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December 06, 2008

Theory vs Observation

As noted earlier, the origins of Western Science are imprecise, as is the arbitrary division of history into various eras. With that distinction in mind, we can posit that our present modern era began around the end of the Enlightenment when the basic disciplines of modern Science had already evolved and the technology they gave rise to in Europe and North America began an Industrial Revolution, which is, arguably, still in progress.

This entry is less about precisely defining historical eras than it is about the belief systems that characterize them and have critically shaped both recent history and our contemporary world.

With that brief introduction, I’d like to go to what I consider frequently misunderstood differences between two important concepts: observation and theory. In its simplest form, an observation is a description of a natural phenomenon recorded by humans; a theory is a proposed explanation of how various observations are related. A key underlying requirement of both concepts is that bias must be eliminated to the extent possible. Although observations may vary in detail and accuracy, depending on circumstances (especially if complex equipment was involved) they should be reproducible by other competent observers.

Similarly, theories are neither “true” nor “false.” Rather they are more or less useful, based on their ability to coherently relate valid observations.

Although it goes without saying that the concepts of observer bias and the validity of a theory can always be sticking points in the acceptance of scientific data and their interpretation, the proof of the pudding has been that science works on a practical level most of the time: light bulbs illuminate, airplanes take off and land safely, antibiotics cure once lethal infections at predictable rates. Also, whenever failures occur, the reasons for them can usually be discovered.

In stark contrast to the flexible empiricism that characterizes Science, religious belief systems, including those essential to some modern political ideologies, tend to be absolute; no deviation from essential doctrine is tolerated. In the last hundred and fifty years or so, we have seen the rise and fall of several doctrinaire belief systems. Some, such as the American War on Drugs have simply been incorporated into existing systems; others, such as Communism and Nazism were clearly intended as either total or partial replacements.

In general, the less ambitious doctrinaire beliefs have had more staying power, probably because they can be so easily made part of the earlier religious/metaphysical beliefs that preceded Science and were already in positions of dominance within Academia, itself a cloistered and intensely hierarchical environment.

I plan to have more to say on this general subject later, but this snippet seems coherent enough to stand on its own. One of several discoveries my clinical interaction with pot smokers has led me to is that the intellectual continuity of valid observations rarely has to be forced, whereas that of invalid theories tends to break down sooner or later for the simple reason that supportive data simply don't exist.

In that context, a major reason the drug war has yet to be repudiated is that it has received so much support from federally sponsored peseudoscience

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at December 6, 2008 06:09 PM