Saturday, October 1, 2011

Understanding Science Better: What is Science?

Understanding Science Better
I for one feel it is imperative to educate people about the merits of science. But before we can do that, we have to talk about what science is, and only then can we come to a better understanding of science.

Personally, I am no scientist. But I did take numerous science classes in astronomy, biology, chemistry, human physiology, and psychology at a prestigious university of science. Also, I practically devour any scientific work of popular literature I can get my hands on--especially in the areas of cosmology, evolution, and neuroscience. Occasionally, I read scientific journals and articles, just to keep with the times. So I think it's safe to assume that I have an idea of what science is.

Here is what I understand science to be (but don't take my word for it--read a book--reading rainbow).

Science, as we use it colloquially, commonly refers to the scientific method. As such, science is basically just a methodology for testing the validity of evidence.

This is exactly why science makes no assumptions, mind you. It can't actually make judgements until it has tested evidence first. After a lot of observation and testing, the evidence either proves true, or else, it proves false. No assumptions made. Just pure discovery.

In addition, we must be mindful not to confuse science (the methodology) with a scientific theory. They too are different things.

A scientific theory is hypothesis in which a premise, a principle, supposition, or proposed explanation is made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation--and which relies on science for either confirmation or falsification of that hypothesis.

Fending Off Scientific Illiteracy
Often times we hear a scientist, or scientifically literate person, defend the merits of genuine science from the cultish anti-science fear mongers--who toss around science as a pejorative term. I recently encountered someone who, without intending to, simply made an ass of himself by demonstrating a flabbergasting ignorance as to what constitutes science.

We all have run into someone like this at least once. They are so certain they know a lot on a subject they clearly have never taken the time to study or inform themselves about the least. Most of the time we choose to ignore them, because their blatant Lingua Franca like appreciation of the subject matter, usually is a dead give away. Surely there is nothing we can say or do to convince them that their knowledge is wanting, because in their eyes, they know all there is to know.

I have an aunt that thinks eating microwave popcorn will give you cancer. She asserts her views as a matter of fact, but it never ceases to confound me at to why she continues to keep a microwave oven in her kitchen. Maybe the kitchen came with it? Who knows. But what concerns me is where she is getting her information. After all, there is no reason to believe microwave popcorn will give you cancer--but she heard it at church--and, well, instead of Googling how a microwave oven works she took a different authority's word for it. An authority who, predictably, is as scientifically ignorant as my poor aunt.

I want to begin to correct this painful, and embarrassing, form of scientific ignorance--and the only way to do that is to highlight the mistakes and make people aware of them. It's the same as getting a test back from a teacher with dozens of red marks littering the page. The red marks are the red flags showing you the areas where you are completely ignorant. The idea of highlighting the mistakes is to, hopefully, ensure that the erudite student will go back and study those vital areas--and educate themselves more thoroughly. But most people, it seems, aren't concerned with improving their understanding--they usually just take things at face value.

Needless to say, this causes the conversations to go downhill rather fast. The conversations often look something like this:

Scientific Minded Person, "We gain new knowledge not from religion but from the sciences?"

Religious Minded Person, "No ... all scientifical knowledge is provisional and limited to the assumptions of science."

Please don't mistake my criticism of the problem as being unduly harsh on scientifically illiterate folk by making them sound borderline retarded. Heck, nobody would actually say "scientifical" now, would they? Actually, yes--this is an exact segment of a transcript of a conversation I have been reading on a forum where this religious fellow thinks all "scientifical" knowledge is provisional and limited by the "scientifical" assumptions it makes, apparently.

Perhaps what our "scientifical" minded friend was doing when he said that science makes assumptions is confusing general theories, or hypothesis, with formal scientific theories. But a working theory and a basic assumption are two very different things, as everyone well knows.

When informed that science doesn't, in point of fact, make any assumptions at all, his reply was:

"Show me a scientific factual evidence that 2 + 2 = 4."

The problem here is clear. Science is not the same thing as logic.

Both science and logic are methods of validation, but science often times runs counter-intuitive to logic. Logic dictates, for example, that something cannot come from nothing. But science, in the field of quantum mechanics, has shown that this logic doesn't always hold. Subatomic particles, for example, phases in and out of existence all the time.

What we can say is that both science and logic are concerned with validating our understanding so that it might constitute real knowledge, and helps to paint a better picture of the reality in which we live.

Whereas science is concerned with the validity of evidence, logic is concerned with the validity of various types of rationale/beliefs. Unlike science, logic doesn't test evidence. It tests the coherency of any given  premise based on certain ideas/beliefs about the world.

Logic = rational tool for testing the coherency of ideas/beliefs. 

Science = pragmatic tool for testing the validity of evidence.

Additionally, if something holds to be logically sound, then it becomes a formal proof. Even so, it still could be falsified, or merely theoretical, so should be considered provisional for these reasons.

As long as the logic is sound, however, then science is able to acquiesce the proof as a form of empirical support for helping to further along a hypothesis or else falsify it as counterfactual.

By talking about what science is, and doing away with all the misrepresentations, hopefully we can sponsor a greater interest in considering the merits of science and the impact is has on our everyday lives. My goal here has not been to explain how to do science. For that you should consult a real scientist. My goal here has simply been to detail a (hopefully) accurate representation of what science is and means.

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