The limits of science

This would make a great slide for Eric Hedin’s “Boundaries of science” class at Ball State University.

Contributed by the artist, Pliny the in Between at Pictoral Theology (and with the Labels: , , [links go to related cartoons]):

Untitled.001

33 Comments

  1. Posted July 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    True.

    But, to be fair, science is uniquely qualified to identify made up bullshit and to help explain why people believe it and the like.

    b&

  2. jesperbothpedersen1
    Posted July 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why Ball State is one of the labels…

  3. Barry Lyons
    Posted July 27, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    That cartoon is okay but I prefer the way the sentiment is handled in this classic New Yorker cartoon:

    http://star.psy.ohio-state.edu/coglab/Miracle.html

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted July 27, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

      I love that cartoon.

  4. Derek
    Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Actually, if you’re looking for a great pic for Hedin (not for use in the class), try http://pictoraltheology.blogspot.com/2013/07/academic-freedom-30.html. The artist has even labeled it with Ball State.

  5. hhanche
    Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Exactly the same point was made in this classic Jesus and Mo cartoon: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2011/08/17/edge2/

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted July 27, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      That’s excellent. I hadn’t seen that one before.

  6. Posted July 27, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    This is something I’m continually trying to explain to my wife when we get to discussing religion vs. science.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted July 27, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      You are a glutton for punishment, aren’t you?

  7. uglicoyote
    Posted July 27, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Pocatello Freethought Society.

  8. Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    I just finished a meticulously researched, carefully substantiated, peer reviewed book on the campaigns of a late Roman commander in the later fourth to early fifth century. Of course, history can’t be “supported by repeated observation and experimentation” so, according to this graphic, what I’ve just read was actually “made up bullshit”>

    Did I get that right?

    • Trina
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      Nope. The point flew over your head, whistling.

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

        Okay, so there are methods of examining the world that are not scientific then? Science does have epistemological parameters and there are things outside them which are not just “made up bullshit”?

        • Robert Bray
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 5:57 am | Permalink

          No and yes. Doing history is scientific to the extent that it applies commonsensical methods to an examination of the past. But it is unscientific to the extent that no matter how ‘meticulously researched’ a historical work is, it cannot have any predictive power and limited explanatory power. Hence the observation, ‘history is prophecy in reverse.’

          • MNb
            Posted July 28, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

            Actually history quite accurately can predict where archeologists have to dig and what they will find – just like evolution theory predicts where paleontologists should dig and what they will find.
            For instance history predicted nicely that remains of a military campaign by Julius Caesar would be found in the Rhineland, Germany.

            http://mainzerbeobachter.com/2013/05/03/caesar-in-germanie/

            At the other hand it would be an enormous surprise, somewhat like the fossil of a cat from the Cambrian, if such remains would be found in say Sweden.

            • Robert Bray
              Posted July 28, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

              Sorry. I mean ‘predict’ in the sense of future events. Sort of like the implication in the famous pronouncement of Santayana’s (paraphrasing here) that ‘those who do not know their history are are doomed to repeat it.’ Probably, yes. But those who DO know it aren’t in any better shape than the ignorant in this regard.

          • Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

            “Doing history is scientific to the extent that it applies commonsensical methods to an examination of the past.”

            The graphic doesn’t differentiate between things which apply commonsensical methods and “made up bullshit”. Apparently there is only science and every other rational discipline on the planet (history, philosopohy, aethetics, literary analysis) is “made up bullshit”.

            Either the person who produced this graphic didn’t think things through or this is a classic example of the kind of bone-headed scientism that is the result of some scientists being too narrowly educated.

    • Yngveb
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      I take it you prefer to use multiple independent and corroborating sources (written, archeological etc) to verify the historical account right? And your rating of the reliability of your conclusions is dependent on how many and how good your sources are right? And I take it you determine the date of your information from using several different methods like carbon dating, seeing if the information or artifacts fits well with other artifacts of known age and so forth.

      Is this not repeated observation, coupled with use of logic to derive patterns? Is your methodology not underpinned by experiments from the physical sciences?

      What this demonstrates is not that history is not a science, broadly construed, but that the conclusions we draw from it cannot be as definitive as those we draw from more hard sciences like physics or chemistry. The book you peer reviewed would constitute “made up bullshit” if the author and you did not substantiate the claims using hard evidence.

      I like a lot of what you write, Tim, and you often bring a healthy new perspective IMO, but on this one I think you jumped the gun. Jerry Coyne has often stated that he likes to construe science broadly akin to the german Wissenschaft. I don’t know if the cartoon author also does that, but read in that light I think it makes sense.

      • MNb
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

        “the conclusions we draw from it cannot be as definitive”
        I’d say that from a philosophical point of view the fact that Julius Caesar defeated the Belgians (to be more precise: the Aduatuci) near Thuin is a harder fact than for instance Newtonian gravitation. How are you going to falsify the first, given JC’s own account and the archeological results?

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        “I take it you prefer to use multiple independent and corroborating sources (written, archeological etc) to verify the historical account right?”

        Like many such works, the book in question worked from the comparison and carefully analysis of written sources and inscriptions, with little or no reference to archaeology.

        “Is this not repeated observation, coupled with use of logic to derive patterns?”

        It’s the use of logic certainly. But the stupid graphic above doesn’t contrast disciplines with defined analytical methodology and logical arguments with “Made up bullshit”. Apparently there are only the hard sciences and “made up bullshit”. So every other discipline on the planet that isn’t a hard science is “made up bullshit”. Apparently.

        “I like a lot of what you write, Tim, and you often bring a healthy new perspective IMO, but on this one I think you jumped the gun”

        No, I haven’t. I’m commenting on the graphic above. That’s what it says “hard sciences” vs “made up bullshit”. Bone-headed ignorant scientism , writ large.

        “Jerry Coyne has often stated that he likes to construe science broadly akin to the german Wissenschaft.”

        Well, bully for Jerry Coyne. The graphic above, however, is quite clear: “hard sciences” vs “made up bullshit”. Which is laughably ignorant nonsense.

    • Dave
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Haven’t you mede the false assumption that there are only two categories?

      • Dave
        Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        Or, “made”, as the case may be.

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        I only see two categories in the graphic. That there are other categores which are neither science nor “made up bullshit” is actually precisely my point.

        • Dave
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

          There are two categories in the graphic because those are the two to be contrasted. It doesn’t say, “This is all there is!” If you wanted to make that point, you could have been a little more direct.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Hedin’s course doesn’t mention the boundaries of history. Hedin requires his students to read a bunch of books espousing intelligent design and old age creationism – with a couple of exceptions.

      If Hedin were pushing ID and/or Christianity under the guise of a “Boundaries of History” course then he would be pushing bullshit.

      In that case our cartoon would have a bubble with a few basic markers relevant to good methodology in history research – you fill them in. Not exhaustive markers, of course – it’s a cartoon bubble, after all. There’s more to science than is contained in the cartoon bubble.

      The cartoon achieves its aim. It captures the basic truth of the situation in a funny way.

      There is no way to premise ID on the limits of any academic discipline without bullshitting all over that discipline.

      • Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        The cartoon doesn’t mention any “Hedin”. It just says that anything that doesn’t involve “repeated observation and experimentation” is simply “made up bullshit”. Which is scientistic gibberish.

        • Leigh Jackson
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          No. Not even out of context and Jerry is placing the cartoon in the specific context of Hedin’s course.

          • Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

            Again, hooray for Jerry. However, I’m commenting on the cartoon, not the context that it’s been given. The cartoon is nonsense. There are plenty of careful, rationally-based academic disciplines that are not based on “repeated observation and experimentation” yet are not “made up bullshit”.

            • Leigh Jackson
              Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

              As I say – no. Not even out of Jerry’s context.

              The cartoon is not nonsense. It’s good sense.

            • Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

              Tim…it’s a cartoon. A one-panel cartoon, at that.

              It’s not meant to be a detailed and precise exposition on the scientific method.

              It’s just a humorous way of noting that the sets of “science” and “bullshit” don’t overlap.

              If you don’t get the joke, or if you don’t think it’s very funny, that’s fine. Say so and move along.

              No need to beat it into the ground.

              b&

  9. Pliny the in Between
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Clearly not a panel that was all things to all people, nor was it ever intended to be. I don’t think most people had any difficulty understanding the focus or scope of the image and some (few) even thought it was funny.

    Personally I find it surprising that the image in conjunction with the link legends would lead anyone to imagine that this was intended as a broad indictment against all that is not experimental science. I suppose I could have added many more domain bubbles but the tiny writing becomes a problem. I could have done the panel as an interwoven website with multiple panes covering links to as many disciplines as possible, but complex multilayered navigation spoils the fun in my opinion.

    It’s about creationism. It’s not about history. History’s honor is not besmirched. I am unaware of serious historians who make up events that are incompatible with the major tenants of science. Am I wrong in that? It’s not about 98% of the daily human experience, (though the image could apply to any place where people make stuff up then smile smugly when science fails to prove something that they made up in the first place.)

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Cool. Just like Annie Hall.

  10. Jim Thomerson
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I am an incomplete Popperian (I don’t understand all of his thinking) so I regard science as the formulation and testing of hypotheses about phenomena. My BS and MS were in Geology, and my MS thesis was in paleontology. So I have no problem with doing science to try to understand the past, as we do in historical geology, paleontology, archeology, astronomy, and cosmology, for example. As a geolgist, I was trained to have multiple working hypotheses, and hopefully be able to falsify most of them. I suppose I would approach a study of, say, the Battle of the Alamo in the same way. I also have no problem with the idea that an hyopthesis might postdict rather than predict.


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  1. […] I have written about the “limits of science” here a few times – there are limits, of course, but not in the way some religious detractors of science claim. This cartoon illustrates what is wrong with their arguments. From The limits of science « Why Evolution Is True). […]

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