions, waving their diplomas, and all praise or damn a pre-arranged position on a not-very-widely-studied - nor-cared-about subject.
-- pertinax, Sep 11 2006

That's sort of what media people (most recently, Steven Colbert) have been playing with Wikipedia by telling their listeners to introduce falsehoods into certain subjects (in this case, Elephant population numbers).
-- jutta, Sep 11 2006

It's also pretty much what happens anyway. Whenever any 'scientific' idea is published you'll get armies of publicity-seeking scientists lining up on either side of the argument almost immediately. All of them desperate to get their name into the media spotlight.
-- DrBob, Sep 11 2006

The idea calls for a database that simplifies validating claims like // "Well, most scholars agree that..."// - Those claims are ubiquitous, yet inherently untrue. A database of current scientific thought exists, many, actually, for different fields of expertise. They are meta-databases of peer-reviewed journals. They are no use in the sense of the idea, in that the proposed ideas are much too fractal to be summed up easily: 'Most scholars agree that evolution works' - They do. But if this claim was entered into a database for scholars to vote on its veracity, i guess most would either abstain, or expect at least a page-long explanation what is meant by 'evolution', 'works' and, for that, 'agree'. After this clarification would have been added, the votes cast would be directed to the clarified claim, which might not be (actually most certainly won't be) the actual claim made in whatever context. 'Darwin was wrong' would get my vote too, depending on the clarification.

Wonderful debate, btw.
-- loonquawl, May 25 2009

so stonewalling is now an accepted rhetorical technique? Science is a tool for getting things done. Talk all you want about "truth" and "proof" while I reload my theoretical potato cannon.

Postmodernism at it's best is a pair of dark glasses on a blind man, at its worst it is a pair of blinders on a sighted man.
-- WcW, May 25 2009

Stonewalling is inacceptable. Demanding clear definitions is laudable. The difference is arguable.
-- loonquawl, May 25 2009

random, halfbakery