Is Science “Self-Correcting”?

On Vox Day’s blog space, he is engaged in a trialogue with two scientists–one a physicist and the other a biochemist–over the validity of the premise that science is self-correcting. I’ve been following from a distance. It is a very good discussion.

The physicist recently had this to say:

However, the the character of the corrections in accounting and science are somewhat different. The rules of accounting are set by accountants, lawyers, and legislators. Errors and corrections happen within that known framework, which can itself be adjusted. In science the framework is the laws of nature, which are not known a priori and can’t be adjusted. (Citigroup can rewrite accounting law, Virgin Galactic can’t rewrite gravity.) So sure, you could say accounting is self-correcting. That description might not be as useful as it is for the scientific study of natural laws, but it wouldn’t be wrong.

While the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) can (and does) indeed revise Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), there are some differences in the comparison that the physicist provides:

(1) If a non-accountant questions the integrity of the changes, he or she is not dismissed for not being a CPA. This is because accounting, among other things, involves assessing the integrity of the operations of an economic entity. And almost anyone–due to disclosure laws–can do this.

If you can read a 10-K, which includes a balance sheet, income statement, cash flow statement, and retained earnings statement (in addition to material disclosures in footnotes), you can make an educated assessment for the condition of a business, irrespective of (a) the marketing efforts and (b) the GAAP rules.

(2) For that reason, if FASB redefines or reclassifies certain items–or, as they have recently done, change rules to allow banks to improperly value their assets–it does not change the nature of what is being done. People who denounce that tactic–such as Denninger–are not likely to be dismissed for not being CPAs.

Instead, their ideas are allowed to be tested in the free market. Denninger has made truth claims, as has Vox Day. (For the record, I agree with them most of the time.)

If their truth claims don’t come to pass, then they have to answer for this in the free market of ideas.

For scientists, the rules are somewhat different. They have made truth claims which include bald assertions, misrepresentation of data (sometimes intentional), doomsday predictions for the world and for civilization, and proclamations of fact that were based on known fraudulent “research”.

And yet (a) the very system that ought to be holding them accountable does not do this–largely because they are comprised of fellow scientists who are dependent on government largesse for their career paths, and (b) they attack critics–who point out obvious errors that call their very hypotheses into question–for “not being scientists”.

This is not to say that all scientists are so intellectually dishonest; the problem, however, is that the system itself is one that economically encourages–and in some fields requires–such.

The larger question is how to reform the scientific community to ensure that they are more vigilant about the integrity of the scientific method.

I would submit that breaking the government-academic complex will go a long way toward that end.

This is because without the gravy train–which foments the existing paradigm of obfuscation and demonization of critics who recognize the naked emperor–there will be no economic incentive for the naked to go unclothed.

The Solution

to this is simple: make ALL student loans–public and private–dischargeable in bankruptcies, just as with any other secured or unsecured loans. There is no moral or economic justification for giving one type of lender special legal treatment, that others do not receive.

By making all loans dischargeable, that will force lenders to price their products with respect to the real risks. That may impact the availability of student loans–and will certainly impact the universities that care less about real academic advancement and more about rolling in the money by bringing in unqualified students. It would also wipe out these fly-by-night outfits that provide worthless educations for staggering prices.

I know of a community college system that routinely sends students to remedial math classes, because they are not prepared for more rigorous algebra and calculus classes. The tuition for remedial classes is about $600 per course, whereas a student with any semblance of knowledge can go to an adult education provider, do remedial work for free, and then enter the more rigorous classes–all without remedial tuition.

The higher education racket needs a shakeup indeed.

For Discussion

Vox Day says the following, regarding the Socratic method:

while it is an effective critical device, it is simply not the effective means of constructing positive conclusions that many people appear to believe it to be.

I think he nailed it. That’s the academic culture in a nutshell, especially humanities and social science departments. Lots of questions–sometimes good ones–but few answers, and even fewer legitimate conclusions.

Very overrated, as many college graduates are now finding out the hard way.

If a high school grad wants a career path with earning power, here’s what I suggest: go to a community/technical college for 2 years, learn a trade, take on minimal debt (or no debt at all), and save enough money to start your own business in that trade. Then find a community that needs people in that trade.

I know some plumbers and electricians and nurses who are saying, “Recession? What recession?”

If you aren’t aiming for a particular profession–such as medical or engineering–it may be within your best interests to reconsider the cost/benefit of a 4-year degree. Especially if it requires a substantial amount of student loan debt.

The dirty secret: few people–in percentage terms–can legitimately justify that latter albatross. By opting to take on student loans, students are–more often than not–submitting to the financial equivalent of extended waterboarding.

The academic world is a financial bubble the demise of which I will celebrate with Guinness.

Extra Stout, of course…