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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

So, What IS Science, Anyway?

| 67 Comments

I know science–both the discoveries and method of–are important to me.  I know that I believe we ought to deduce natural laws from the facts, as opposed to imposing them on the facts.  I know that when we are dealing with social issues, it is vital to get away from subjective impressions and strive for objective truth.

Some believe science is limited to the falsifiable (more or less created by Karl Popper).  Others (Brickmont, Sokel, Kuhn, Feyeraband, Lakatos, Hawkins, &c) dispute this in various ways for various reasons.  One can, in fact, argue that, by the standard of falsifiable, most of what Einstein was famous for was not science, as it was not able to be falsified at the time. This can be disputed, and if you’re in the falsifiable-only camp, then you had better dispute it–if Einstein wasn’t a scientist, there are no scientists.

My point is, there is more than one definition of what science is, or what scientific method means.  I want to know what you think.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

67 Comments

  1. I think that Science has always been embedded in a cultural connotation of truth, and been used to further oppression as much, if not more, than it has been used to further liberty.

    I think that it is always a useful tactic when making polemic statements to first envision them spoken by those whose rhetoric you directly despise and oppose. If you do not agree with the words when spoken from the mouths of your enemies, then you should not speak them yourself.

  2. jeff, now I’m wondering if there’s anything that has not been used to further oppression. I would tentatively argue that the truer something is, the harder the rich work will try to use it to oppress.

    Complete agreement with your second paragraph.

    My take on science is that it’s the attempt to find and evaluate facts without prejudice. Though the goal’s unrealistic, striving for it is essential.

  3. skzb

    I had to chuckle. After I clicked “post” and went to review it on the site here, the quote that came up was, “Facts are stubborn things.” – Lenin. Maybe Vladimir Illych was trying to tell me something?

  4. “Atom from atom yawns as far
    As moon from earth, or star from star.”
    -Ralph Waldo Emerson

    I’ve got no real insight to share as I am distracted by germs this morning, but your post reminded me of this.

  5. I like the indication from the beginning of the post that there’s a difference between science as a method or process and science as a body of knowledge. I was raised religious so I used to be easily stumped by the statement, “well, science doesn’t have all the answers!” Until one day I heard the rejoinder, “Well, how would we know? We don’t have all the science!” And we never will, but that’s not the point.

    We have to be aware of rhetoric that confuses “what we know via science,” which Einstein himself sometimes disparaged, with “what is knowable through science.” The latter category has again and again proven to be much larger than most people ever imagine.

    As for defining science… I’m pretty pragmatic. I “experiment” a lot in cooking, writing, and life in general. The more scientific the “experiment,” that is, the better tests I have for my assumptions and the better records I keep of all major confounding conditions and results, etc, the more progress I make. Good science is what works… if it isn’t working, there’s likely a mess of delusion and/or ignorance in there somewhere that needs clearing away.

  6. I’m in the falsifiable camp, but I won’t say that it must be immediately falsifiable to be considered science. Rather, to be considered science, it should be possible to conceive of an experiment that could someday be done, whose result will either be in line with your theory or not. If not, then you would consider your hypothesis falsified.

    So just because we couldn’t test special and general relativity when they were published, does not mean we didn’t know what tests to someday attempt. Even some of Hawking’s wilder stuff could be tested someday, though we might need to learn how create and destroy universes first.

    The notion that God did something yesterday when you weren’t looking, however, is not falsifiable since it denies the ability to craft an experiment with a testable result.

  7. skzb

    ‘I used to be easily stumped by the statement, “well, science doesn’t have all the answers!” Until one day I heard the rejoinder, “Well, how would we know? We don’t have all the science!” ‘

    Oh, I love that so many times. I’m going to use it and pass it off as my own.

  8. I wasn’t aware that there was more than one definition of ‘the scientific method’, could you point me at some of those alternatives?

    Einstein’s work was primarily on mathematics, the ‘truth’ of which was undisputed. From that he attempted to account for some observations that the then-current theories could not explain (at least, not without collapsing under the weight of the exceptions needed). His mathematical way of describing and accounting for the observations of the natural world also resulted in predicting some stuff, then the race was on to figure out how to test those predictions. That some of the experiments could not be performed given the technology of the day is irrelevant to the question of the scientific method; nothing in the nature of the method says that testing by experiment and observation is going to be easy. In the case of some of the subtler points of Relativity, it required entirely new fields of engineering to be developed before the tests could even begin. To me, that is part of what makes it wonderful.

    But the method, observe, hypothesize to account for observations, test if the hypothesis matches new observations, (lather, rinse, repeat) is certainly there.

    Your question does raise one seldom heard these days though. If the scientific method is a way of describing the world as we see it, what other ways are there? I confess that I have never gone looking for an exhaustive list, though surely some philosopher has attempted it. The one that science had to overcome (and, it seems, still does for some people) is the religious method. But, as a method, that really only works if you can discuss things with God or gods in question, and, for at least the last several hundred years, very few people seem to be hearing the same answers from those discussions, and that isn’t very useful.

    Unless you want to assume that all ‘magic’ comes from deity(ies), it seems like there should be third method, but other than certain animist traditions nothing comes to mind. Hmmm, something to think about…

  9. Very conventional for me: Science is the invention and selection of theory that can explain observations. For any set of observations there are obviously infinitely many logically consistent theories, and so the selection of a theory may be based on many factors, including simplicity and elegance as well as other arbitrary personal and cultural influences. There is no absolute metric for the selection of a correct theory, including “occam’s razor” or the principle of parsimony; but as rules of thumb, theories that satisfy those rules are more likely than not to remain in force and be useful for longer periods of time.

    Falsifiability per se is IMO not an essential quality of the scientific method or of science; but when a theory *is* falsified by inconsistent observations, science must submit to the observation, and moreover potential falsifiability is a desirable characteristic of any theory. In other words a demonstrably false theory must be discarded or modified to fit observation. One objection to string and brane theory is that no laboratory experiments or astronomical observations could be performed to prove or disprove these theories. I don’t agree that this makes string and brane theory unscientific; but it certainly does make it hard to commit oneself to them until such time as no other theory is capable of explaining the set of observed phenomena.

    If you want to look at a relatively modern example of an attempt to look at science differently from the usual consensus view, consider “Wholeness and the Implicate Order” by David Bohm, a physicist turned mystic. I would say he’s not entirely a whack job, and it’s interesting reading for the most part. However, I’m not sure he was entirely sane, either. One nice thing about Bohm from the point of view of SF is you can quote him or use his interesting and clever language play in your stories with the feeling you have at least some slight imprimatur for your mystical claptrap 🙂 For example:

    “There is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can be known only implicitly, as indicated by the explicitly definable forms and shapes, some stable and some unstable, that can be abstracted from the universal flux. In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather, they are different aspects of our whole and unbroken movement.”

  10. You need reproducible experimental results for science. If you don’t have those you have a problem.

    If you have measured or controlled all the inputs you know about, and the results still vary wildly, you can assume there are hidden variables which create the unexpected results. You can find patterns that imply patterns among the hidden variables. But you are whistling in the dark. Whatever happens you can find some combination of hidden variables which will give that result. Better if you find some new observable input that accounts for some of the results.

    So for example people believe in the law of conservation of energy. But they occasionally find examples where small amounts of energy disappear, or appear out of nowhere. Since they want to believe in conservation of energy despite the facts, they postulate that invisible undetectable particles called neutrinos carry away the energy and restore it later elsewhere. And when they look at the circumstances that energy is unbalanced, those circumstances do seem compatible with with undetectable particles. So the existence of a violation of conservation of energy is taken to be in fact detection of a neutrino.

    If you have reproducible results, then you will want a theory that makes sense of them. Lots of people want to have one theory and not look at any others until they can prove that one wrong. As long as it isn’t proven wrong they think it is true. I think this is stupid but it seems to work for them.

    I prefer to find at least two theories that fit the known data. Where they differ, you know you don’t know everything. Having two theories encourages people to find evidence that will let them reject one.

    But if you have a theory which is compatible with the known reproducible data. that’s science.

  11. Skzb

    I think it is perfectly reasonable for you to believe that there is more than one definition of science, and that there is more than one meaning of the term scientific method; however, if you do not make that clear when you make statements about science and scientific method, and specify the definitions you are using, then inevitably discussion will grind to a halt.

    Equally, if you use the term ‘natural law’ without acknowledging that there are cultures which do not have the concept of ‘natural law’ you are unlikely to get very far with an overarching hypothesis which depends on the existence of that concept.

    I suspect that what you really mean is that there are laws which exist irrespective of whether or not human beings recognise them, and most, though not all, physicists would agree with you, but there are profound difficulties in attempting to postulate that there are laws governing the behaviour of human beings which go beyond those imposed by our physical existence.

    I also think it is important to recognise that evidence based reasoning is just as integral to the study of the humanities as it is to science; historians can’t cop out of the need to adduce evidence, even if they formulate a hypothesis first in much the same way that scientists do. They still need to be able to convince fellow historians, just as scientists need to be able to convince fellow scientists. I chose to read Combined Honours in both the science and humanities faculties at university not only because I was fascinated by the subjects but also because I wanted to test different ways of thinking; I concluded that the similarities between the two outweighed the differences.

    There is a major problem with your desire to tackle ‘social issues’; you apparently haven’t recognised that you need to define what you mean by the term ‘social issues’, and until you do that we cannot even begin to meaningfully discuss whatever it is you do mean. Your desire to find objective truths when you haven’t defined what those objective truths are supposed to be about suggests that you may be pursuing a profoundly subjective desire…

  12. Science is a philosophy, to me, a means to question and attempt to understand the universe. Like math, like thought experiments, like discourse. Not all philosophy is science, but all science is philosophy.

  13. “I’m in the falsifiable camp, but I won’t say that it must be immediately falsifiable to be considered science. Rather, to be considered science, it should be possible to conceive of an experiment that could someday be done, whose result will either be in line with your theory or not. If not, then you would consider your hypothesis falsified.”

    Hmmmm, I cannot agree that scientists must have precognitive abilities in order for an hypothesis to be consider valid enough for further study, nor that without said precognition, a hypothesis must be discarded.

    After all, the hypothesis that the world was round, and that it revolved around the sun, was around LONG before the people that stated these claims could possibly even dream of the methods that would be necessary to prove or disprove them.

    Besides, there is always the Raven Paradox.

    Steve, in my opinion, “science” is the body of knowledge that we currently posses as a species, every single micron of which may be disproven tomorrow by new discoveries. Science, in and of itself, is SUBJECT to falsification, but does not *require* it to be truth. If no one ever does another experiment to show that the Earth does, indeed, revolve around the Sun, that does not take away from the truth that the Earth revolves around the Sun. While what consider is fact should always be open to challenge, it does not necessarily follow that it has to continue to be challenged to remain fact.

    Scientific method is rather well known: 1. Inquiry, 2. Hypothesis, 3. Prediction, 4. Experiment, 5. Analysis. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until everyone is suitably satisfied. If steps 4 and 5 cannot, at this time, be fully explored, then it is not fact…..yet. If steps 4 and 5 may never be fully explored, but enough people agree that the evidence support the hypothesis, then it is still not fact, but it is a darn strong theory. If steps 4 and 5 have been suitably repeated with the same results, it is fact, but tentative fact….as in “It is fact until someone comes along and proves it isn’t fact.”

    When the hypothesis is of such that the body of evidence is suitably strong and enough scholars agree, but that it will not be able to be subject to steps 4 and 5 without the invention of, say, a time machine, it will always remain a theory. However, the fact that it is not falsifiable does not mean it is not the truth, or fact, and it is rather silly to argue that it isn’t the truth or fact because it isn’t uncontroversial. For *thousands* of years, the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun was VERY controversial, and there was no way to prove or disprove it. That does not mean that it is any less fact.

  14. “After all, the hypothesis that the world was round, and that it revolved around the sun, was around LONG before the people that stated these claims could possibly even dream of the methods that would be necessary to prove or disprove them.”

    I’m not sure this is true. There are some very early tests.

    But more important, science has two different kinds of thinking. There are falsifiable hypotheses, and there are organizing principles. Organizing principles are not falsifiable.

    Look at Newton’s first law. Objects will keep doing what they’re doing unless acted on by some outside force. If you observe an object which is not traveling in a straight line at a constant speed, then you look for a force that acts on it. Things pull together, so we name that the force of gravity. Things with opposite electric charges attract. Etc. If you observe something that does not travel in a straight line at constant speed, and no known force is causing that, then you study it very very carefully and then announce a new force! A new force as mysterious as gravity or electric charge.

    It is absolutely impossible to falsify Newton’s first law. It is an organizing principle.

    We often mix organizing principles in with our hypotheses. Like, the approach in physics of thinking of everything in terms of particles. When they need a wave and they treat it as a particle which behaves exactly like a wave, that’s only mildly confusing. When they actually let the concept get in their way and think of everything as particles which are each mostly in one place at one time (but smeared out in a way that is hard to understand but necessary to match experimental results) then it can be actively debilitating.

    “If no one ever does another experiment to show that the Earth does, indeed, revolve around the Sun, that does not take away from the truth that the Earth revolves around the Sun.”

    There’s the math for the earth revolving around the sun. It works. There’s also math putting the earth at the origin. That works too. It’s more complicated to do it that way, so you need a really good reason to bother with it. You can define the earth at the center of the solar system if you want to, in the sense that wherever the earth is gets defined as the center. It doesn’t usually get done that way because it isn’t that useful. But it isn’t a question of true or false, it’s a matter of convention.

  15. “So the existence of a violation of conservation of energy is taken to be in fact detection of a neutrino.”

    I should be silent, but I’m a neutrino physicist, darn it!

    The existence of the neutrino was a hypothesis that fit the available facts; e.g., that the distribution of the missing energy fit a curve of three-body decays from neutrons. This was eventually a testable hypothesis, so it could be elevated to the status of a theory: You put a detector near a nuclear reactor and see if you get the rare interactions of a neutrino in the detector medium. Once that had been observed, the theory was considered proven.

    So the statement I quoted is incorrect. Yes, there was missing energy, but it wasn’t ‘in fact’ the detection of a neutrino, merely evidence that it might exist.

    A minor point, to be sure, but one I think goes to the original argument: There are observations, there is evidence, there are theories, there are experiments, there are testable hypotheses, there are systems of formal reasoning. Put those together (not necessarily in that order) and you’ve got science.

    Except for string theory, of course.

  16. I want to comment on your assertion: “One can, in fact, argue that, by the standard of falsifiable, most of what Einstein was famous for was not science, as it was not able to be falsified at the time.”

    I think you are wrong here. What made Einstein famous were his three papers of 1905, which where about the photovoltaic effect, Brownian motion, and special relativity. All of these papers could be falsified at the time of publication. He was given the Noble Prize for the paper on the photovoltaic effect.

    Some of Einstein’s work on general relativity and some of his later work on quantum mechanics could not be falsified at their time of publication because experiments needed to falsify them could not be performed with the instruments then available. But this work was science because the required experiments were manifest in his papers. It only took some time for engineers to improve the state of the art and provide the necessary instruments.

    General relativity was only accepted when experiment after experiment of increasing accuracy failed to falsify it. His last paper on quantum mechanics, considered even by Einstein to be more philosophical then scientific, was actually falsified many years later, which fact made it a more important paper than it had been before.

  17. If you insist on the falsifiable theory as the keystone of true science, you’re treating everything outside that border as equivalently unscientific, and it’s not.

    I dislike labeling an activity and sanctifying it, drawing a black line around a specific definition and saying, this is pure. In truth, nothing we do is pure. Scientists, alas, are only human, and are not perfectable. They’re subject to the same errors of thought as everyone else, and the best ones know that and try to accommodate it. They have a goal of improvement of understanding to work toward, and a set of tools for getting there. They make mistakes, but on the whole, we’re progressing in our knowledge.

    Many years ago, I came across a book titled “Catastrophe Theory.” I don’t remember it very well, but the author had basically noticed some odd things about natural phenomena. He cited example after example of systems that didn’t behave in a predictable way. It wasn’t a “real theory.” The author couldn’t explain what was going on or predict when systems would start acting unpredictably.

    The reaction of scientists at the time was that they weren’t really interested in these edge cases, but preferred to study the systems that their theories worked well on. Obviously, in those cases, some other factor was messing with the system. A few years later, someone came up with the math that allowed for the creation of “proper” theories, and we began to hear about non-linear systems and see pretty picture of Mandelbrot sets and so on. So who was being a better scientist here? The ones who had their theories with the tidy mathematics? Or this one guy who couldn’t formulate a theory to explain what was happening, but kept pointing to things and saying, “Look, guys, something funny’s going on here. Shouldn’t we look into this? Guys?” That’s a very valuable part of science. If you ignore everybody who doesn’t have a falsifiable theory, you can well never get to notice the evidence that shows you that a new theory is needed. Sometimes, someone can be far enough out on the sea of mystery that you can’t build a bridge to there from what’s known, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not in a real place. That’s how you know where it’s probably productive to push the boundary out until you get to where you _can_ make a proper theory.

    Then too. The falsifiable theory is one tool of science, but it’s not the only one. It’s only possible to formulate a falsifiable theory when you’re working in a field that’s simple enough to allow for a reasonably complete understanding of the subject matter. Particle physics isn’t a subject most people think of as simple. But the actors at that level are relatively simple compared to, say, economics or psychology. You don’t need informed consent to experiment on a proton, it’s not smarter than the experimenter, it has no motivation to try to fool the experimenter or itself, and there are no ethical concerns about destroying several billion of them to test your theory.

    So if you say that it’s only science if you have falsifiable theories, what you’re saying is that the only real scientists are those researchers who aren’t bold enough to study anything _really_ complicated. Something where you have no hope of creating a theory encompassing all the factors, and the best you can ever expect is to refine your predictive model, perhaps without even understanding why it does what it does.

    Those researches into the messy, ill-behaved, real world are the ones that have the greatest practical impact. Predicting the weather, say. You can’t falsify a theory about weather, you can’t say, “Ha ha, there was a storm and you said there wasn’t going to be a storm, so your theory is wrong.” There will always be exceptions; all our knowledge about weather prediction is vague and statistical. Still, what we do know about the subject is enough to save lots of lives. Over time, we can get an idea about which models are better predictors, and eventually we can get pretty good.

    Or what about economics? You can’t design an experiment in an environment where you don’t control anything, but can only take whatever data the world hands you. You can’t have an experimental country and an otherwise identical control country. All you can do is mine data and, again, try to create the best model you can to predict what actions will have what consequences. That doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between an economist who takes a scientific approach, and one who only considers the data that support what they already believe. I know what kind I want running the Fed.

    And as someone else pointed out, a scientific baker is a better baker. It’s _nice_ if they understand the chemistry, but just trying different things and keeping track of what works best, and trying to come up with some kind of predictive model, even if it’s naive, gives them an edge over someone who’s just trying things at random.

    The real essence of the scientific approach is the open mind, the willingness to consider all the evidence and accept the simplest answer that explains the facts, or to select the system of prediction that gives you the best odds of being correct. We can all be scientists at whatever we do.

  18. This is an interesting question, and one I can’t do justice to in the time before I have to go to bed. I think there’s an important distinction to be made between observation-based science (astrophysics, geology, Linnaean biology, one might possibly slot the study of human history here), where the system studied isn’t amenable to experimentation, and experimental hard science (particle physics, chemistry, biology), where it is.

    There’s also a distinction between theoretical science (mathematical models) and experimental science (the real world), which is a wildly simplified and tendentious way of describing those, but again, it’s late.

    If you want to take an expansive view, I think you could justly say that all branches of human knowledge are one or more of these. I think most educated Americans would limit their definition of “true science” to the hard experimental sciences, but that leaves some really odd holes in the definitional boundaries (mathematics–science, or not? Medicine–science, or not? Economics–science, or not?)

  19. skzb

    Vnend: “I wasn’t aware that there was more than one definition of ‘the scientific method’, could you point me at some of those alternatives?”

    Well, if you’ve been following the discussion up until now, you’ve come across several of them. If not, google “scientific method” and start following links.

    All: This is exactly what I was hoping for. Thank you!

  20. “So the existence of a violation of conservation of energy is taken to be in fact detection of a neutrino.”

    ‘I should be silent, but I’m a neutrino physicist, darn it!’

    We’re discussing philosophy of science, and not tromping on your specialty. So….

    ‘The existence of the neutrino was a hypothesis that fit the available facts; e.g., that the distribution of the missing energy fit a curve of three-body decays from neutrons. This was eventually a testable hypothesis, so it could be elevated to the status of a theory: You put a detector near a nuclear reactor and see if you get the rare interactions of a neutrino in the detector medium. Once that had been observed, the theory was considered proven.’

    The existence of the neutrino is still a hypothesis that fits the available facts. It is completely compatible with those facts. The obvious alternative hypothesis that energy occasionally disappears and reappears elsewhere in narrowly defined circumstances has no obvious advantages. So it’s entirely reasonable that you would prefer the neutrino hypothesis, that the energy is carried by completely undetectable particles. However, it is not proven.

    ‘So the statement I quoted is incorrect. Yes, there was missing energy, but it wasn’t ‘in fact’ the detection of a neutrino, merely evidence that it might exist.’

    If you agree that today we still do not detect neutrinos but merely collect evidence that they might exist (and that some possible properties they might have, they do not in fact have), then that’s good enough for me.

    I’m interested in the mental trick people use where we go from “This hypothesis fits all the available evidence and I can’t think of another hypothesis that fits as well” to
    “We know it’s true”.

  21. “If you insist on the falsifiable theory as the keystone of true science, you’re treating everything outside that border as equivalently unscientific, and it’s not.”

    Agreed. Apart from the things people can try to falsify there are organizing principles which they just accept, sometimes unconsciously.

    But — what if it’s all organizing principles?

    So for example Austrian economics tends to take an almost axiomatic approach. They argue that particular sequences of events *have to* happen almost by definition. And the predictions they make are usually no more specific than those of horoscopes. They take credit for making correct economic predictions when the consensus fails — recessions, crashes, etc — but ignore the many occasions when they predict some horror that does not come true that quarter. There is a difference between science that includes attempts to test its basis, versus “science” that uses anecdotal evidence etc in attempts to make their claims more believable.

    “So if you say that it’s only science if you have falsifiable theories, what you’re saying is that the only real scientists are those researchers who aren’t bold enough to study anything _really_ complicated.”

    No. If you have something really complicated you might find useful patterns and make predictions about them. You may discover emergent phenomena that provide useful simplifying ideas, and test those. To dissect an elephant, you can do it one cut at a time. (If it’s an angry elephant, that’s harder….) If you look at a complicated situation and you make complicated ideas about it that are not testable, you very likely will not achieve much.

    “That doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between an economist who takes a scientific approach, and one who only considers the data that support what they already believe. I know what kind I want running the Fed.”

    Unfortunately, the Fed is run by bankers.

  22. @Morton Goldberg:
    “Some of Einstein’s work on general relativity and some of his later work on quantum mechanics could not be falsified at their time of publication because experiments needed to falsify them could not be performed with the instruments then available.”

    With respect to General Relativity, that’s not really true. The first experiment/observation testing the theory was done a mere four years after the theory’s publication, in 1919 — and could in principle could have been done sooner, except for the fact that
    a) you had to wait for a total eclipse of the sun in an accessible part of the world;
    and
    b) most of the Western world was caught up in World War I at the time.

  23. @evergreen:
    “I think there’s an important distinction to be made between observation-based science (astrophysics, geology, Linnaean biology, one might possibly slot the study of human history here), where the system studied isn’t amenable to experimentation, and experimental hard science (particle physics, chemistry, biology), where it is.”
    and
    “I think most educated Americans would limit their definition of “true science” to the hard experimental sciences… ”

    Nonsense. You’re working from a naive picture that says only things done in “laboratories” are science, which is exceedingly silly and parochial. All “experiments” are observations; the distinction lies in how carefully and cleverly you can identify, select, or arrange the particular conditions of the observation. (Only select mice inhabiting environments with qualities A and B, but not C, and observe what they eat; set up the experimental apparatus so the mice experience conditions X and Y, but not Z, and observe what they eat; etc., etc.)

    There are of course practical differences in how you do science in different disciplines, but this is true even if you’re just talking about “experiments”: someone who’s really good at doing laboratory experiments with fruit fly behavior isn’t going to be any better at designing particle accelerator experiments than someone who’s really good at measuring ocean-floor geography.

    (In other words, if you’re going to claim that astrophysics, geology, and much of biology aren’t “true sciences”, then you have very little understanding of science.)

  24. Science is an empirical belief system within the scientific world. Beyond that world, it is largely a matter of trust and faith in that system. Unless one is a scientist and has the training, has done the experiments, and has a deep understanding of abstract math, there may not be a total empirical accounting of facts to the everyday shmoe. While peer review and repetition of experiments help scientists agree on facts, most people take the word of scientists not unlike how religious folk believe in the word of church leaders. Granted, science generally doesn’t take much on faith, but often some things based on bad science become pervasive in what people believe is true. The autism/vaccination link has been both debunked and recanted as a fraud, yet some feel that the evidence that there is an industrial coverup is more believable than the facts which discount this theory. There have been problems in court trials where the fire evidence based on old wives tales has resulted in convictions because of the faith people put in supposed experts in the matter. Industry will often fund studies just to skew facts to their advantage to confuse facts about climate change and such.

    In a similar way that religions have used their influence to manipulate the political and social views of their practitioners, science is also used to this same end. I don’t think this is the fault of science. It is more the result of most people having a very low bar for weighing the evidence from a particular source. Media in general comes in various grades of “truthiness.” Sometimes, one may read something as factual as science, but many disregard truth they don’t like because it’s too mainstream. Often people don’t look at multiple sources of information about a topic. They choose the expert witness of their liking and stick with that source exclusively.

    The real trouble is that understanding empirical evidence is harder than what it takes to trust. Real facts inherently do not have higher signal to noise. People tend to look for evidence of their own opinions and theories whatever anyone else thinks or believes. People see what they believe more often than the other way around.

    Whether or not the scientific method were perfect or flawed matters little if countertruth has a higher budget for advertising.

  25. Tom Lehrer summed up the situation well:

  26. “Whether or not the scientific method were perfect or flawed matters little if countertruth has a higher budget for advertising.”

    I less than three this.

  27. “Nonsense. You’re working from a naive picture that says only things done in “laboratories” are science, which is exceedingly silly and parochial. All “experiments” are observations; the distinction lies in how carefully and cleverly you can identify, select, or arrange the particular conditions of the observation. (Only select mice inhabiting environments with qualities A and B, but not C, and observe what they eat; set up the experimental apparatus so the mice experience conditions X and Y, but not Z, and observe what they eat; etc., etc.)

    There are of course practical differences in how you do science in different disciplines, but this is true even if you’re just talking about “experiments”: someone who’s really good at doing laboratory experiments with fruit fly behavior isn’t going to be any better at designing particle accelerator experiments than someone who’s really good at measuring ocean-floor geography.

    (In other words, if you’re going to claim that astrophysics, geology, and much of biology aren’t “true sciences”, then you have very little understanding of science.)”

    I apologize for getting a wire crossed in those two statements–I see that I did indeed imply that “educated Americans” would only accept lab science as science, which is not correct and not at all what I meant to say. (I did warn you it was late at night when I posted!) Apologies also to the astrophysicists, geologists, etc. whose scientific honor I have impugned.

    I do think, though, that there is a real and important difference between experimental and observational science. I would say that the business of science is to show cause and effect. If one can control the causes, as we [try to] do in a laboratory setting, one can become confident in the cause-effect relationship more quickly than is possible in a setting where the causes can’t be controlled.

  28. “I do think, though, that there is a real and important difference between experimental and observational science. I would say that the business of science is to show cause and effect. If one can control the causes, as we [try to] do in a laboratory setting, one can become confident in the cause-effect relationship more quickly than is possible in a setting where the causes can’t be controlled.”

    Yes. It also makes a big difference how many observations are available. If you are studying US elections and they are only every 2 years, you will spend time waiting. (Kind of like an experimental forester who can wait 20 years for his controlled experiment to bear fruit. But the forester can plant more trees. The political scientist can’t get them to hold extra elections.)

    I knew a woman who went into electron microscopy because she didn’t like complicated inferences. She wanted to *see* what was there. But it turned out that when she looked at lots of RNA she would eventually see everything. It’s like ink blots, what you look for will pop out at you whether it’s the dominant mechanism or not. She wound up having to do lots of statistics….

    It’s no big deal for a chemist to study a mole of molecules. Statistical fluctuations will usually damp out very fast. An astrophysicist may have photos of millions of the kind of star he’s interested in, and every one of them has uncontrolled variables. If they’re all pretty much alike that’s some indication those uncontrolled variables are probably not very important, right? But if you are an anthropologist and you want to compare the ways different cultures solve a particular problem, you’ll be lucky to find 10,000 cultures that have been documented to solve that problem. And if you are an economist studying global recessions, you’ll be lucky to find fifty examples….

  29. Is this thread a progression of hypotheses towards an objective definition of science? Or does the fact that we’re talking about definitions of language ironically mean that it’s a subjective thing?

    A recurring element in the definitions so far is the use of experiments. As a broadest possible net, would ‘science’ be anything-you-frame-through-experimental-methods?

  30. skzb

    Scot: I don’t think its progressing toward a definition; at least, I’d be amazed if did so. The thread is doing a very good job of satisfying my curiosity about what various readers of this blog mean by “science” and “scientific method.” That was all I was intending it to do.

  31. Skzb

    Interestingly no-one so far has tackled the question of scientific hoaxes and scientific fraud; hoaxes, once proven, usually provide some amusement but fraud is, arguably, an inevitable consequence of ‘publish or perish’…

  32. skzb

    Stevie: Oh, very good point.

  33. @evergreen
    OK, speaking as an astrophysicist — apology accepted 😉

    Yes, it is an advantage of experiments that you can limit extraneous, potentially confusing factors and arrange controlled comparisons more easily than you usually can with observations.

    But it’s almost always a matter of degree rather than a qualitative difference, and this depends a lot on the field. For example, high-energy particle physics is an “experimental” field, but actually doing the experiments has become increasingly difficult, time-consuming, and expensive in recent decades. Partly because of this, particle physicists have become increasingly interested in results from observational fields like solar physics (i.e., the solar neutrino problem) and cosmology.

  34. Science is what happens when you kiss someone; everything else is why.

  35. My take on matters of science is that there are currently two main classes of “scientist”; hard scientists and theorists. Both are attempting to explain aspects of the world (or universe) around them, and hard scientists use actual observation and their theories are actually directly testable, but theorists use currently available observations and try to solve problems by developing a theory which, within certain parameters, solves the problem, but which is not directly testable.

    At the time that Einstein developed his theories, he was, in fact, a theorist (if you exclude his work on the photoelectric effect). Relativity was an awesome concept, but it wasn’t until that solar eclispse that any of it was observable. General Relativity presented a more accurate apparent location of the stars that were behind the sun. These days, Relativity is used (and tested) on a daily basis, and has yet to be found in error.

    String theorists, those who discuss and develop aspects of Superstring theory, are (for now) just theorists. Though Superstring theory would beautifully fix the problems of both Relativity and Quantum Mechanics being correct, and yet being so different, if there is to be one fundamental law that explains everything in the universe, both cannot be correct, yet it is completely untestable. In order to test it, we would need a device capable of observing planck length, which would require about a million times the energy that CERN uses when operating the LHC. Such technology just does not exist.

  36. Hi Steven,

    As a working scientist (a physicist/astronomer, in my case) the practical definition of science comes down to something like “whatever is scientific is based upon objective observations” — whether passive observations of nature or controlled experiments does not matter. The word “objective” is important, meaning that it should be something measured by some type of instrument or recording device (in the best case) or something that can be defined in an objective way (as with observing animals in the wild in biology, for example, even if it is done by eye or ear). One big change in physics over the past 50 years or so is that the theoretical side has sometimes gone far afield from the observations, much more so than it used to do before that. This is fine in the sense that people should be free to be inventive. But it only is valuable as physics if there is a direct or indirect observational test that can be made sooner or later. And until such a test is made the idea remains speculation. But science does not have to be mathematical, it just has to be firmly rooted in objective observation. Botany is a science. It does not require mathematics and is entirely descriptive as far as I know, but it is science.

    Something to note is that most (nearly all) of the scientists I have worked with never worry about some of the things that philosophers of science spend their time on. That may mean that we just are not smart enough to grasp the questions, but sometimes the philosophers of science get hung up on things that we know of but don’t worry about….the idea that theories can only be falsified and never proven is one such.

    One thing that I have wondered about at times is your use of the term “science” with respect to politics, economics, and human society generally. I do not see that we have such sciences yet, and we may never have such a thing. What I mean here by “science” is something looser than what I think of in terms of physics as a science. If we collectively decide “we want to do X” where “X” might be “supply health care to everyone” or “promote equality for all people irrespective of their gender/sexual preference/ethnicity”, then if we had a science of human society we could say “we have to take steps 1, 2, 3 and we have a good likelihood of achieving the goal”. That would suffice for me, even if it was not as cut and dry as physics as a science. Human society is so complex that this is really difficult, or impossible, and it is worse because we have emotional attachment to ideas so that we really cannot be objective. So we have no science of politics, just a lot of opinions. I am not saying that people do not try, but it is very difficult. If we could at least be objective and agree on basics we would be better off, but even that is illusive. So this would be a variation on the term “science”, for cases where reproducible observations are not possible. Human society is always changing. One can be objective about the mass of the electron because we have no emotional attachment to the thing. Or at least, people do not usually have an emotional attachment to this type of thing. In fact scientists do get emotionally attached to ideas and this causes all sorts of non-objective behavior. Eventually things tend to get straight in the end, but it is much messier than one might think.

  37. “… hard scientists use actual observation and their theories are actually directly testable, but theorists use currently available observations and try to solve problems by developing a theory which, within certain parameters, solves the problem, but which is not directly testable.”

    Sometimes theorists work with things that can be tested. Sometimes they work with things that in theory could be tested, but no one has yet invented a practical way to test them. Sometimes they work with things which cannot even in theory be tested. These last can still be valuable.

    I want to blather on about something that’s interested me recently. I won’t be offended if you just skip by it.

    Physicists accepted for a long time that the universe could be measured like a euclidean 3-space. They just assumed that was true, and it worked. Also they assumed Galilean relativity. That means, you can pick anywhere to put the zero for your euclidean 3-space and everything will work out the same. Also, you can assume that everything you know about is drifting at a constant speed in some constant direction, and that won’t make any difference either. Motion in a straight line is always relative. But rotations are absolute. You can decide you are the center of the universe and nobody cares. If you decide the universe rotates around you, the universe will prove you wrong.

    That changed with electromagnetism. Electromagnetism research was dominated by two experimentalists, Ampere in France and Faraday in England. Ampere also did a lot of careful theory which has been forgotten. Faraday was self-educated and did not trust mathematics. He described his results with pictures and evocative verbal images. Faraday said that a stationary electric charge had no magnetic field, but a moving electric charge created a magnetic field. A stationary magnetic field had no effect on a stationary electric charge, but a moving magnetic field would make charges move.

    Faraday did not know or care about Galilean relativity. He assumed that electric and magnetic fields depended on absolute motion. His lab bench was at rest.

    Maxwell made a complete mathematical theory which explained Faraday’s work. (He also paid a lot of attention to Ampere’s work, but Maxwell was British and also it was a big challenge to describe Faraday’s pictures with math.) Electricity and magnetism depend on absolute velocity. Periodic acceleration of charges produces waves that travel at lightspeed, because that’s what light is. All light travels at the same speed, which is as far as you can get from absolute rest.

    Maxwell’s equations predicted things that were true that people had not thought to look for. They appeared to be correct. But they implied that Galilean relativity was dead wrong.

    And under available experimental conditions, lightwaves always appeared to travel at lightspeed relative to us, when we clearly are not at absolute rest. Maxwell’s equations were wrong, there is no absolute rest, and presumably lightwaves travel at the same lightspeed relative to everybody. But we knew Maxwell’s equations were right.

    Einstein found a theoretical solution. He gave up euclidean 3space. If distances and durations change depending on who’s measuring, then everything can work out. The same light observed by different people can travel at all speeds at once. There is no absolute rest — everybody has their own absolute rest and Maxwell’s equations work for them all.

    Here is a simpler example of something similar. Imagine that we decided the world is a euclidean 2-space, with occasional mountains and such. Surveyors would find that as they went north, things got increasingly weird. In reality our surveyors have dealt with that on a patchwork basis which is not at all elegant.

    We could have developed the theory that the surface of the earth is actually a cylinder. And when you go north or south, you and your surveying chains stretch out in the east-west direction. So you can lay out a perfect square and it will seem to you like the north side is short, because you’re stretched. The north pole is the point you get stretched so wide you can’t go any farther. By this theory Mercator maps would be perfect. Except of course that when you use them you will face the illusion that things are skinny east-west because you are so fat…. The theory that the earth is a cylinder instead of a sphere cannot be falsified if you handle all the details correctly.

    Around 1900 there were various alternatives proposed to einsteinian relativity. Typically they assumed that Maxwell’s equations were correct but that something about light was different. Mostly they could not be taken seriously because if Maxwell’s equations were correct then light was what it was and not something else.

    And so I wonder what would happen if someone created something like Maxwell’s equations from scratch, depending on only relative motion. It might not be possible, which would be interesting. It might give the same practical results but provide different pictures and intuitions.

    Maybe it’s been done and I haven’t heard, because it was so boring nobody cared.

    There’s always more than one theoretical underpinning that can fit any set of experimental results. We can choose one by esthetics, or one that is easy to compute with, etc. It goes beyond the data to say that it’s correct until we can prove that no other theory could also be correct.

  38. @Kevin:

    “In fact scientists do get emotionally attached to ideas and this causes all sorts of non-objective behavior. Eventually things tend to get straight in the end, but it is much messier than one might think.”

    Thanks for those comments and your candid description about the human realities mixed in with the scientific ideals.

  39. There’s a great Long Now seminar on this topic: The Next 100 Years of Science: Long-term Trends in the Scientific Method. It’s all about how the scientific method itself has changed over time, and how it might change in the future. Worth a listen, if you have 77 minutes worth of brain cycles to spare.

  40. Truth to tell, I’ve never gotten the whole falsifiable thing, unless it’s just shorthand for testable.

    There are two primary elements to the scientific method, prediction and testing. Einstein’s work was predictive, and many of his ideas have been proven to be correct now that we can test them, even if at the time of their birth they were speculative. A lot of what we used to consider science fiction is becoming doable, moving it from science fiction to actual science. Ultimately, science is practical. Cosmologists may be brilliant theorists, but until they get evidence to support their ideas, they’re just guessing.

    Science also has the specific quality of objectivity. An internal combustion engine will run in the same way no matter what the person operating it believes.

    I personally would argue with anyone who tried to claim history could be a science because no ideas about it are testable. Managing modern society in a scientific manner? I think the only way that could be done would be to eradicate all individuality as in “Brave New World”. If we were all the same, then the same stimulus would always evoke the same response. The idea of being scientific has become almost a holy grail, as though nothing can have inherent worth if it’s not science-based (as any “creation scientist” could tell you), and I feel that has contributed to the degradation of the term.

    As an aside, are you familiar with the X Prize (xprize.org)? They’re offering $10M to whoever can invent a working Star Trek tricorder for medical use. A perfect example of science fiction moving towards science fact.

  41. “Truth to tell, I’ve never gotten the whole falsifiable thing, unless it’s just shorthand for testable.

    There are two primary elements to the scientific method, prediction and testing. Einstein’s work was predictive, and many of his ideas have been proven to be correct now that we can test them….”

    As you demonstrate, you haven’t gotten the falsifiable thing.

    Say you have an experiment, and Newton/Maxwell theory predicts that A = B = C and in your experimental conditions A = C = 1 +- 0.0006.

    But some Einsteinian theory predicts that A = 1.04 +- .02 while C = 1.06 +- 0.02.

    The actual measurements come out A = 1.03 C = 1.07 .

    Newton/Maxwell is definitely wrong. Einstein is within error bounds. Einstein could be right.

    How many other theories might also predict something close to A = 1.03 and C = 1.07? You won’t know until you list them all and prove that there can’t be any other correct theory that you have missed.

    When a theory predicts things that just don’t happen, then you know it’s wrong. When it correctly predicts the experiments you know how to do so far, then it might be right. But you might find new experiments later which will show it’s wrong.

    So you can never do enough experiments to prove that the theory is true. You can show that it works well enough within some range of conditions, that engineers can depend on it within that range. That’s pretty good, even if it turns out it’s not exactly true.

  42. @J Thomas

    > Newton/Maxwell is definitely wrong.

    Actually, that’s not the case, though I allow you may have simplified for the argument.

    Your example experiment suggests that Newton/Maxwell is wrong. However, the value, accuracy, and error ascribed to the experiment is not magically factual just because some experimenter states those bounds. Many more experiments, in both the same and in different configurations, from the same and different experimenters, in the same and different laboratories are required before we can reasonably reject Newton/Maxwell, whether or not it’s in favor of Einstein.

    You pointed out that no theory can ever be definitely proven; but for much the same reason, no consistent theory can ever be definitely disproven, either. It just happens that it’s often easier for us to decrease our belief in a probably-wrong theory than it is to increase our belief in a possiby-right one.

  43. “You pointed out that no theory can ever be definitely proven; but for much the same reason, no consistent theory can ever be definitely disproven, either.”

    Consider the theory that things fall directly proportional to their weight. I would consider that one disproven.

    The theory that similar charges attract while opposite charges repel is also pretty shaky.

    If you get something that comes very close in all circumstances you can measure, then it takes a whole lot of finicky measurement to be sure your measurements are good enough to definitely show it’s wrong. But sometimes it isn’t even close and there’s no question it’s wrong.

  44. skzb

    You may want to try to be a little more precise in using “theory” in the scientific sense, versus “hypothesis.” Might reduce the confusion a little. Of course, that’s just my hypothesis.

  45. I would say Science is any study where new developments are met both by skepticism and and attempts at validation by your peers. Not all things that are done in labs and reported in scientific journals are science. Another defining characteristic of science is, ideally, an aversion to obfuscation. Results that do not show what you were hoping to find should never be hidden. Instead you should examine your methodology or revise your hypothesis. Science is the extrapolation of empiricism.

  46. “Science is the extrapolation of empiricism.”

    This gives the lie to the cooking analogies then. Since there’s no accounting for taste, things like cooking can’t be validated by peer review. (I don’t think any of my peers would want to get too close to my tastebuds.) This suggests to me that we need to distinguish between capital-S Science, and lower-case scientific approaches to things? Does making that distinction lop off the culinary arts, sociology, and the rest into a distinctly non-scientific category? I’d say, no—there is a range of scientificality. But does that descend into mere truthiness?

  47. Science is the art of asking why…

    That’s why in science we have so many things that are still called theories and so many other things that continually need updated proofs

    This is why the theoretical sciences are beautiful in what they do… they grasp at the unknowable with small pieces of information hoping in time the theories will be proven correct by the tangible sciences…

    In essence there are two forms of science but only with repeatable results do we have evidence based science

    I like the topic that this brings up because we need a new approach to what is considered science…

  48. Not sure that Popper didn’t fit his view of scientific progression to match his view of politics, but it sure seems that way. Still, I think it provides a nice dividing line between Science and NOT Science (as my doctor friend puts it). Add in some Kuhn and away we go.

    The scientific method works well when dealing with non-sentient subjects, and best of all with non-sentient subjects that are not messed with or significantly influenced by sentient systems. So, astronomy, physics, much medicine, biology (on the cellelar scale best and less so the higher you go — basically all the subjects one finds in the “science” section of a bookstore, library or university catalogue. Make sentient beings a significant part of the subject under study and you must leave the realms of science.

    I write “must” because although we can observe, hypothesize, test, there are data problems. First, if our error is in the ones digit, we’ve actually done very well for what we’re studying but are in no position to run any regression analysis without introducing errors that will invalidate the whole shebang. We simply cannot set any test condition back to zero and control variables to test our hypotheses.

    The reason for this is very simple. No sub-atomic particle, atom or molecule will ever just do something differently in an experiemental observation time-frame “just because,;” but people do that all the time, Mild mannered people have horrid days and lash out, the guy who drinsk Pepsi for years one day just has try try a Dr. Pepper, and anyone will swerve out of the way of the imaginary tortoise in the middle of the road. This makes human systems and individual human behavior not terribly amenable to the scientific approach, strictly speaking.

    That does not, to my mind, mean that therefore nothing useful can be done. Indeed, much useful work has improved societies and small group dynamics. And, just as in science, a tool developed in one setting can be used in many others (anyone who doesn’t see analogues of Saul Alinsky’s ideas in the early tea party movement could use some better glasses). “Scientific truth” is far from the only truth worth searching for.

    Indeed, some of the really big things for us humans are extremely ill-suited for any scientific inquiry — so much so that to engage in scientific enquiry rather misses the point. The usual suspects here: love, happiness, joy, beauty, as well as hatred, misery and ugliness.

    As someone with several degrees in politics broadly speaking, I watch with humor the so-called “formal theorists” with their pseudo legeant multi-variant regression analyses and references to “Arrow’s Theorem.” This is both because of the foregoing bit about how humans aren’t very fit subjects for scientific investigations, but even more so because those folks are attempting to ape what science says it is. For Kuhn is right. Consider:

    –“Hawking radiation” solves so many of the theoritical problems associated with conservation of information and black holes, but the entire set of equations does not use anything for gravity, which is really kind of a biggie with black holes.
    — For all that we think we understand gravity, there’s something big missing, because there is no mass large enough to stand in for “the Great Attractor” and even if there were nothing to then also account for “the Lesser Attractor.”
    — The Dark Matter so many not only believe in but believe they wil find is only necessary for the universe to have critical mass, and there’s no scientific reason why it must. Heat death is the other option, and such directly observable evidence as we have makes it a much better fit. Or, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is wrong.
    — What’s up with wave/particle duality, anyway?

    Kuhn’s point about the succession of theories contains a key clause about “the most relevant questions.” Thus, while the prevailing scientific theories of today answer the questions thought most relevant at their founding (basically better explaining the holes in the previous theory’s fit with observed data), they leave unaddressed some very interesting questions. I personally think there’s a lot more to Phlogiston theory than its successor.

    Here’s an experiment I want to do, which requires human subjects and no wavers!!!! Get a totally generic car (like a silver Toyota Camry) and have the passenger in the front seat stare out the passenger window when passing other motorists. I predict that an observer in the back seat will note other drivers will turn to look at the passenger in many cases before the normal peripheral vision of a human could have detected the passenger’s gaze.

    Even if my prediction stands, what could possiby be the explanation, and how could THAT be tested?

  49. skzb

    JP: ‘No sub-atomic particle, atom or molecule will ever just do something differently in an experiemental observation time-frame “just because,;’ but people do that all the time”

    What strikes me here is the assumption that, if someone doesn’t know why he did something, he did it for no reason. If you asked an atom or molecule why it did something, it would probably be unable to give you a good answer. Atoms and molecules are notoriously weak at self-knowledge. This does not prove that the atom or molecule didn’t have a reason for its actions.

    Your comment perfectly expresses why so many people are convinced that human society is not a fit subject for science–that human beings, individually or in groups, are unknowable. The fact that every single branch of science was once considered unknowable is not sufficient proof that this is wrong.

    But either all of the factors influencing human behavior are a part of material reality, or there is the influence of God in some form. If they are part of material reality, they are knowable. To claim anything is unknowable is to leave the door open to God. I believe that if something is knowable, than the methods of science are the best way to comprehend it.

  50. “No sub-atomic particle, atom or molecule will ever just do something differently in an experiemental observation time-frame “just because,;” but people do that all the time,”

    That doesn’t invalidate scientific method. You can come up with hypotheses about when to expect people to do something random, and test those ideas. So for example when people are startled and scared, they are likely to “panic”. They quickly take random action. That way, if some enemy has a plan which has startled them, during and after their random action the enemy’s plan may be disrupted. Better to do anything than passively wait for the plan to unfold. When you are with only a few friends when you are ambushed, panic is your friend.

    “Indeed, some of the really big things for us humans are extremely ill-suited for any scientific inquiry — so much so that to engage in scientific enquiry rather misses the point. The usual suspects here: love, happiness, joy, beauty, as well as hatred, misery and ugliness.”

    You are talking about advanced abstractions. Science should probably start with things that are closer to endocrine function and see where it goes.

    “I watch with humor the so-called “formal theorists” with their pseudo legeant multi-variant regression analyses and references to “Arrow’s Theorem.” ”

    Regression analysis is OK, you just have to keep track of your assumptions. If you forget them you may think your evidence says things it does not in fact say. Arrow’s Theorem looks like a snare and a delusion to me. Some of his postulates were designed precisely to prove his point, and would not be invented otherwise. I think reasonable people would not pay so much attention to it. But it is not my field.

    “What’s up with wave/particle duality, anyway?”

    I can’t answer your previous physics questions but I can make a stab at this one. Wave theory works to describe electromagnetic radiation, but when you look at the interaction between radiation and mass you get statistical effects. Mass is quantized. Meanwhile, wave theory can work to describe locations of moving mass, at least statistically.

    It is possible to design a statistical particle theory which can statistically describe electromagnetic radiation and also locations of moving mass.

    Either way works when you have only statistical data. People mostly settled on the particle approach, perhaps because the math was easier or because it fit their prejudices. They tried to apply their statistical results to single particles, which gave them unintuitive results. Since they believed the approach was correct, they had to believe that the unintuitive results for unobservable single particles were also correct.

    Eventually it devolved to highly scientific nonsense. The math is the only accurate description of the experimental results. The experimental results are what the math describes. It’s the ultimate absurd refutation of Bridgman’s operationism, except that I can’t believe Bridgman was wrong….

    “I personally think there’s a lot more to Phlogiston theory than its successor.”

    I haven’t looked at that for awhile, but I vaguely remember phlogiston theory contradicted itself. Perhaps you could find a way to remove the contradiction….

    “Get a totally generic car (like a silver Toyota Camry) and have the passenger in the front seat stare out the passenger window when passing other motorists. I predict that an observer in the back seat will note other drivers will turn to look at the passenger in many cases before the normal peripheral vision of a human could have detected the passenger’s gaze.

    “Even if my prediction stands, what could possiby be the explanation, and how could THAT be tested?”

    We may be extra good at detecting perfect circles. We may be extra good at detecting perfect circles in peripheral vision.

    Guppies care a lot whether they’re being stared at, even with one eye. So do lots of animals. It isn’t unlikely we might have specific optical and neural machinery to detect that.

    That one could be easy to test, get contact lenses that distort the shape of your pupil and iris. See if people are as quick to notice you staring.

  51. skzb: “If they are part of material reality, they are knowable. To claim anything is unknowable is to leave the door open to God.”

    This entails the assumptions that God is not part of material reality and is unknowable. A better description might be “currently unknown,” just like various branches of science have been / are.

  52. It’s hard to prove something is unknowable.

    Like, the classic chestnut is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Given current experimental methods, there are things that cannot be measured. There is a theory that this must forever be true, that we can in principle never find experimental methods which could measure those things together.

    I have been told that there are people who believe Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has to be true. They believe it reflects the way the universe is, and not just a flaw in our ability to measure things. If they are right then there can never be a way to measure the things Heisenberg says cannot be measured — perhaps those things simply do not exist in isolation.

    I don’t have any idea how that could be proven, if it happens to be true. It’s something that could be taken on faith.

  53. skzb

    Scot: With all due respect, in my opinion, that is exactly backward. If it is part of material reality—subject to the laws of nature, even if laws we do not presently understand–it is precisely *not* God. When I say that I do not believe in God, that is what I mean. God as an idea is knowable, and part of material reality as are all ideas; God as an independent entity is exactly the unknowable. Which, in my opinion, ain’t thar.

  54. There is so much we don’t understand that it seems to me very hard to prove that there is no God which is emphatically unknowable.

    But I don’t even have any concept how we would prove there was an unknowable God. That would require techniques which as far as I know have not been invented yet and might be completely impossible.

    I used to be a militant agnostic. “I don’t know and you don’t know either!” But really, if it comforts people to think they know things they can’t possibly know about the unknown, where’s the harm so long as they don’t act on it? So I figure it’s usually better not to argue about such things. Far more interesting if we can push back the unknown a little in some interesting areas.

  55. Steve: From the definitions arise the conclusions. Although science is, at least partially, a matter of adjusting definitions as new evidence becomes available, the areas where we seek for new evidence are completely up to our judgment. I can respect your perspective on it—especially as it’s your blog and your hospitality here.

  56. Here we have two strikingly different approaches to truth. Compare and contrast:
    ” From the definitions arise the conclusions.” — Scot
    “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” — Lincoln

  57. You and I and Lincoln all agree on what makes something a dog’s leg and a dog’s tail. On the other hand, all three of us disagree (probably – I don’t know much about Lincoln’s religious ideas) on what makes Deity. Extending Lincoln’s wit to a conclusion about metaphysics seems like a false analogy to me. However, I admit that I should have written my sentence as “From a man’s definitions arise that man’s conclusions” rather than leaving it as a universal truth. Or even more concrete, “From Steven Brust’s definitions come Steven Brust’s conclusions.”

  58. “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” — Lincoln

    That bothered me from the first time I heard it. It appears to say that you can’t redefine things, that words have exterior meanings which cannot change.

    But there are times when failing to redefine terms is the vilest immoral evil.

    Where I am now is that Lincoln is proposing a useful rule. Don’t redefine terms for trivial or frivolous reasons.

  59. Science is merely a tool with/by/thru which we systematically study and attempt to comprehend the nature of Creation around us, and has been misused for untoward purposes at least as much as anything else in history, the most disgusting of which is when it is used as a religion in itself.

  60. On the other hand, or possibly paw, Lincoln may simply have been updating Shakespeare’s ‘A rose by any other name’ riff…

  61. skzb

    Stevie: Yeah, could be. A dog’s tail by any other name would…no, not going there.

  62. J Thomas

    Thanks for the response. Thus does the World Historical Spirit manifest itself, or some such.

    “You can come up with hypotheses about when to expect people to do something random, and test those ideas.”

    Sure I could, or you could, or anyone could. What I was trying to suggest is that sometimes people just do stuff, and they don’t consciously know why. Anyone who lives in an urban area will pass bits of litter many times a day, yet occasionally will pick one up and dispose of it, while other times they may just scuff it along with a foot. The possible list of random things (random as defined by completely out of pattern yet so unusual that no discernable pattern can be drawn from their occurrence) is literally infinite. Non-sentient particles lack any of these degrees of freedom.

    As far as the wave/particle duality deal, if wha you can postulate depends on the data you gather, then you have to choose how to gather data, and that will pretty much decide whether you’re gathering data that shows waves or particles. Mathematics is a language of expression and, like any other language I’m aware of, is capable of nonsensical expressions. Would that there could ever be a mathematical Ted Geisel to give us euphonic nonsenical equations that could convey meaning at the same time.

    “We may be extra good at detecting perfect circles. We may be extra good at detecting perfect circles in peripheral vision.

    “Guppies care a lot whether they’re being stared at, even with one eye. So do lots of animals. It isn’t unlikely we might have specific optical and neural machinery to detect that.”

    Prey species tend to be aware of a lot more than predator species are. If we were to postulate that this is where the ability to detect another person staring at us comes from, it should also be possible to measure heart rate data (but then you’d have to have the permission of the people being stared at, so that would pollute the experiment and make a ton of work for the human subject review board).

    I prefer the hypothesis that this awareness comes from us being a social species. So we could test with people versus manekins and see if they get the same response. But since I’d also bet (being willing to bet is a lower order of hypothesis) that a generically attractive member of the approrpriate gender would be more likely picked up sooner and with greater attention than any other such starer.

  63. “You can come up with hypotheses about when to expect people to do something random, and test those ideas.”

    ‘Sure I could, or you could, or anyone could. What I was trying to suggest is that sometimes people just do stuff, and they don’t consciously know why.’

    If you study them, you might at some point consciously know why they do some particular things, that they don’t understand themselves. Sometimes it works that way.

    People who do posthypnotic suggestion see that a lot. Everybody in the room but one person thinks that person was given a posthypnotic suggestion to put on her coat. Ask her why she put on her coat and she says “I felt cold”. People continually make up reasons to explain the things they have done which they don’t understand. In general, first we make choices and then we make up reasonable-sounding reasons for them.

    “As far as the wave/particle duality deal, if wha you can postulate depends on the data you gather, then you have to choose how to gather data, and that will pretty much decide whether you’re gathering data that shows waves or particles.”

    Yes, but you can interpret it either way regardless. If you look at electromagnetic radiation traveling through space, it perfectly fits waves. But when you try to measure it, you have to make it interact with matter. It can interact with one crystal on a photographic film, or one or two rhodopsin molecules in a cell in your eye, etc. When you detect it, it is quantized. You can choose to assume it was always quantized.

    If you look at, say, electrons traveling through space, they perfectly fit waves too. But when you measure them they interact with matter, and you can build up a wave pattern out of a lot of individual hits that fit a statistical wave. Since people started out believing electrons were quantized, it makes perfect sense to go on thinking that.

    Nowadays they don’t even try to make sense of that sort of thing. The math works, you can use it. Next problem.

    “I prefer the hypothesis that this awareness comes from us being a social species.”

    Could be. Either way, the mechanisms could be built into your retina and into your backbrain, without a lot of consciousness involved. If we discover that the mechanisms are there, then we get to make up stories to explain them and possibly test the stories. If we don’t find the mechanisms then we need a whole other layer of story because then we don’t even have proof that it works, much less how it works.

    So first look to see whether you can actually measure something that has an effect. Then you can see whether the details suggest some special meaning.

    “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” J.R.R. Tolkien

  64. “If you study them, you might at some point consciously know why they do some particular things, that they don’t understand themselves. Sometimes it works that way ”

    Indeed, and by implication of the syntax, sometimes it also does not work that way. The part that sometimes does not work that way with people does not exist for non-sentient matter, at least so far as we have been able to perceive this far. Maybe electrons do, to paraphrase an author you made me think of “just fundamentally get fed up with where they are and shift orbits,” but we have yet to detect any such ability.

    If you are okay with something being “quantized,” dunno how we get past this. No biggie, not arguing my point, just can’t see the cat as alive and dead both at once. Strkes me that physical laws ought to behave consistently regardless of the scale of the system. I realize that there’s a whole field of nano-tech reliant upon very important differences in, say, conductivity of a given materal at the nano-scale versus any other. To me, that’s just because we don’t have enough data to know why it appears to conduct better. Maybe just like with perfectly aligned crystals, there’s just no problem of stuff not being properly aligned at the nano-scale, or it’s just a whole lot less.

    “So first look to see whether you can actually measure something that has an effect. Then you can see whether the details suggest some special meaning.”

    Then you try to design another experiment to test your hypothesized meaning. Most of the time, this will be a rinse/repeat thing ad nauseam if not ad infinitum. But that’s okay, going back to Popper, because only the truly rare hypotheses stand the test of falsifiction, but science advanced by gigantic bounds when they do.

    To your Tolkein, I offer his countryman Douglas Adams: “Navigational technique of mine. …find a car, or the nearest equivalent, which looks as if it knows where it’s going and follow it. I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but I often end up somewhere that I needed to be.”

  65. “If you are okay with something being “quantized,” dunno how we get past this. No biggie, not arguing my point, just can’t see the cat as alive and dead both at once.”

    Physics was the first big application for probability theory, apart from population genetics and gambling. If you try formal study in probability theory you will run into all the same philosophical garbage. Like, what does it mean to assign a probability to a single event? Afterward, the event either happened or it did not, so what does the probability mean? It could represent your uncertainty about the event. Or it could represent a density for the event among many many universes….

    The weird things about quantum theory are all just probability effects. A theory not of causation but correlation. It mixes together what’s true with what you know about what’s true.

    If you apply this sort of thinking to traffic engineering, you might say that automobiles on the road are indistinguishable, and that each of them has a probability to take any path and eventually end up in any suburban driveway. If you’re driving, there is a probability that you will take the Jefferson exit or that you will continue down the freeway to some entirely different home to be greeted by some entirely different housewife, and nobody knows which it will be until you take or fail to take the exit.

    We know that’s nonsense for drivers, who mostly each have a specific plan for where they are going and are not at all interchangeable. But if it’s electrons we really can’t tell them apart, and they won’t tell us which is which. So statistical evidence is the best we can do. If one electron cuts itself out of the herd, we don’t know which one. If we try to apply the statistics we know to individual electrons, then we can get conclusions like individual electrons sometimes simply swap places with each other. Because when you do the math there is no difference between “you don’t know which electron it is until you find out” versus “in reality it isn’t any electron in particular until you find out”.

    Lots of meanings you would like to take from things, are simply not available from probabilistic results. But those are the most accurate results available, and so there is the temptation to say they are true, and then to say that interpretations people can make of individual events derived from probabilities are also true. It’s a sort of philosophical morass, and physicists have been stuck in it for nearly a hundred years. The easiest way out is to say that none of the meanings mean anything, that the questions you would want to ask do not themselves mean anything, that all that matters is that the mathematics fits the data as well as anything can possibly fit it.

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