Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Three Exciting Things You Should Know About Science

Okay, I think last time I may have waxed a little too science-y for some of my readers. But you see, all of this is leading somewhere-- somewhere you will be glad you went. If you will just bear with me for today’s post, I will reward you next time with a diagram that I believe will be very helpful to your understanding of how science fits into the grand scheme of… well, everything. So I will risk being a bit science-y one more time in order to set us up for The Best Diagram I Have Ever Thought Of.

Indulge me for a moment while I talk about three things everyone and their Aunt Gracie should know in order to navigate today's science-laden world with minimal confusion.

Last time we settled upon a definition for science, namely the scientific method and the knowledge it produces. Additionally, anything that can be called science must meet the three criteria below. Again, I will use quotes from prominent scientists to explain these, so that you don’t just have to take my word for it. Skip over the quotes (but notice the headings) if you do want to take my word for it and not read the entire post:

“One may believe, as many scientists do, that the universe was brought into existence by the action of a supernatural being, but such a belief is neither within the realm of science nor contradictory to the tenets of science. We must be able to observe events in the real world, directly or indirectly, for them to have scientific value, and testing of hypotheses and theories must be accessible to our senses or to instruments that can measure the events.” -Hickman et al (1988:5)

“Science cannot draw conclusions about things it cannot measure or manipulate experimentally. That is why science is a poor tool to decide beauty contests or to make aesthetic judgments on artistic matters. Nevertheless, these other things are indubitably real.” -Massimo Pigliucci (2002:145)

“I shall certainly admit a system as empirical or scientific only if it is capable of being tested by experience. These considerations suggest that not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demarcation. In other words, ...it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience.” -Karl Popper (1959:18)

“Popper’s claim also allows one rather neatly to delimit science from nonscience: any claim which in principle cannot be falsified is outside the realm of science.” -Ernst Mayr (1982:26)

“Falsifiability means that a theory is scientific only if there is some fact or observation that, if true, would tend to disprove, or falsify, the theory. In other words, science must be subject to falsification.” -Michael Ruse (1996)

“The tentativeness of science follows directly from its testability. Science knows no ultimate truth not subject to revision.” -Michael Ruse (1996:303)

“...by the nature of its methods science can reach only provisional, probabilistic conclusions, not absolute and immovable truths.” -Pigliucci (2002)

“Uncertainty is inherent in the scientific process because the goal of science is to incrementally reduce levels of uncertainty by subjecting alternative hypotheses to rigorous tests. …[Scientists] cannot prove the truth of an assertion; rather they fail to disprove that assertion, and thus support it.” -Barry Noon and Dennis Murphy (1994:386)

Do any of those criteria clear up any misconceptions you may have had about science? If so, I’d love to hear about it-- send me a comment.

Hopefully you are convinced by now that science is a specific method aimed at discovering some kinds-- but not all kinds--of truth, and never with absolute certainty. Clearly there are some aspects of reality that science cannot investigate. Even the National Academy of Sciences agrees with me:

“At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and [science] is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. … Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science.” -National Academy of Sciences (1998)

I emphasize the limitations of science not because I wish to criticize science-- far from it! Rather, I emphasize the boundaries necessary to preserve science as a reliable system, because I love science (in case you couldn’t tell).

And now, with our basic definition of science (from last time) and these three criteria in place, I am ready to draw The Best Diagram I Have Ever Thought Of. But I will leave you hanging in suspense until next time!

No comments:

Post a Comment