Saturday, August 15, 2009

Leif's Science and Society Paper #1 written in the fall semester 2007

Leif was trying hard to find a way to have more income and enrolled in USF (University of South Florida), which was not far from where he lived in Tampa, for the fall semester 2007. He took two philosophy courses. One was "Science and Society," for which he wrote two papers. This is the first one:

Science and Society paper #1

Do facts and reason settle scientific controversies or are they determined by popular convention and the ability of the scientist to persuade the scientific community and/or the public at large? That is the underlying question we must examine when considering the interplay of science and society. Many scientists would argue that the nature of the universe is absolute, filled with facts and truths which cannot be disputed and the purpose of science is to discover those truths. Such scientists, Giere for example, claim that it is facts and reason which will decide the result of a scientific controversy and that such a pursuit is objective rather than subjective. By contrast others, such as Collins and Pinch, argue that facts and reason have little to do with the way that controversies are decided and that in almost all cases it is popular opinion and convention which determines what view or result is accepted as the truth.

To examine this let us review the competing experiments of Louis Pasteur and Felix Archimede Pouchet regarding the issue of spontaneous generation. Throughout the study of biology and theology there has been a question of life’s origins and whether life will spontaneously generate if the conditions are right. Before we can explore the societal influences and implications of these experiments let us first examine the experiments themselves.

We begin with a real world observation that there are living things and these living things' origins cannot always be readily apparent. The basic question is, does life only come from other life, or is it possible that, given the right conditions and requisite materials, life could spontaneously appear without an external source? Herein lies the model they are proposing: that if organic, but inert matter is left alone in the presence of air that life will spontaneously generate.

Now we come to the Data. In Pouchet’s experiments 8/8 samples became prurient certainly suggesting the model is correct. However, in Pasteur’s study only a small percentage of them cease to remain inert suggesting that the model is incorrect. Respectively, each one has made a prediction of the outcome but those predictions are opposite each other with Pasteur predicting no spontaneous generation and Pouchet predicting there will be spontaneous generation. Now this case is interesting as both scientists got opposite results but when they compare the model with their respective data, each data set supported the predictions they had made. When comparing their work it became obvious that both could not be right so what made the difference?

When examining the experiments we must ask are their any other plausible explanations for the data? Particularly when the data is contradictory we must theorize another possible model to explain the disparity. In Pasteur’s case he examines the two methods and focuses on the fact that when obtaining their “sterile air” at high altitude his method was to snap off the end of the bottle with pincers and heat as to keep a sterile sample. Pouchet used a file on the necks of the sealed containers and Pasteur claims this is the critical error. According to Pasteur it is possible that the file could have allowed small pieces of glass to fall into the sample and those pieces of glass which had been exposed to an open and contaminated environment, might have and must have, carried some microbes into the sample contaminating it and ruining the experiment. According to Pasteur had this mistake not been made Pouchet’s results would have mirrored his.

Looking at merely the results there are compelling reasons to agree with Pasteur’s assessment but even his views were flawed as his initial experiments also became contaminated. It is clear that both scientists had their own biases. If Pasteur saw a result that supported spontaneous generation he believed he must have made a mistake in maintaining a sterile sample. If not he assumed he had proved himself right. In Pouchet’s case it’s the opposite. If he saw an inert sample he assumed he had somehow destroyed and essential property of the air which prevented the spontaneous generation. When Pouchet saw prurient samples he did not consider accidental contamination but assumed he had proved spontaneous generation was a fact.

Beyond the inherent flaws of the two scientists and their personal biases there is also the awarding commission which essentially decides what is scientific cannon to be held up as truth. While Pouchet would likely argue that they had a personal bias to support the more popular and connected Pasteur, there are larger more significant underlying factors in their decision to support Pasteur and his findings. To understand this we must ask the question: Were there any compelling reasons, in the 1860s, for preferring one model over the other? One cannot look at these events without considering the context. In 19th century France, which is a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, the significance of these experiments was profound. This period saw the beginning of the unending battle between Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the traditionally accepted Christian story of creation. Scientist or not, devotee or not, a Catholic was compelled by faith or convention to accept the idea that mankind and life on Earth exists as the result of the direct action of God and not random chance. The Theory of Evolution is still widely challenged and certainly not universally accepted or popular as it contradicts the literal story of creation.

What this means is that were Pouchet’s model to be proven correct it would strike a blow in favor of Evolution, further suggesting that Mankind may have simply evolved from microbes and maggots which spontaneously generated themselves out of a pile of organic matter. This contention, by extension, would suggest that the story of creation was false, or at least potentially false, and furthermore could be used to argue that God himself might not exist as life could have created itself. By contrast Pasteur’s experiments which seemed to disprove spontaneous generation are in line with current thinking and support the far more popular and accepted world view that mankind and all life was created by God and could not simply happen at random.

So while we can now look back on this and say that Pasteur was right and that Pouchet‘s experiments obviously had flaws in them, was that really what decided this controversy? The answer, at least in the short term, is no. Popular opinion and popular support for Pasteur himself undoubtedly contributed to the acceptance of his conclusions. Collins and Pinch would have us believe that this is always the case and that facts and reason are irrelevant. Giere on the other hand would certainly argue that what matters is that Pasteur was right, as were his methods, and the fact that it coincided with popular opinion was coincidental. Giere would argue that in the end the truth wins out and had Pasteur’s conclusions later proved to be false upon further study, the truth would prevail in the end.

An excellent example of this can be observed in the comparisons of the Geocentric and Heliocentric models of our solar system. For more than a millennia Ptolemy’s Geocentric Model of the universe was accepted as fact. It was in line with popular opinion and there was not a better model to explain what had been observed. It was not until Copernicus and Galileo came along with the heliocentric model that this opinion changed. Now in support of Collins and Pinch, even when this superior model was suggested Galileo was persecuted for his assertions at first. However in support of Giere, Galileo was later proven correct and his conclusions won out in the end as popular opinion shifted.

So in conclusion, are Collins and Pinch justified in their claim that facts and reason do not settle most scientific controversies? Or, in other words, who is right? Giere or Collins and Pinch? The answer lies in how you define the word “settle.” Collins and Pinch are correct in all of their assertions that persuasion and popular opinion are more important in determining what theory or conclusions are accepted, at least in the short term. But does that mean the controversy is settled, or merely that one side is winning the battle? At any given time or place whether a thing is believed to be true is just that, a measure of how successful you are at getting people to believe you are correct. What people believe is what defines their reality and if an idea conflicts with their perception of reality they can readily ignore or reinterpret data which does not conform to their world view.

Thus while Collins and Pinch are correct, they are short-sighted in their conclusions. I would argue, as would Giere, that any conclusions, models, theories, or assertions which by chance or coincidence are not actually true from an objective view will not stand the test of time, e.g. they are not settled. Therefore what Collins and Pinch claim is relevant in the short term and important to note when separating good science from bad; societal acceptance of bad science does not negate the existence of good science. Scientists often face the challenge of changing public opinions and beliefs. History is full of flawed theories either from bad science, or good science which simply had incomplete information from which to form their models and hypotheses. These are followed by other examples of better science succeeding and superseding them. In any case few things can ever be absolutely proven and while popular belief both in the 1860s and today says that spontaneous generation does not happen, it is plausible that such a phenomenon could exist and we simply do not yet understand the exact conditions which are requisite for such genesis. Collins and Pinch may be right that persuasion and popularity may determine what is accepted as truth, but in the end, when the distortions of contemporary thinking are swept away and only the facts remain, it will be the facts themselves which reveal the absolute truth.

The photo of Leif was taken December 20, 2004 in Manhattan, Kansas.

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